Sunday, July 17th, 2005
Everyone needs money to live. Saying that reading often involves quality depends on who you ask.
Certainly the cashier at McDonalds makes less money than the doctor. But it could be true that the fry cook at the local diner enjoys his job more than the surgeon, who has a secret fear of the color of entrails.
But all of this should be taken as a given. Beauty may is in the eye of the beholder, as is quality. And certaining the notion of “skilled” reading depends on time, place, context, and country. The guy who’s just lost his job probably could give a rat’s ass about whether Dante is high art. Yet, if you ask the professor, the answer could be that even though there are many people out there seeking survival pay, Dante is still a great poet. Surely the college freshman’s attitude about Dante shouldn’t be taken all that seriously, given that typically they don’t know enough to be sincere about the subject (as in any other case like this), just as I can’t really be sincere in my judgement of black holes as being either a corny idea or flabergastingly exact and cool. (How can I claim to deny evolution if I am just not familiar enough with it to say yay or nay?) I am not a fan of the Beetles, but I know enough about music to know that the Beetles’ output is pretty darned amazing, and that their music over time is consistently competent. What range, what nuance, and talk about play with the landscape, and they did it over and over again. But I wouldn’t purchase a single bit of it.
Judgement in many cases has simply to do with agnosis. If you haven’t read Dr. Suess how can you judge the work? How many people decry the violence of video games yet wouldn’t know a console from a shoebottom. Some people claim that science can’t explain everything thus we need religion to fill in the holes. Right. So many mysteries and the size of the universe is proof of something.
In English studies (or for the English major, just to keep things in sponsorship), one of the most valuable forms of reading is called “close” reading. It’s the primary goal of foundational studies of literature and from that point all other things are derived. First you learn to study the text’s nuances, understand its literal meaning, it’s details, vocabulary, structure, then you move on to bigger and better things (wink, wink). You read a poem first for what’s on the page or waving through the air, then you move to figures of speech, implied meaning, form, influence, and the weird things that happen when you manually play the record in reverse (Abner, Abner, Abner or some such thing if you remember the old ELO trick). You take the surveys, a few major authors, then enter graduate school and hit the critics and the multiverse and experience what you don’t have time for in the basic undergrad curriculum. Check out the courses at major universities for what’s currently being taught for Ph.D. How about Piers Plowman in the original? How about a whole bunch of southwestern or Chicano/a fiction and history? Why not? How about a whole bunch of Chinese literature? It’s not just about the literature, depending on what that means; it’s also about the culture? This makes the question of Dante in Italian or English a little more profound. And what about Kafka? It was Borges who consulted the Oracle and walked away with a new kind of grin. Good luck knowing your multiplying selves.
We can talk about the art of reading without ever picking up a poem. I found this list from the Army’s website just to make a point about “reading” and the idea of “reading for.” Why would it be suggested that leaders read Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization?