What Ever Happened to Modernism? — Gabriel Josipovici

I’ve been meaning to write about What Ever Happened to Modernism? for a while, but this This New York Review of Books essay by Eliot Weinberger hits the major points I’d like to make better than I would’ve. It also describes the major issue I have with What Ever Happened to Modernism?: we never really find out what, if anything, happened to Modernism—or who, in Josipovici’s eyes, we should admire. Weinberger notes that “There are some unkind words about Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes (“this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”) [. . .]” and that “Regardless of whether a climate can see—and Josipovici’s condescension that laureled mediocrities can’t help being what they are—the argument is undermined by the fact that he declines to name a single living author who should be praised.” Both are true. Polemics work best when we have positive and negative examples. Josipovici mostly gives us the negative.

The other thing I notice in What Ever Happened to Modernism? is the slipperiness of definition, which leads to the larger problem of Modernism and Postmodernism in general: we can get point to some works that we think embody some values of either movement, but we find deriving general principles from those specific works hard, if not impossible. Now, the real question to anyone who says anything about Modernism or Postmodernism is, “What do you mean by those words or artistic movements?” Even the phrase “artistic movements” might be wrong, since some have argued for the political value of them, and to the extent art and politics are separate one should note the binary.

How do we decide on what Modernism is? We can’t, really, as Weinberger notes:

Every general consideration of Modernism quickly crashes on the rocks of categorization: Which Modernism? Is it Rilke or Tristan Tzara? Matisse or Duchamp? Thomas Mann or Gertrude Stein? Arnold Schoenberg or Duke Ellington? Nearly anything that can be said about the one can’t be said about the other. Josipovici attempts to navigate these waters by simultaneously broadening the definition of Modernism itself, while greatly limiting the range of its concerns, its varying contexts, and its enormous cast of twentieth-century characters.

The more specific the definition, the more it leaves out; the more general, the harder the whole idea is to discuss. That doesn’t stop writers of polemics, of course, and as I read What Ever Happened to Modernism? I did think. . . something. I’m just not real sure what exactly I thought or why. I’m flipping through my much-marked copy, looking for a characteristic passage or turn of phrase, but you’d be better off reading Weinberger on Josipovici.

I suspect I’m not the only person with such a hazy reaction. Lately, I’ve been rereading novels I really admire as I start another novel of my own. Those I admire include Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Tom Perrotta’s Election, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. After reading them, I almost always have a better sense of what I should be doing as a writer and what a particular book should do. This feeling isn’t limited to fiction: I get the same sense from James Wood’s How Fiction Works, or John Barth’s essays in The Friday Book. They’re all enmeshed in individuality.

Josipovici is aware of his narrativizing tendency and some of the dangers of definition; he says:

Naturally I think the story I have just finished telling is the true one. At the same time I recognise that there are many stories and that there is no such thing as the true story, only more or less plausible explanations, stories that take more or less account of the facts. I am aware too that these stories are sites of contestation; more is at stake than how we view the past.

There are many stories, and I don’t fully buy his.

Speaking of Barth, I find myself most drawn to his formulation in The Friday Book, which is cruelly out of print:

I happen to believe that just as an excellent teacher is likely to teach well no matter what pedagogical theory he suffers from, so a gifted writer is likely to rise above what he takes to be his aesthetic principles, not to mention what others take to be his aesthetic principles. Indeed, I believe that a truly splendid specimen in whatever aesthetic mode will pull critical ideology along behind it, like an ocean liner trailing seagulls. Actual artists, actual texts, are seldom more than more or less modernist, postmodernist, formalist, symbolist, realist, surrealist, politically committed, aesthetically ‘pure,’ ‘experimental,’ regionalist, internationalist, what have you. The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.

Notice how Barth conveys his view of generality in a single word: “suffers,” as if literary categorization is a disease. In the wrong person, it is one. Discussing generalities is not much fun unless you have a lot of specifics to back them up, and I have no way to paraphrase or add to Barth’s last sentence from that quote: “The particular work ought always to take primacy over contexts and categories.” Martin Amis’ Money, regardless of how you categorize it, still stands out to me as being a) unique and b) good, which very few novels of any sort achieve. To lambast Amis in general, as Josipovici does, is to miss all those particularities that make him stand out. Of course, I’m committing the same sin here because I’m not citing specifics in Money. But I also sometimes rise to the level of the work being discussed, so perhaps that sin can be excused.

