Visiting us this month at Vouched is Adam Robinson, editor of Publishing Genius Press and author of Adam Robison and Other Poems and Say, Poem.
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Yesterday I was asked in an interview about the cultural relevance of reading — why do I think reading is important personally and culturally?
It nearly put me in crisis mode. I am 96% oriented toward books. It’s all I ever do, and it makes me feel pretty one-dimensional, even flawed. If you survey my email inbox, which I just did, you have to scroll past 30 emails to find one that isn’t about making or reviewing or reading books (that 31st one is about softball, my other obsession).
I hemmed and hawed a bit at the question of relevance, and not only because the novel I had just finished was Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (which I admit I enjoyed a lot). I have a gut-level conviction that art is an essential balancing element in a precariously-balanced world, and that, in a real way, it will “save us all.” Even books that befuddle people into not reading them are necessary. I understand that almost everybody in the universe isn’t going to read John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath — I didn’t, more or less — but that book makes many other books possible.
In the interview I said, “I see a grand metanarrative to life, one that is affected by everything that happens, and the most important element of this metanarrative are the small narratives that comprise it — sharing our own stories and listening to other people’s stories is the way to peace.”
I’m pretty pleased with myself, yes.
In his recent, long post at Inside Higher Ed, Virgil W. Brower explains his rationale for taking a Great Books approach in his philosophy classes at Chicago State University, which is a mostly minority school. “I don’t teach my students how to write, but rather try to teach them how to read,” he says and goes on to say that this has the happy effect of making them better writers. It’s a fascinating essay, one that thoroughly justifies and vouches for spending serious time with great, or nearly great books. It’s actually exciting when he recounts the logical fallacies that are uncovered through reading a Malcolm X speech. The idea of assigning Gravity’s Rainbow to illustrate the concepts of analytic philosophy is motivating — but the essay is most exciting when he talks about the way the students respond:
Once a student, who has not yet given her or himself over to a consistent practice of reading or, perhaps, was simply never encouraged to do so, knocks out Kurt Vonnegut’s Galàpagos in a week — and is a bit surprised to have done so, quite easily — he or she is likely to make it through Aristotle’s Parts of Animals in the following weeks, and within a month is working through Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man with a working set of intertextual concepts that feel quite close to home.
Which I think is the message I needed to hear, particularly with regard to the “set of intertextual concepts that feel quite close to home.” Sometimes I forget why I invest 96% of my energy in making books which — c’mon — are going to be unread quite a lot more than Ashbery even. But I do it for connections — intertextual concepts that create the web that feel close to home because they are home, life. Making these connections between books and experiences and people is what makes me feel like I am really here.
I never fret about the value of reading while I’m actually reading. And I never feel better about anything (even a well-struck softball) more than when I recognize some detail of a story or poem that resonates with who I am, who I think I am, who it is that is comprised of all these other stories and poems. Saying as much makes it seem so abstract that it’s meaningless. I recognize that, which is what I like about Brower’s essay. Taking pedagogy as a starting point allows him to voice what I’m thinking from a practical standpoint. He says, “If reaching an understanding is what they want to get out of a class … they are obliquely invited to consider that if they cannot use this understanding to understand something different or something more, then perhaps they (or we) have not understood it that well, at all.”