May 13, 2008

Mikita Brottman Is A Big Whiner

I'd never heard of her before, so I hope her book does about that well. It's called The Solitary Vice: Against Reading and no, I'm not linking to it. It's not available yet anyway. I read an excerpt in a magazine because hey, I'm open-minded. If someone has some good reason why, as she claims, "books are overrated" I'll listen to see if they have anything of substance to say. It's always good to examine your preconceptions and I'm obviously on the side of books are awesome. She apparently has a column over at the Huffinton post where she writes about how great Kindles are (Amazon's clunky little ebook reader) and books are crap.

Her writing comes off as some smart-alecky undergrad who just discovered that being contentious will cause controversy and that's almost like having something to say. She throws the little thought bombs around; Kindles are good, books are bad, autistic people are weird and I wouldn't hire one. Not the stuff of great debate.

The only evidence against reading she presents is her own miserable youth. She describes herself as a voracious reader of horror fiction, then complains "in terms of emotional development, books didn't help me at all." What a surprise. I'm not bashing horror fiction, I also was a big fan at that age and knew all the reference she made from H.P. Lovecraft to Melmoth the Wanderer. But I also came out of my room, played with other kids and read the occasional non-horror (even non-fiction) book. She writes: "Eventually, my mother gave up trying to coax me down for meals, and, apart from school, the only time I left my bedroom during the day was to renew my library books." Yeah, listen to your parents. She said she should have listened to her dad "and spent more time in the company of other human beings." That might have helped.

She was an awkward teen "with greasy skin and tragic hair" and socially maladroit. I can relate. But instead of trying to navigate this world with these minor flaws, she retreated to the world of books. It could have easily been television or religion or art or a million things. It wasn't the books that held her prisoner, it was herself. "I was paralyzed by fantasy, crippled by self-loathing, self-doubting inhibition--a problem that's never completely disappeared, and probably never will."

I'm not arguing that all books are equally great. I'm arguing that it wasn't the books (or even types of books) that screwed her up. She was already screwy, she's just mad the books didn't help. The thing is, she knows it. "If you're a balanced, discriminating reader, the books you read can make you more interested in moral and political questions, more active, articulate, and engaged." Thank you!

So she's screwed up. She doesn't need to whine about it. It's not just the books she whines about: "I could write, albeit in a fussy and pretentious style (which I can't seem to entirely shake off, as you may have noticed."

I noticed.


kiri8 said...

Hey ninja, you find some good stuff. Your review (?) was enjoyably snarky, and I would like to find out more. I couldn't get the link to work, however, and couldn't figure out your source when I googled her. Where did you read about this book?

Teacherninja said...

Thanks! Link should be fixed now. I read the excerpt in a magazine called The Week. The book is listed on Amazon, but no reader reviews yet.

Teacherninja said...

Here's the source. I would have simply linked to it, but The Week is subscriber only. I'll take it down if there is a complaint.

The last word: Why books are overrated

Believe it or not, people once considered reading to be a dangerous vice. Now it’s “what makes America great,” according to one slogan. Other book-promoting campaigns also try to persuade us that reading is sexy (“Get Caught Reading”), hip (“Get Real @ Your Library”), virile and productive (“Read and Grow”), and, of course, “fun-damental.”

So in-your-face, so taken for granted is this faith in the healing power of literature, it’s hard to believe such assumptions have emerged only in the last 50 years, postdating the development of all the other kinds of entertainment—cable TV, the Internet, hand-held videogames­—that now compete for our time and make reading look old-fashioned in comparison. And yet, as historians of mass literacy have shown, our indiscriminate faith in the act of reading would, not so long ago, have seemed gloriously insane.

For much of our history, in fact, reading was considered bad for you. Books, it was long believed, had hidden powers; they could cast a spell on you. And it’s not hard to see why. The earliest secular manuscripts, produced long before the advent of general literacy (and often the work of alchemists and magicians), must have seemed suspiciously cryptic to ordinary law-abiding nonreaders.