Tender is the Night — Fitzgerald

Early in Tender is the Night, we find this about a relatively minor character named McKisco:

“I don’t see what it’s all about,” he said helplessly. “I don’t see why I’m doing it.”

The context is a conversation putatively about duels, but one could take McKisco’s confusion as a synecdoche for the novel as a whole: no one see what it’s all about or why they’re doing it. Even Dick Diver, psychologist, doesn’t really; he’s supposed to have mastered the mind but hasn’t mastered his own. Some of the novel’s descriptions and transitions mirror this confusion or uncertainty, which makes Tender is the Night feel more Modernist than its predecessors. Take, for example, this:

When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.

The description goes from a relatively literal rendition of the Americans’ surface into a metaphoric one of their souls. But I have no idea what “vague racial dusk” means, which is perhaps why it needs “vague” out in front, or why that would blind observers; perhaps those theoretical observers are used to judging based on categories that Americans defy, or think they defy. If so, the novel is a journey into the ways Americans are more ensnared by history than we might want to be, and why we might be more obscure than we’d like to imagine. In this way, the structure of the novel mirrors its themes: it cuts many of the “she shifted her attention to the fight” transitions that might otherwise make this easier to follow:

Nicole was glad he had known so many women, so that the word itself meant nothing to him; she would be able to hold him so long as the person in her transcended the universals of her body.
“Hit him where it hurts!”
“Yah-h-h-h!”
“Hey, what I tell you get inside that right!”

A chorus shouts after Nicole’s Deep Thought, and in re-reading Tender is the Night I see where Tom Wolfe got some of his techniques for representing speech.

Some of the stylistic tics, like the “vague racial dusk” are meant to make us poetically see something in a new light, but they often feel more like work compared to a novel like Gatsby. It feels more indulgent, too: this is Fitzgerald wanting to write a novelist’s novel, meaning that it should have enough strangeness to make it hard to figure out what’s happening and why. This brings pleasures of its own, especially on second reads, but the danger of obscurity for obscurity’s sake remains, as when a voice suddenly shifts from third person limited to first:

All that saved it [the offer of marriage? something else?] this time was Nicole finding their table and glowing away, white and fresh and new in the September afternoon.

How do you do, lawyer. We’re going to to Como tomorrow for a week and then back to Zurich. That’s why I wanted you and sister to settle this […] (166)

My confusion mirrored McKisco’s in this narrative jump. Eventually that confusion was (mostly) remedied, but not so remedied as to make the novel boring.

Continuing was worth it: Fitzgerald knows how to end a novel. Tender is the Night isn’t quite so overtly poetic as Gatsby, with its boats being beaten back into the past, but it has a sense of melancholy and emotion that few novels do. I’m being vague because I don’t know how to describe the feelings evoked; perhaps that is one definition of a powerful novel. Melancholy is a part, but like a good wine, it’s only a single strand of a complex weave, one cannot appreciate the whole without appreciating all its parts.

There’s one other thing that Tender is the Night reminds me of: the habit that literary history has of doubling back on itself. Received opinion—so received that I don’t know where I got it from—holds that people didn’t start really writing about divorce and affairs and torrid sex and so forth until Updike and Roth. Marriages were more stable, at least as depicted artistically, and the really great fireworks caused by social changes didn’t hit until the 1960s. But the more I read the less that narrative seems to fit: Tender is the Night encapsulates Updike’s Marry Me: A Romance and maybe even Couples. Middlemarch has marriages that end. Even Pride and Prejudice has its affair between Lydia and Wickham, although the sex they’re having is so powerful that it remains unspoken.

Madame Bovary doesn’t encapsulate Tender is the Night but at least presages it. The drama of adult relationships, which I’d thought a (relatively) recent invention in fiction, isn’t. Neither is the childishness that such relationships sometimes entail. More continuity exists over the course of history than I thought, and what seems new in terms of content no longer does. Even the style of Tender is the Night holds up: if it were published today, I’d not know the difference. one can see greater stylistic continuity from Fitzgerald to the present than from, say, Middlemarch to Fitzgerald (this is part of what James Wood discusses in his nominal discussion of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, a topic that I will return to later).

