the complete review Quarterly
Volume IV , Issue 2   --   May, 2003

Time to Read

A Literary Saloon Dialogue

The Scene:

       The Literary Saloon is livelier than usual, and the talk less literary. Televisions are on, blaring war-talk, restoration-talk, destruction-talk, liberation-talk. There are times when it could be mistaken for a sports bar, as writers and editors root and cheer for the home team.
       A stumbles back in, having gone out into the alley behind the saloon to throw up again. He doesn't enjoy it here near as much any longer, but old habits die hard and occasionally he can drown out the ra-ra enthusiasm and ignore the poets who now neither rhyme nor reason. He orders another whisky.
       B joins him.

The Dialogue:

B:    Distracting, eh ?
A:    Life's full of distractions, some more worthwhile than others.
B:    Hard to ignore, though, all of this. I hardly have time to read a book nowadays.
A:    There's always time to read. Choosing between that and idle conversation .....
B:    Oh, but you see, this, this is sort of multi-tasking. I keep up with world events -- three news channels rather than the one I could follow at home --, I meet and greet the professionals and amateurs who it's good to keep in touch with, I get some food and drink, ... and perhaps even some worthwhile conversation.
A:    Here ? Hardly.
B:    You've nothing to offer ?
A:    Just some advice: go off and read a book.
B:    But you don't take your own advice ?
A:    It's late. I've read my three or four hundred pages today. A few hours off to let it all simmer and settle seem warranted. I'll be back at it soon enough.
B:    Hundreds of pages ? No, if I finish one book this week I'll be happy. There's so much going on, after all !
A:    Yes, it's a busy world.
B:    Reading books is all well and good, but there are current events to keep up with, reading-time better spent on newspapers and magazines.
A:    I would suggest that book-reading can also provide you with necessary background, and especially historical and cultural context -- something sorely lacking among many leaders (in both government and in other positions of influence). Fiction, especially, I would recommend.
B:    Fiction ? Does anyone bother with that any more ?
A:    Hardly. I had a good laugh when Andrew Motion -- that poet laureate who ran some sort of creative "writing"-programme at the University of East Anglia (and has since moved on to London Universityís Royal Holloway college to do much the same thing) -- complained (The Times, 7 March 2003) about the students who entered his programme without having read many texts that one should expect them to be familiar with. "There is incredibly little time allowed for reading", he says: apparently in Britain schoolchildren now require permission in order to pick up books.
B:    I believe he means there are so many other demands made on them and their time.
A:    Ridiculous.
B:    It can be difficult to make or find time to read .....
A:    Yes ? Why, he's quoted as saying students were " 'really hungry' for reading" when they got to him. Do you think these same students, when they were really hungry for, say, food that they didn't bother sating their appetites before making it to UEA ?
B:    It's not the same.
A:    It's entirely the same.
B:    Reading is not such a life-sustaining necessity.
A:    I'd even argue that point with you; certainly as far as aspiring writers go one would hope that it would be a priority for them -- worth the sacrifice of hours that they might otherwise devote to sleep, television or movie consumption, and any number of other pass-times.
B:    Many of the writers I know don't read much .....
A:    Most did, at one time, at least. I also remind you that most writers of your acquaintance are not very good.
B:    Touché
A:    I also found it amusing that Motion provided a list of nine must-read novels that he presumably recommends to the wannabe literary set.
B:    They are ?
A:    Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy
B:    Tried it, but failed.
A:    George Eliot's Middlemarch.
B:    Tried it, but quickly lost all enthusiasm for it.
A:    Charles Dickens's Great Expectations.
B:    Yes, I think I made it through that one. Schooldays, though.
A:    James Joyce's Ulysses.
B:    I've leafed through it.
A:    Jane Austen's Emma.
B:    Saw the movie ?
A:    Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust.
B:    No.
A:    Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.
B:    Yes !
A:    Graham Swift's Waterland.
B:    Graham who ?
A:    And Salman Rushdie's Midnightís Children.
B:    Yes !
A:    Motion could still teach you a thing or two.
B:    Apparently so. And you ? Nine for nine ?
A:    Eight, actually. Brighton Rock ... I've seen a clip of the end of the movie, the skipping record ..... Couldn't bring myself to read the book after that. Read most of his work, but not that.
B:    I didn't know you were so sentimental .....
A:    Well .....
B:    And what do you think of the list?
A:    Bah ! A list's a list. What astonishes me is how limited it is. A couple of these are fairly fat and demanding; still, it'd be hard not to be done with them in a month.
B:    You don't think closer scrutiny and more careful study are warranted ?
A:    I suppose one might linger over Ulysses for a few weeks ...
B:    Or a semester.
A:    But not exclusively. Even if one lingers, and reads and rereads it, I couldn't not pick up another book to move on with at the same time.
B:    Different readers, different approaches.
A:    Still, I'm amazed at how little of a foundation he expects. These nine books don't make for much of one.
B:    But if it's shared -- you know, that idea of a canon that we can expect everyone to be familiar with.
A:    It's an idea. Though if that's the case I don't know that aspiring writers are well-served by this lot. Ulysses, if not tempered by a great deal of reading of other writing, could, for example, be a dangerous book. Or a misleading one, tempting young writers .....
B:    You don't think grand ambitions are good ?
A:    If the ability to handle them is there. Ulysses-imitations in the hands of the unpractised (and untalented) can be disastrous.
B:    So are Stephen King imitations -- which, I believe, are far more common. But these can all be readily ignored.
A:    True.
B:    What were the general reactions to Motion's distress-cry ?
