On reading the tea leaves, 5

Friday, July 15th, 2005

One of the things I want to stay away from in this series on reading is the idea of a Victorianesque high and low quality to the act and object–good books, bad books, good poetry, bad poetry. That there is high and lowbrow, and for those who would take issue with this, then you can certainly take me to task about it. But if I’m walking through the desert, lost or perfectly compassed, that’s where I am. What else should I want to see?

Then why Dante, who everyone claims is great. The answer is, why not Dante? And if not Dante, what? The Rosanne Barr show? Facade? Why was I in the desert in the first place? That’s a perfectly fine question to ask, it would seem to me. There has to be a reason. Was it a test? The hero’s journey on a small stage? I walked the mountain and braved the heat to burn myself down to a glowing orb of life, free of spoil and smut. The many reasons why we read for me isn’t at issue here. I don’t find McCarthy a pleasure to read (how could one find pleasure in a world where all the trees have been cut down around the Lorax’s fluffy beard) ; One Hundred Years of Solitude is a fantastic experience; and Borges, my favorite, isn’t something you come at lightly. This is more about experience, not judgement, although I will have to come to some sort of conclusion about the object.

Some people will talk about the pleasures of gardening and yet will avoid all the hard work it takes to keep phlox alive in that spot where you want the color and the smell to shape the experience of designed landscape. Is there something wrong with a person who yanks the phlox out, thinking it’s a weed? Yes, from my end. To someone else, the stuff’s a pain in the ass and would therefore prefer the coreopsis. Some people go head over for sushi (in the old days a means of preserving food), but for me, its current form is tastless and nothing compared to a good spicy mole. Then again, should I become more discriminating about modern food (or photography for that matter)? Is sushi not for more refined or cultivated tastes? Am I missing something? Or are people who go on about sushi just food snobs, who eat cuisine rather than oatmeal, who know better about health, and who sneer at poptarts. About this, I can only contemplate.

The fact of the matter is, my boyhood book case shaped my reading habits and I can’t really do anything about that (so the fair was Dante and Edgar Rice Burroughs). The environment that surrounded the city of El Paso also shaped the way I read New England. Because of where I grew up tacos were closer at hand than pan-seared bass from Chile and I couldn’t appreciate Robert Frost until I saw the ice on real birch trees. In addition to place, my friends also helped shape “experience.” We had Dante and Tarzan, but we’d also sit around and talk about the books we read. It wasn’t sophisticated talk: it was more like, “Oh yeah, Tarzan could kick Conan’s ass.” Then we’d draw from the hero’s actions to prove it and do a form of textual analysis. We’d argue. We’d wonder about the fictional world. And where are some of these friends now? I have no idea. But I can still remember the arguments.

So, what will it be: Bethoven’s 7th or Tom Jones?


One response to “On reading the tea leaves, 5”

  1. Jayne says:

    Well, Steve, to prove that the unskilled shouldn’t be poking around here unannounced, I thought I was replying to a short blog about “skilled reading,” but I am now at a much longer blog about about schema and the reading experience, I think.

    What will it be? Teaching ESL at Coronado High in the fall. I am taking the plunge and returning to the classroom. For some reason, this friend of discussions long past (which you, no doubt, recall much better than I), thought of you today. So here I am.

    I’ll be back.

    My best to you and yours,
    Jayne P (El Paso)