I don’t know what to do with this idea concerning continuity and change save note its existence, at least in my reading. Perhaps the rhetoric of the love story hasn’t changed that much, except perhaps for the inclusion of overt female desire in a larger number of more recent novels; it’s hard to see a good precursor of Allison Poole in Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. Poole feels a long way from Nicole Diver, but the feeling of a search for something that cannot be adequately defined continues, and the inability to find that absent something propels novels and stories forward.

Lev Grossman vs the haters

I’m on the record praising Lev Grossman’s essay “Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard.” Predictably, that piece generated a fair amount of blowback (and a concomitant amount of misinterpretation, like the fallacious argument that Grossman is arguing that good books can’t be hard); see a sample of it here, complete with a comment from yours truly.

Now, however, we can see how Lev Grossman Responds to Criticism of His Wall Street Journal Piece, as spoken by the man himself. Read it when you get a chance. It’s not terrible, but I think he could do better, and I hope he does “write more (if anybody cares) when I’m back in civilization.”

One thing I’d strongly disagree with comes when Grossman discusses Twilight’s sales: “All those millions of people might be idiots or have bad taste. But I think it’s kinda intellectually lazy to say that.” I don’t, and they do have bad taste. I’ve read a book and a half of the series, and they’re so cliche-ridden that they make Harry Potter look like Shakespeare, and the writing has originality and verve that make Dan Brown impressive by comparison.

To be fair, he goes on to say, “Meyer is doing something very very well, or at least giving people something they really really want, and I don’t think we have a good critical vocabulary yet for talking about what that something is.” She might be doing something well, yes, but writing isn’t it. That’s why a lot of people who are literary and/or like good writing don’t think much of her.

Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard

In my essay on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, I cited his Wall Street Journal article Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard:

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly? Part of the problem is that to find the reason you have to dig down a ways, down into the murky history of the novel. There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.

Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. In the 1920s alone they gave us “The Age of Innocence,” “Ulysses,” “A Passage to India,” “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Not to mention most of “In Search of Lost Time” and all of Kafka’s novels. Pity the poor Pulitzer judge for 1926, who had to choose between “The Professor’s House,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Arrowsmith” and “An American Tragedy.” (It went to “Arrowsmith.” Sinclair Lewis prissily declined the prize.) The 20th century had a full century’s worth of masterpieces before it was half over.

Read the whole thing. I’m drawing special attention to it because there are few essays I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I agree with more, ranging from Grossman’s analysis of the current situation to its historical roots to his call for future action.

If you haven’t clicked the link, you shouldn’t be reading this. Once you have clicked it, however, consider the next step: B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto.


EDIT: See also Jeff’s excellent comment.

Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard

In my essay on Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, I cited his Wall Street Journal article Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard:

It’s not easy to put your finger on what exactly is so disgraceful about our attachment to storyline. Sure, it’s something to do with high and low and genres and the canon and such. But what exactly? Part of the problem is that to find the reason you have to dig down a ways, down into the murky history of the novel. There was once a reason for turning away from plot, but that rationale has outlived its usefulness. If there’s a key to what the 21st-century novel is going to look like, this is it: the ongoing exoneration and rehabilitation of plot.

Where did this conspiracy come from in the first place—the plot against plot? I blame the Modernists. Who were, I grant you, the single greatest crop of writers the novel has ever seen. In the 1920s alone they gave us “The Age of Innocence,” “Ulysses,” “A Passage to India,” “Mrs. Dalloway,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Sound and the Fury.” Not to mention most of “In Search of Lost Time” and all of Kafka’s novels. Pity the poor Pulitzer judge for 1926, who had to choose between “The Professor’s House,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Arrowsmith” and “An American Tragedy.” (It went to “Arrowsmith.” Sinclair Lewis prissily declined the prize.) The 20th century had a full century’s worth of masterpieces before it was half over.

Read the whole thing. I’m drawing special attention to it because there are few essays I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I agree with more, ranging from Grossman’s analysis of the current situation to its historical roots to his call for future action.

