Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Being Boring, Part 2

Slate's article "Overrated" sent me back for what I think is the inspiration for many online articles: The Book of Lists, published in 1977 and edited by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, Amy Wallace ("and their dog Wally" according to the National Lampoon). It's just a book of lists, each well researched and with a light tone that's minus the superior attitude that infects much current writing. Online, the structure of the list has become ubiquitous to the point where it seems there's no other. There's little overall context and none of the protracted thought an essay requires, but they're easy to produce and read and that's what the Information Superhighway is about: Info and speed.

But in 1977 it was an innovative way to structure information. The Book Of Lists was so full of details and ideas that I even read, numerous times, about subjects I didn't care about (sports). It was also a great way to learn about sex.*

I remember as a kid seeing the below list and thinking "Ugh. I hope I never have to read one of those for school." Of course now there are several on the list I look forward to eventually tackling, boredom be damned.

The 15 Most Boring Classics
Based on a 1950 survey of readers taken by the Columbia University Press bulletin, The Pleasures of Publishing.

1. Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan
2. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
3. Paradise Lost by John Milton
4. Faerie Queene by Edmund Spencer
5. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
6. Pamela by Samuel Richardson
7. Silas Mariner by George Eliot
8. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (sounds more like Dickens to me)**
9. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
10. Faust by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe
11. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
12. Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
13. Das Kapital by Karl Marx
14. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
15. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

Some thoughts: a number of these books were mention at Slate, either in the main article or the reader comments. Given the fact that this survey was conducted 61 years ago, my thesis that contemporary readers want entertainment and equate books with television or the internet doesn't really hold water. Another theory: maybe these books are really boring, or rather frustrate reader expectations to the point of diminishing returns. You have to be really interested in 19th century whaling practices to finish Moby Dick, for example.

Four of the books are translated works, which makes me wonder if the fault is the translator's rather than the author's. It seems like the standard for translations in the first half of last century was to make the work "literary" which often meant wordy and obtuse. The works by Cervantes, Proust and Tolstoy have since been published in new, lauded editions. I wonder if they would still make the list. Possibly, as they are all very long works.

Does anyone still read Eliot, Richardson, Thackeray or Scott? Even in school or university? Those are novels that have fallen completely out of fashion, possibly because the conventional wisdom is that they are dreadfully boring. There's been too much of interest in literature in the last 60 years for people to still be slogging through Ivanhoe.

* Thank you David, Irving and Amy.
** You bastard!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Being Boring

This past Thursday, posted "Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on "great books" that aren't all that great." My initial reaction was "Oh Jesus. Again?" I have not been keeping track, but it seems like I have read countless "Classic Books That Suck" articles online. I know an article like this is perfect solution for the slow days of mid-August. Email some writers, ask them to send a paragraph about a classic they hate, copy, paste, post, voila! Something to fill time and space while what's left of the publishing industry is on vacation.

I could point out the duplicity of one media criticizing the supposed achievments of another, especially one which it desperately seeks to usurp, but most likely it's just a matter of websites earning money from page hits, so the more page hits they can generate with either "controversial" articles or by encouraging readers to submit their comments and bicker with each other, the better. The better for them, that is. Ultimately the whole exercise becomes dispiriting.

There was a time when it was exciting to find contrary opinions online, provided some reasons why, rather than just knee jerk antipathy, were included. Anyone who is well read can think of an author or a classic novel they dislike. For example: I can't stand Jane Austen's work. I've had numerous people explain why she's a "great writer" and while I can intellectually appreciate their arguments, I still find her voice smug and her characters annoying.

On a small scale, it can be cathartic to pronounce your individual taste when it contradicts conventional wisdom. But on a large scale, it seems less about individuals with unique opinions and more about "let's piss on literature!" "Everything they told you was good is garbage!" After reading the article and attendant comments, I decided to print it as a pdf in order to easily scan the material, perhaps including one or two of the more imbecilic remarks on Vox Plops. I was trying to avoid's annoying format quirk that forces you to click on a "more comments" button after every 10 or so entries. In pdf form, however, I was facing 70 pages of people essentially saying "Okay, but you know what book I hate?" I re-read about 15 pages before deciding I had had enough. More than enough, to be accurate.

There were some bright spots and flashes of insight. My interest in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain has been renewed. One person pointed out that even though he doesn't know it, Holden Caulfield is grieving for his older brother and not just suffering from teenage ennui. Catcher In The Rye, along with Ulysses, seems to be a particular target; they're two novels that really piss people off, probably due to not only with their reputations, but how much their admirers love those books. They don't just inspire fans. They create obsessives. People who take the arts seriously define themselves by what they like and what they don't. People who hate Salinger or Joyce's novels (different from hating, say, Crime and Punishment) are reacting not only to the books' status in society, but in individual reader's lives.

Unless I'm projecting, hidden within the various criticisms is the complaint "I was not entertained by this novel. I expect to be entertained. I could have been spent the time doing something else, but instead I read this book which did not entertain me. Therefore, this book sucks." I'm not arguing that people shouldn't think of reading as pleasure or entertainment and I'm certainly not arguing that people should be bored by their leisure activities, which, once you're out of school, is most likely what reading is. But the idea that "not being entertained = boredom = bad" saddens me. I know I'm being reductive but I couldn't help but see most of the comments as customer complaints, the ire of consumers who didn't get what they want. I don't recall any work of literature making such a promise to the reader.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Not Only, But Also

In addition to posting sporadically upon this very blog, I also grace this site and this one with my wit and wisdom, provided I can either segment it in seven pieces or react to other's comments online.

For those too lazy to click, understand that I know where their sloth or entropy comes from:

7 Promises I've Yet to Follow Through On
By The King of Empty Promises

1. To burn the five episodes of the BBC's The Story of Ireland I download to dvd for my mother.
Promise made this past spring.

2. To burn the vhs of XTC videos lovingly collected by my friend Ben to a dvd for my friend Dave.
Promise made in January, 2011.

3. To loan my friend Bob the audiobook of David Cross' I Drink For A Reason that I had borrowed from the library.
Promise unfulfilled: I had to return the audiobook to the library.

4. To copy my dvd of Los Angeles Plays Itself for my friend Steve.
Promise made May 2011.

5. To burn some Betty Hutton movies to dvd for my friend Stacey.
Promise made November 1, 2010. Burned three movies to disc, have yet to give them to Stacey.

6. To loan my friend Kenny my copy of The Saragossa Manuscript.
Promise made in 2010, along with open-ended promise to get together for "movie night."

7. To post a list of 7 of 7Now! on a regular basis.
Promise made to my friend Karl in 2007. 2007? Good Lord!