Saturday, April 21, 2018

Reading Rules

So the self-identified "Editors of GQ" prepared a list of 21 books that you don't have to read, kind of a counter-weight to those many lists of books you are supposed to read as well as lit class syllabi everywhere.

Among the actual Gentleman's Quarterly editors who prepared the list are several modern authors, a number of whom fortunately have new books coming out later this spring and summer. Each, in addition to absolving you of the need to read a so-called great book that really doesn't live up to its rep, offers a book that you can or should read instead.

In a couple of cases, the alternative selection is said to cover the same ground as the good features of the better-known work but also offer more good stuff or at least correct all of the flaws of its bad stuff. For example, Lauren Groff (whose new collection Florida will be published June 5!) suggests that instead of reading Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, people should pick up Jean Stafford's The Mountain Lion instead. Dove, she said, "features the cowboy mythos, with its rigid masculine emotional landscape, glorification of guns and destruction, and misogynistic gender roles" that are a "major factor in the degradation of America." Lion's tale of a brother and sister wrestling with stereotyped masculine and feminine roles in pre-WWII Colorado would be "a strong rebuttal to all the old toxic western stereotypes we all need to explode."

Now, Lion may do exactly that and be just the corrective that American society needs, or it may not. Modern American men seem more enamored with the Nintendo culture than that of the Wild West, but Groff might have thought about these matters more than I have. Either way, though, the majority of the list is one writer or another suggesting that a traditional "should read" title is really not all that great and should really be replaced by another "should read."

Sometimes their analysis of the better-known work is spot on. Catch-22 probably has some important things to say about the horrific nature of war but Joseph Heller buried them in his non-chronological blizzard of absurdity, so Emily Robbins is fully justified in saying that you're no worse off for skipping it. But what vaults Inaam Kachachi's An American Granddaughter into the role Catch-22 has held beyond Robbins' confession she "never could get into" the older book? And why is Robbins' inability to get into Heller's book worth any more than anyone else's? Stop asking questions like that, kid. We've got some iconoclasm to do!

There's some real value in reading a book everyone says is great, agreeing that it's great and then later on revisiting it and one's opinion of it. André Aciman is properly dismissive of the glory, laud and honor offered to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Instead he suggests reading Olivia by Dorothy Strachey -- coincidentally an inspiration for his own novel, Call Me by Your Name. But that misses the point of assigning Catcher to adolescents. Holden Caulfield's overwhelmingly inflated opinion of himself as the only one who sees the truth and who can save the others like him resonates with many teenagers. It's the same rationale that makes youth the saviors of the world/civilization/whatever in the legion of young adult dystopias following The Hunger Games.

It's only when you re-read Catcher as an adult you realize what a self-important little jerk Caulfield is; the lesson is that some years of experience can teach you some things about the way the world works that you didn't know when you were younger and as smart as Holden Caulfield.

Some of the critiques are real head-scratchers and offer an impression that the evaluator is far more silly than insightful. Jesse Ball, author of Census (published March 6!), says that folks who say you really should read the Bible are off-base. Whatever good it has is outweighed by the part that is "repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned." Instead, if you are the kind of person who was attracted to read Scripture because of the "naughty bits," you should pick up Agota Kristof's The Notebook. Now, I haven't studied enough to know, but I'm going to guess the Venn diagram of the sets"people who want to read the Bible" and "people who want descriptions of animal-human intercourse in their fiction" shows a very small overlap. If Ball has no blinkin' idea why people read the Bible, why should I or anyone else care what he says about whether or not they should?

That may sound like a nitpicky question, but it actually highlights the real weakness of the GQ piece. So many of the contributors seem so completely clueless about the novels they're evaluating that you can't rely on them. Meaning that if you want to know whether or not you should read these books, you'll probably have to read them yourself to see. Which kind of undercuts the list premise; it may be that the "Editors of GQ" need to read their own pitch a little more carefully.

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