The next step is B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto.


EDIT: See also Jeff’s excellent comment.

Further comments on John Barth's Further Fridays

(See my initial laudatory post here.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays continued to delight till the end, and it hovers ceaselessly around literary questions about form, character, ways of telling, and meaning. Do those sound boring? Maybe when I list them, but when they become part of Barth’s stories—and the Further Friday pieces feel more like stories than essays—they come alive like a Maryland Blue Crab. Consider this great big chunk of quote—appropriate, maybe, for someone who often delivers great big chunks of novel—but it also shows some of Barth’s gift at the level of sentence and idea:

I confess to having gotten increasingly this way [as in, insisting for just facts, whatever those are] myself over the years—an occupational side effect, I believe, in the case of those of us for whom the experience of fiction can never be innocent entertainment. We’re forever sizing it up, measuring ourselves against its author, watching to see how the effects are managed and whether all the dramaturgical pistols that were hung on the wall in act one get duly fired in act three. We’re like those musicians who can’t abide background music: They can’t listen except professionally, and if they’re not in the mood to do that, they prefer conversation, street noise, silence—anything but music.

Right: notice the quick metaphor of the dramaturgical pistols—alluding to the idea that a gun seen in an early chapter should be fired in a later one—and the slightly more developed metaphor of the musician. The musician idea is particularly relevant to Barth, who played as a young man—more on that later—but it also expresses one of the central themes in his work: that innocence prolonged is detrimental to the person holding it and that naive readings eventually give way to sophisticated and experienced readings. They show the growth of not just the critic, writer, or reader, but also of the individual, whose early actions and impressions should be tempered by experience. But some attempt to prolong naiveté foolishly, while others forget to try and see the perspective of the innocent or the childlike joy that can lead to great art. So what is one to do? Muddle along as best one can, Barth seems to argue, and learn as much as you can about that imperfect state we call life and the reactions of other smart or wise people to it.

I realize that the above paragraph sounds almost like self-help lite, but it would be a mistake to see Barth that way, and he discusses far more than just the nature of a particular story. Elsewhere, he deals with literary categorization, which has never been among my favorite subjects because it often seems to generate vastly more noise than music, and its combatants often mistaken that cacophony for a symphony. Barth does a reasonably good job—which is to say, as good a job as one can, given the subject matter and persnickety pedants likely to be interested—of not being caught in its brambles. Adding sufficient qualification makes for fewer explosions but greater harmony; as Barth says of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero

“the whole of literature,” [as Barth quotes Barthes] “from Flaubert to the present day, becomes the problematics of language.” If only he had been content to say that “the problematics of language”—indeed, the problematics of every aspect of the medium of literature, not language alone—becomes one of several prominent field-identification marks of our literature after “Flaubert.” But that kind of reasonable modification, I suppose, de-zings such zingers.

Given the choice of being mostly right and demure or mostly wrong and provocative, Barth takes the mostly right path. Still, he’s not “demure” as in boring, and his essays are filled with unusual zest. Sometimes the footnotes are the best parts; the blockquote above is one, and he sneaks another comment into a footnote, though it’s reiterated elsewhere in the body text: “As for twentieth-century literary Postmodernism, I date it from when many of us stopped worrying about the death of the novel (a Modernist worry) and began worrying about the death of the reader—and of the planet—instead.” The sentiment has its tongue-in-cheek enough not to be taken completely seriously, and yet it’s accurate enough to consider further consideration. Maybe in jokes we tell the greatest truths that could never slide by as bald assertions.

The piece the modernist definition comes from was published in the 1980s, although it reprises arguments from 1968 and 1979, about which one can read more in The Friday Book. But its concerns are still germane: global climate change fears fuel cataclysmic scenarios that aren’t implausible, as do those involving the death of reading. Reading’s demise seems to be greatly exaggerated—what do most of us do online and via e-mail if not read, as Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Dawn of the Digital Natives—but the quality of reading seems to diminish apace online. Still, websites with global reach and many visitors seem fairly literate, and the only well-known, sub-literate blog I can think of is Mark Cuban’s, which I won’t dignify with a link. Then again, Cuban is also sitting on such a giant pile of cash that I doubt he cares about literacy, or Postmodernism.