Have you ever seen that poster in the children’s section of bookstores showing a couple of bears flying through the air, clutching the strings of a colorful balloon, beneath the words “Books Take You to Wonderful Places”? That one always makes me wonder how long those unfortunate bears have got left before they come crashing back down to earth. It’s true, stories can take you to wonderful places. What the posters don’t tell you is that you can’t stay there, and for those children who spend their early years in the otherworld of literature, real life can come as a rotten letdown.

Consider poor old Jean-Paul Sartre. In his memoirs, the famous philosopher describes spending hour after hour as a child absorbed in his Encyclopedia Larousse, fascinated by each volume’s colorful evocation of fauna and flora, only to have all this wonder dissolve the day he first visited the Luxembourg gardens and saw how impoverished real plants and animals were in comparison. After all his reading, he found, “apes in the zoo were less ape, the people in the Luxembourg gardens were less people.” In retrospect, Sartre realized that he passed from “real” knowledge to its subject, finding more “reality” in the idea of a thing than in the thing itself.

“It was in books that I encountered the universe,” he recalls, “digested, classified, labeled, mediated, still formidable.” In contrast, the world outside books appeared messy, disorganized, and unimpressive. Could it ever possibly compete with the beautifully patterned, ordered universe contained in a favorite set of encyclopedias?

For me, the intoxicating moment came when I learned that books could take you to horrible places—horrible, that is, in a thrilling way: places on the other side of the looking glass where unimaginable nightmares came true, where little girls like me were kept in cages, had their heads chopped off, were cooked and eaten for breakfast. These scary stories both frightened me and aroused a strange, dark appetite that was difficult to satisfy.

Horror stories were my favorite. I couldn’t get enough of them. I loved the way they took me out of my own story, where nothing ever happened. It wasn’t so much that they put my own life in the context of others’ as that they annihilated it completely—at least that’s how it felt. I read every scary story and horror comic I could find, from H.P. Lovecraft to Lady Vampire, from Titus Andronicus to “Tales From the Crypt”—all the better if they included rats, ghouls, voodoo, vampires, and bodies chopped up and hidden under the floor. I became something of a ghoul myself, buried all day in my bedroom, the door barred with a piece of stair rail that had broken off the wall, making the stairs up to my attic bedroom a bit dodgy to climb. Which was fine, because the only people I wanted to see were already there: my friends Jekyll and Hyde, Mephisto, Dr. Strange, and—my closest pal—Melmoth the Wanderer.

Eventually, my mother gave up trying to coax me downstairs for meals, and, apart from school, the only time I left my bedroom during the day was to renew my library books.

There’s no question that, in terms of emotional development, books didn’t help me at all. For one thing, they gave me ridiculous ideas about romance.

The Victorians had worried about such things. In the 19th century, novel reading was considered an especially inappropriate pastime for well-bred young girls. Romantic novels, it was believed, gave young women the impression that love was a wonderfully passionate affair, and that marriage would be full of excitement and emotion, not practical things like finances, housekeeping, and child-rearing. In other words, it was feared that young ladies who read romantic novels would be deeply disillusioned by the bitter realities of marriage.

The first book that I read that had a really powerful impact on me was Wuthering Heights. It wasn’t the first book that made me cry (like most children, I wept copiously and predictably through Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, and other books in which animals died), but Wuthering Heights was the first book to make me cry adult tears—tears caused by something, at age 15, I’d never experienced: broken love (if love was the right word for it). Whatever it was between Catherine and Heathcliff, I was utterly transfixed by it—a passionate connection, however sexless and spiritualized, that was stronger and more lasting than death, that couldn’t end or be destroyed because it was a part of nature, “like the eternal rocks beneath,” as Catherine says to the housemaid, Nelly. I started crying when I read this speech; I sobbed when Catherine went mad after her husband banned Heathcliff from the Grange; I blubbered and wailed when she begged Nelly to open the window to get just one breath of the wind blowing from the moor, where Heathcliff lay buried.