A:    Let's see. The Guardian has numerous notables critique the list (10 March 2003). And there's a Stephen Moss piece considering things from students' perspectives (1 April). A few other ideas, but nothing too radical. No insistence that students should read tons more, or much surprise that they don't.
B:    Exam pressures .....
A:    Yes, yes.
B:    I recall little reading going on among my fellow students both in high-school and at university.
A:    As did I -- even among those pursuing supposedly literary studies. Remarkable, really.
B:    Typical, I think. It really isn't a reading culture any more. Not society at large, not even the academy.
A:    'Reading culture' seems too lofty an aspiration, something that can't possibly be attained -- and thus is readily dismissed. I don't see why it can't be the same sort of given as ... movie or television or magazine-popularity, hardly worth much bothering about. Experiences shared by the millions, on a weekly basis.
B:    It doesn't work quite that way. And you don't like that special quality about reading, setting you apart ? A member of the reading elite ?
A:    An elite is by definition limited, so it does little for me. In addition, there are few benefits accorded to members of this ... elite. So what good could it be ?
B:    A certain respect .....
A:    Respect is vastly over-rated.
B:    But it's that, and that notion that reading is 'something special' that are perhaps the only things it still has going for it, that still lead people to bother with it at all.
A:    A few still recognize the simple pleasure of the text.
B:    Many -- but it's easily put aside when something more pressing comes along. Television and movies, for example, have the advantage that they are not as easily interrupted -- whereas a book is easily set aside at almost any point along the way. And there always seem to be more pressing things. And so many set aside books before they have even picked them up.
A:    Days aren't that short. There's much to do, but there can't be that much that is so obviously of greater importance.
B:    There are always excuses.
A:    Still, I'm disappointed that even the eager youths -- students who, one might imagine, have greater literary interests, can't be much bothered.
B:    Exam and other pressures.
A:    So I hear. But I read their statements on this state of affairs and find them very unconvincing -- see, for example, this Tiffany I. Hsieh piece on Death of the Reader (Harvard Crimson, 13 March 2003)
B:    Hmmm. But she has a point, when she writes:
Which is not to say that everybody should immerse their busy little heads in stacks of fluffy novels when they have homework, fellowship applications, job applications and medical school applications (i.e. more important things). Heck, for all my championing of pleasure reading, even Iím not planning to devote my life to that: Not only would it be ridiculous, itís also useless in the practical sense.
A:    I'm not so sure about the "more important" ...
B:    Come on !
A:    And even so, the idea that there isn't time to spare for a bit of reading -- here, there, everywhere -- , I find that hard to credit.
B:    A common enough complaint.
A:    Being common does not make it true.
B:    Still, one has to suspect there's something to it if it is such a prevalent complaint.
A:    I don't believe it. I also find myself a bit disturbed by this young lady's closing remarks, suggesting even harried students "take a break from papers and problem sets and frenzied job-hunting once in a while -- even while youíre studying for a midterm. Go to the nearest bookseller and spend an hour there."
B:    I would have thought that you'd strongly approve of that !
A:    That, yes -- but it's what follows that concerns me: "Pick up a Calvin and Hobbes anthology" she suggests. As if anything resembling a real book were too ambitious. And this mind you from a student at an institution that, I've been led to believe, has some sort of standards -- not your average two-bit college.
B:    Indeed -- I think it's more than a hundred thousand times the two bits over now .....
A:    And perhaps worth it in value-added as far as future earning potential goes. But it doesn't seem to be providing much of an education if this -- Calvin and Hobbes -- is what little students aspire to in terms of recreational reading.
B:    You don't think we should give a break to the poor, over-stressed, over-burdened kids ?
A:    Oh, certainly, they can do as they like. Anyone can. I just don't quite understand it -- the lack of interest and passion in literature.
B:    Not everyone sees it.
A:    Hard not to, with a bit of effort, I would have thought.
B:    Many aren't willing to put in the least bit of effort.
A:    I suppose that's why I keep coming back to the students. After a certain age, I suppose, one can say one doesn't want to bother any more. One is set in one's ways and lazy. But kids could still be won over -- with a bit of ambition, something of a push.
B:    As several commentators on the Motion-list point out: fewer things are as off-putting to students as saying a certain work of literature is great and has to be read.
A:    Yes, but I think some guidance, some suggestions of what is possible, can be helpful. I look at an ambitious list like the German proposition of a Schülerbibliothek of fifty titles that Die Zeit believes all school-children should read. It's completely unrealistic -- yet in its absurd overreaching, I think it might convince a few kids. Think of it: they dare suggest teens should invest the time to read works such as Hans Henny Jahnn's Fluß ohne Ufer -- a multi-volume saga of Proustian dimensions that few literary types have even made their way through.
B:    I don't think you'll see a million school-kids lugging that around too soon.
A:    True, but perhaps a few dozen ?
B:    A drop in the pond.
A:    That's what literature seems to have become. A drop in the ocean, barely relevant, barely considered.
B:    A lot of time is still wasted on it -- space in newspapers and magazines, on websites, devoted to commentary on literary matters. There still seems to be some demand for that ...
A:    But most of that -- at least in the periodicals with any circulation to speak of -- is commentary, not literature -- and much of that is personality-driven, focussing on authors over their works. No, people should simply get back to basics -- the texts themselves. There's time enough, even in modern hectic lives. There has to be.
B:    I don't think you'll convince many people of that.

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© 2003 the complete review Quarterly
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