Like Barth, I seem to have wandered a bit, and also like him, I’d like to circle back round to the main point of this post, which is to emphasize how good Further Fridays is. Sections repeat and reiterate earlier ideas, but I think of the repetitions more as variations in different keys than as irritants, and I think Barth would like that metaphor: he played jazz as a teenager and writes of going to Julliard to discover he had no or too little talent for music (my own musical talent, if I had any to begin with, has probably become undetectable thanks to lack of exercise). Milan Kundera also took up writing after music, and I wonder if other good example of musicians-turned-writers exist aside from Alex Ross, who turned from music to write about music. Barth is as self-referentially modest about his musical abilities as his other points, almost cloaking himself in faux humility when he writes, for instance: “My modest point is that the story of your life might be told as a series of career moves, or love affairs, or intellectual friendships, or houses lived in, or ideologies subscribed to (even magazines subscribed to), or physical afflictions suffered, or what have you, and that every one of those series might be recounted from very different perspectives, to very different effect.” Indeed: and we appreciate that, and the way it implicitly makes the case for reading. He preaches like the native to a religion he nonetheless realizes fewer practice:

If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes… as I was and remain, and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord [of reading] under your belt, for ballast.

Incidentally, I’m fascinated with the catastrophic view of reading and its discontents: consider Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone:

I used to consider it apocalyptically [there’s that end-times terminology again] worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.

I wonder too, as this blog probably demonstrates. Still, I’d argue that you can’t avoid keeping one foot in your native bog, regardless of whether that metaphorical bog is the boring suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, as it was for me, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or New York City, so you might as well do so in a way that makes you part of the wider rather than narrower world, so you can reconcile the two as best you can. The most efficient way to do so, it seems to me, is the way Barth recommends: promiscuous and wild reading, and ideally of books as interesting as Further Fridays.

Further comments on John Barth’s Further Fridays

(See my initial laudatory post here.)

John Barth’s Further Fridays continued to delight till the end, and it hovers ceaselessly around literary questions about form, character, ways of telling, and meaning. Do those sound boring? Maybe when I list them, but when they become part of Barth’s stories—and the Further Friday pieces feel more like stories than essays—they come alive like a Maryland Blue Crab. Consider this great big chunk of quote—appropriate, maybe, for someone who often delivers great big chunks of novel—but it also shows some of Barth’s gift at the level of sentence and idea:

I confess to having gotten increasingly this way [as in, insisting for just facts, whatever those are] myself over the years—an occupational side effect, I believe, in the case of those of us for whom the experience of fiction can never be innocent entertainment. We’re forever sizing it up, measuring ourselves against its author, watching to see how the effects are managed and whether all the dramaturgical pistols that were hung on the wall in act one get duly fired in act three. We’re like those musicians who can’t abide background music: They can’t listen except professionally, and if they’re not in the mood to do that, they prefer conversation, street noise, silence—anything but music.

Right: notice the quick metaphor of the dramaturgical pistols—alluding to the idea that a gun seen in an early chapter should be fired in a later one—and the slightly more developed metaphor of the musician. The musician idea is particularly relevant to Barth, who played as a young man—more on that later—but it also expresses one of the central themes in his work: that innocence prolonged is detrimental to the person holding it and that naive readings eventually give way to sophisticated and experienced readings. They show the growth of not just the critic, writer, or reader, but also of the individual, whose early actions and impressions should be tempered by experience. But some attempt to prolong naiveté foolishly, while others forget to try and see the perspective of the innocent or the childlike joy that can lead to great art. So what is one to do? Muddle along as best one can, Barth seems to argue, and learn as much as you can about that imperfect state we call life and the reactions of other smart or wise people to it.

I realize that the above paragraph sounds almost like self-help lite, but it would be a mistake to see Barth that way, and he discusses far more than just the nature of a particular story. Elsewhere, he deals with literary categorization, which has never been among my favorite subjects because it often seems to generate vastly more noise than music, and its combatants often mistaken that cacophony for a symphony. Barth does a reasonably good job—which is to say, as good a job as one can, given the subject matter and persnickety pedants likely to be interested—of not being caught in its brambles. Adding sufficient qualification makes for fewer explosions but greater harmony; as Barth says of Roland Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero

“the whole of literature,” [as Barth quotes Barthes] “from Flaubert to the present day, becomes the problematics of language.” If only he had been content to say that “the problematics of language”—indeed, the problematics of every aspect of the medium of literature, not language alone—becomes one of several prominent field-identification marks of our literature after “Flaubert.” But that kind of reasonable modification, I suppose, de-zings such zingers.