I often try to make sense of the impact this book had on me. When I first read it, I thought nothing was quite as rousing as a passion so strong you’d die for it. I was devoted to the idea of a doomed, hopeless love that was too late, no good, couldn’t work, but went on anyway because it just couldn’t be stopped. Looking back, I see how this impractical, otherworldly all-or-nothingness has a special appeal to inexperienced teenage girls. But at the time, when I was all wrapped up in it, what I wanted to know was whether things like this could really happen. I’d lie in bed and wonder: Did they happen in the “real world,” the same world I lived in? I had no reason to think so. It was only in books that people felt that way. In real life, people just got tired of one another, drifted apart, did their best, and got on with things. Personally, I hadn’t even met anybody worth going downstairs for—forget about dying. I was perfectly happy as long as I lived in the world of books, but whenever I tried to enter the real world, the spell was broken.

I was spoiled by other love stories as well, including the plain girls’ bible, Jane Eyre. At 16, with my greasy skin and tragic hair, I was immediately drawn to the inner life of the much-abused Jane, who quietly watches Mr. Rochester and carries on serving tea while cherishing “in her bosom” the secret hope that in the end, she’ll be loved for her quiet intelligence, for who she is—modest and penniless.

In the end, all her years of suffering do pay off and Mr. Rochester finally appreciates the special qualities of the bookish girl nobody ever looked at twice. In fact—rather miraculously—he’s been in love with her all along. That’s the money shot in Jane Eyre—the sadistic glee of the moment when Mr. Rochester takes for his wife not the superficially more appealing Blanche Ingram (as everyone expects), but his daughter’s governess, Jane, with her gray smocks, low forehead, and “plain figure” (does that mean flat-chested?).

Wrongheaded as I was, reading Jane Eyre convinced me that, if it could happen to Jane, it could happen to me.

Well, it didn’t happen. Nobody ever asked for my hand in marriage. Nobody even called me on the phone. I was caught in a vicious self-perpetuating cycle: The more real life disappointed me, the more I buried myself in books; and the longer I spent reading, the more remote grew the possibility of actual escape. Private fantasies were all I had, and the hours I spent locked up in the attic started to take their toll. It might be all the rage now to be pale and thin, but at the time it was the fashion to be rosy and tanned, not ill-looking and waxy like me.

Books aren’t all bad. If you’re a balanced, discriminating reader, the books you read can make you more interested in moral and political questions, more active, articulate, and engaged. Ideally, reading can help negotiate the tension between self and other, help establish a balance between you, the reader, as an individual, and absorption in the group. With me, it was the opposite. I read unconsciously, almost involuntarily. My inner life was rich, but it all stayed inside. I didn’t talk about the books I read because I didn’t know how. I could write, albeit in a fussy and pretentious style (which I can’t seem to entirely shake off, as you may have noticed). But to actually talk about what I read, I’d have needed a different voice, one that could cross over from private to public, from inner to outer worlds. In fact, I hardly had a voice at all. I went days without speaking as a teenager. Like a Victorian hysteric, I was paralyzed by fantasy, crippled by self-loathing, self-doubting inhibition—a problem that’s never completely disappeared, and probably never will.

The old superstitions about books aren’t groundless, in other words. They can cast a spell on you. They can change your life completely, and, once you’ve changed, you can’t go back. I, for one, would have been much better off if I’d listened to my dad and spent more time in the company of other human beings. All those years in the attic would have been far better spent learning vital skills: how to socialize, how to engage with others, how to be physical, how to live in the world.

Yes, books can take you to wonderful places, but they can also leave you stranded there, isolated from other human beings, even from your own experience of yourself.

From the book The Solitary Vice: Against Reading by Mikita Brottman. ©2008 by Mikita Brottman. Used with permission of the publisher.

Diana with 2 dogs said...

So would a book about how books are evil be in "Irony" section at Borders? Is that near Religion and Philosophy?

Hey - I have my CDC interview next Tuesday! Can I stop by?

Teacherninja said...

Thanks you! Why is she writing a book? She should make it available only for those stinkin Kindles.

Of course you can come over!

See you then...