A Ramble on Time, Culture and Reading

“He never chooses an opinion; he just wears whatever happens to be in style.” 

So, what effect does our time and culture have on the books we write, or read, or love?

Our blogalectic began a year ago Wednesday, and though Mr. Pond has fallen prey to deadlines and hosting an academic conference on Harry Potter, Masha and I are going strong. Happy Birthday to the blogalectic, my fellow blogalecticians, and all our friends!

Masha hit us this week with a question that could fill books, at least if answered generally. We could discuss thousands of implications of cultural perception, political issues, popular spiritual ideas and the expansion of media influence (which Masha mentioned) upon literature and our ideas of it.

I don't have time to research and write any of those books tonight. A little secret: most weeks, I write this post on Friday or Saturday and review it the following day to make sure it makes some degree of sense. With Lou away and other family in town, this weekend was not conducive to blogging. Therefore, tonight I'm blogging on the fly, and I'm sleepy and a touch cranky thanks to having a hint of a cold. So I'm breaking with form, just for the fun of it, and will answer Masha's questions according to whim. Read at your own risk.

First, she says something I should probably leave alone, but can't:
"...the general effect of the spirit of our times on what we read is that the overwhelming presence of media in our lives encourages our natural tendency to absorb the opinions of others. We swallow what is sold to us, without thinking and convince ourselves that Oprah’s picks really are good, that the bestseller list is the place to look for quality fiction, just as the top-rated t.v. shows are the best of television. That's not to say that popularity is always an indication of bad-quality, but sadly, in "these our times" I think it often is."
Never having paid enough attention to Oprah's picks to knowingly read one, I can't answer for the quality thereof. The Times bestseller list, at least as regards adult novels (as opposed to children's or YA) has mostly given me indifferent experiences: interesting stories, more or less prettily told, usually capable of calling up a few tears, but not life-changing.

But I take issue with the idea that popularity and bad quality are linked, particularly as it relates to our time as opposed to any other. We members of the American proletariat have on average probably more education than any set of average countrymen in history, at least prior to the mid-1900s, and our books reflect that; there's more of everything being published, be it genius or be it crap, than ever before. The past has been sorted for us. The present is still mid-inundation. Stuff will get popular, based on speaking to some need or desire (or if nothing else, shocking the pants off the reading public), and time will sort it down somewhat for next century's readers.

Popularity and accessibility are certainly linked, however, and this poses problems for the carefully-cultivated connoisseur. Tolkien? Great artist. Not accessible in the least. Tolstoy? Great artist; maybe accessible in Russia, but not so much in America. Rowling? Very, very accessible. Not a great prosist at all, though she can absolutely be defended as an artist and a genius on other levels. There are a few authors, a comparative few, who manage both prose artistry and accessibility. C.S. Lewis was one. Neil Gaiman is another. I'm striving for that, myself, but we have yet to see whether I succeed.

But Masha also answered her question personally:
"The effect [of our marketing-driven age] on my reading is often to encourage retreat. I’m not interested in shallow romances, wandering prose, or undisciplined imaginations. I’m not interested in weak images or book versions of country songs, so I sometimes fall back into isolation - reading authors I love, or authors loved my favorites. But I’m also not going to abandon my own age - there is beautiful writing being done all around us, and I can forgive an author a good deal if he can form his words well..."
I have struggled all week with how to respond to this. Masha's difficulty finding readable work doesn't exist for me to the same extreme, but I have problems of my own.

Or rather, problem. Singular. The difficulty lies in the significant amount of tension and distance present between me and "our time and culture." It exists for numerous reasons, ranging from my being an introvert to my being the sort of person who can't usually be bothered with television and radio because they interfere with thought process; from my having been homeschooled to my finding key platform points of both major political parties utterly appalling. All told, it makes me a little weird and "out of it", and the trials inherent in being weird tend to encourage my natural uncertainties.

Therefore, in searching for books to read, I apply the very inexact science of choosing works that look interesting, in the hope that I'll learn something or at least enjoy myself without feeling belittled or attacked or imposed upon by authorial agenda. I approach writing in hopes of creating that experience for others who have any feelings similar to mine, while hopefully not belittling or attacking or imposing upon anyone. And I love the books that speak to my own needs and desires and encourage me to better things, regardless of their relevancy to this day and age.

And now I need to water my hanging basket, re-check two library books, and go to bed. Sleep calls, and I cannot refuse. Good night.


  1. We'll, you managed a fantastic post for "on the fly"! I end up writing almost all my posts that way, which is why they're so full of typos and misspellings..but also why they're sometimes so moody. I was frustrated with my reading last week.

    I don't think that popularity is ALWAYS linked to bad quality..I don't only like books so underground they'll never be published, or start hating an author the moment some suburban ladies' club picks it up, but I would say that a good deal of what's popular is bad, and it's due at least in some part to the fact that we are a very literate culture, but not actually a very educated one. We place way too high a value on college education and too little value on an individual's pursuit of knowledge.

    But I agree with your 'problem'- in part because, excepting the homeschooling, I share your distance with the culture. Though I am definitly a bit more active in my rejections. :)

    Speaking of books, and defending Rowling as an artist, I bought your book of essays & when it arrives I'm going to stay up late and read it all (even the essays you didn't write :)! Is there a defense of her artistry in there or should I beg for a series of blog posts?? I'm really looking forward to the book!

    1. Haha. Masha, you're awesome, and thanks. I want to think about your point about us being a literate culture but not a very educated one; that's an interesting distinction. I'll have to do it on a day when I'm capable of thinking through anything, however. But despite my somewhat bleary state, I do think I agree that we overvalue college as such and undervalue the individual quest for wisdom.

      Rowling's artistry is in things like alchemical scaffolding, ring composition, and Christian symbolism in the English tradition. There's at least one essay on some of that in the book. Now, I only wrote one essay! But the meditations-on-Deathly-Hallows post I put up just after the release of that novel expresses something of what I see, too (if you'll forgive me for the reference to Hemingway, which was written before I met you or heard any of your defenses of him.)

      And yes, I like that we share some of the distance from culture. Common ground. :)

  2. I know you only wrote one, don't worry, I won't be too disappointed to discover the other essayists ;). I'll definitly check out the post, and maybe even get around to reading the other books (john Granger(?)I think) you recommended..the image of Rowling as an artist is a..challenging..one. But I think it'd be a fun one to look into. Maybe she's like Ford Maddox Ford, and I have to be interested in her as a person before I can care at all about her writing..or maybe that's a bad analogy, I only read Ford to see if he was as obnoxious a writer as Hemmingway made him out to be..he was :)

    Hope you feel better soon!


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