Given the choice of being mostly right and demure or mostly wrong and provocative, Barth takes the mostly right path. Still, he’s not “demure” as in boring, and his essays are filled with unusual zest. Sometimes the footnotes are the best parts; the blockquote above is one, and he sneaks another comment into a footnote, though it’s reiterated elsewhere in the body text: “As for twentieth-century literary Postmodernism, I date it from when many of us stopped worrying about the death of the novel (a Modernist worry) and began worrying about the death of the reader—and of the planet—instead.” The sentiment has its tongue-in-cheek enough not to be taken completely seriously, and yet it’s accurate enough to consider further consideration. Maybe in jokes we tell the greatest truths that could never slide by as bald assertions.

The piece the modernist definition comes from was published in the 1980s, although it reprises arguments from 1968 and 1979, about which one can read more in The Friday Book. But its concerns are still germane: global climate change fears fuel cataclysmic scenarios that aren’t implausible, as do those involving the death of reading. Reading’s demise seems to be greatly exaggerated—what do most of us do online and via e-mail if not read, as Steven Berlin Johnson argues in Dawn of the Digital Natives—but the quality of reading seems to diminish apace online. Still, websites with global reach and many visitors seem fairly literate, and the only well-known, sub-literate blog I can think of is Mark Cuban’s, which I won’t dignify with a link. Then again, Cuban is also sitting on such a giant pile of cash that I doubt he cares about literacy, or Postmodernism.

Like Barth, I seem to have wandered a bit, and also like him, I’d like to circle back round to the main point of this post, which is to emphasize how good Further Fridays is. Sections repeat and reiterate earlier ideas, but I think of the repetitions more as variations in different keys than as irritants, and I think Barth would like that metaphor: he played jazz as a teenager and writes of going to Julliard to discover he had no or too little talent for music (my own musical talent, if I had any to begin with, has probably become undetectable thanks to lack of exercise). Milan Kundera also took up writing after music, and I wonder if other good example of musicians-turned-writers exist aside from Alex Ross, who turned from music to write about music. Barth is as self-referentially modest about his musical abilities as his other points, almost cloaking himself in faux humility when he writes, for instance: “My modest point is that the story of your life might be told as a series of career moves, or love affairs, or intellectual friendships, or houses lived in, or ideologies subscribed to (even magazines subscribed to), or physical afflictions suffered, or what have you, and that every one of those series might be recounted from very different perspectives, to very different effect.” Indeed: and we appreciate that, and the way it implicitly makes the case for reading. He preaches like the native to a religion he nonetheless realizes fewer practice:

If you happen to be a refugee from the Dorchester County tide marshes… as I was and remain, and particularly if you aspire to keep one foot at least ankle deep in your native bog while the other foot traipses through the wider world, it is well to have such an off-the-cart smorgasbord [of reading] under your belt, for ballast.

Incidentally, I’m fascinated with the catastrophic view of reading and its discontents: consider Jonathan Franzen’s introduction to How to Be Alone:

I used to consider it apocalyptically [there’s that end-times terminology again] worrisome that Americans watch a lot of TV and don’t read much Henry James. I used to be the kind of religious nut who convinces himself that, because the world doesn’t share his faith (for me, a faith in literature), we must be living in End Times.

I wonder too, as this blog probably demonstrates. Still, I’d argue that you can’t avoid keeping one foot in your native bog, regardless of whether that metaphorical bog is the boring suburbs of Bellevue, Washington, as it was for me, or the foothills of the Himalayas, or New York City, so you might as well do so in a way that makes you part of the wider rather than narrower world, so you can reconcile the two as best you can. The most efficient way to do so, it seems to me, is the way Barth recommends: promiscuous and wild reading, and ideally of books as interesting as Further Fridays.

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