reading

To bite or to bet, that is the question

If you haven’t yet read The Unbitten Elbow by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, please do so here if you’re going to read the following piece. If you have no interest in reading the following piece, I still insist that you refer to the link above and read The Unbitten Elbow.

The Unbitten Elbow is perhaps the third or fourth piece I read by Krzhizhanovsky. His linguistic turns of phrases and philosophical tendencies had already captured me with The Letter Killers Club and his ability to weave stories within stories was enticing enough. But with The Unbitten Elbow came a gust of comedy, of laughter. Most of my friends whom I summarized the tale to reacted to the ending with a look of horror and disconcertment. Only one of my friends mirrored my own delight as she giggled and clapped her hands as I told her of the attack from the rear and the subsequent death from blood loss.

Thus I arrived at the question of whether or not The Unbitten Elbow is in fact comic. The line between comedy and tragedy is dangerously thin—an abyss in itself, reflective of the incoherence which is the root of both tragedy and comedy. Traditionally, the incoherence in a tragedy will often end, for lack of a better word, tragically, while a comedy tends to resolve itself in often what is a literal happy union. One of the benefits of tragedy is the ability to watch someone self-destruct so that you don’t have to. The same may be said of comedy, only this time the self-destruction isn’t in vain. While raging through the crook of your elbow may give off the appearance of self-destruction, whether or not it was in vain and whether or not it’s funny still remain to be seen.

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80 Books Rebecca Solnit Shouldn’t Talk About

Recently, Rebecca Solnit published a short essay in response to Esquire’s list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read”. The list itself isn’t great; it doesn’t list the best collection of authors and the tagline with each book degrades the text more than exalts them. I understand the need to criticize the list and what it represents for men and women, but her response is no better;

“The list made me think there should be another, with some of the same books, called 80 Books No Woman Should Read, though of course I believe everyone should read anything they want. I just think some books are instructions on why women are dirt or hardly exist at all except as accessories or are inherently evil and empty. Or they’re instructions in the version of masculinity that means being unkind and unaware, that set of values that expands out into violence at home, in war, and by economic means. Let me prove that I’m not a misandrist by starting with Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, because any book Paul Ryan loves that much bears some responsibility for the misery he’s dying to create.”

She says that she believes that everyone should read anything they want, except women who shouldn’t read these texts and authors because she believes they’re poor instructions. Notice that she doesn’t make a list of books that No One should read, or books that Everyone Should Read. She maintains the differences of the genders and places warning signs on books that she doesn’t think benefit women. But how can you decide that these are merely instructions on why women are dirt without reading it in the first place. And I don’t disagree that texts are instructions, but they are instructions that the reader puts together with the text, so she doesn’t seem to be giving women much credit if she doesn’t think that a woman may read one of these texts with an open mind to try to understand why it is so appealing to others.

And obviously she doesn’t hate men because here’s a woman right off the bat that shouldn’t be read either! And not only should it not be read, but it, the text, bears responsibility for one man’s intentions. Because the responsibility doesn’t lie with the reader in reading a text; faults and guilt lie with the words.

I have my own personal feelings towards Atlas Shrugged and the benefits of reading it in order to understand an extremist mentality to establish a spectrum, and I understand that some people genuinely just don’t like it and wouldn’t want to read it and disagree immensely with her philosophy; that’s fine. What irritates me is how Solnit raises her up in order to say “I’m not against men. Here’s a woman with whom I also disagree with so don’t bother reading her either!” And while she points out that on Esquire’s list of eighty there was only one female author (Flannery O’Connor), in her own imaginary list that she begins to concoct, Ayn Rand is seemingly the only woman on her list.

“All those novels by men that seem to believe that size is everything, the 900-page monsters that, had a woman written them, would be called overweight and told to go on a diet. All those prurient books about violent crimes against women, especially the Black Dahlia murder case, which is a horrible reminder of how much violence against women is eroticized by some men, for other men, and how it makes women internalize the hatred.”

She speaks of these tomes about killing women, and I assume that these are books that aren’t well written and that the violence against women is unnecessary and gratuitous, but then does she offer alternatives? Does she offer any case for the good giants that include violence? What about Bolaño’s 2666, with its monotonous telling of murder after murder and murder of countless women? She criticizes and lists books that shouldn’t be read and ends the piece with a list of her own favorites, but at no point does she offer anything positive or useful. And the faults she weighs against male writers come up in her own list of heroes. Hemingway she labels as a “homophobic anti-semitic misogynist”, but Virginia Woolf (an author she later lists as one of her heroes) was also incredibly anti-semitic. And even if Hemingway really and truly was all those things, we’re not talking about going out to drinks with Hemingway—we’re talking about the merits of reading his works. And even if his works do portray—to the core and out—that homophobic anti-semitic misogynistic mindset, wouldn’t it be useful to read something like that in order to understand a mentality that is not (and may never be) yours? Good instructions should include books that make us uncomfortable, that expose us to characters we deplore and could not associate with if we tried. Because that’s what happens in life.

She doesn’t want men to explain things to her, and she’s bent on being the explainer herself. That’s clear in the negativity of her language. Her solution and response is an attack on the books themselves—blaming them and not their readers. And in doing so, she gives very little credit to women as readers, who couldn’t possibly read a book that didn’t accurately depict them and get something useful out of it. Not to mention the lack of credit she gives male readers

“These books are, if they are instructions at all, instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender.”

That last line—if we want books that break us out of ourselves and our genders, then wouldn’t it be useful to delve into one that is so confined in the other? Maybe it’s good to read a text centered around an identity that would reject you, because not everything in this world will accept you anyway. By denying ourselves any access to another psyche—no matter how ‘terrible’ and ‘violent’ it is—through texts, then we’re no better than the men who read The Grapes of Wrath just for the “titty”.

I understand her criticisms and I understand that a list of books that no woman should read is a joke—“of course I believe everyone should read anything they want”—but her jokes aren’t helping anything. It’s a shame that she’ll get harassed by men for identifying with Lolita, but perhaps they’re the ones not reading correctly if they are unable to realize the circumstances that would cause women to identify with Lolita. Don’t blame a text for poor readers. And maybe some books are bad. But give everyone a chance to find something useful within them.

Here’s a link to her original essay

wasted time.

One of my earliest remaining memories is reading a robins egg blue hardcover copy of Winnie-the-Pooh in a crib. In retrospect the previous sentence makes me sound like a prodigy reader, which certainly was not the case. I may be better than average, but there were no literary escapades during diapers. I slept in a crib until the end of 1st grade, due to the close-quartered living situation. I must’ve been between 5 and 7; there’s also a faint light of my mother getting ready for work next to the chair that always held all the clothes that couldn’t be bothered to be put away.

Third grade my parents encouraged Jules Verne. With sixth and seventh grade came Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm.

I hate to say in retrospect again almost as much as this upcoming retrospection and its consequences.

A great deal of classics were read, and for that thanks go to my parents. But because of any and all issues with them that I had at the time, I would read terrible books, gaudy tales of twenty-somethings being nannys and angsty young adult novels, because I knew it would frustrate them. I would roll my eyes at their suggestions and then go on to reread the most useless texts. And now I think back and all I see is wasted time. Not necessarily wasted, because who is to say what I would have grasped and retained at the time, but I’d wager to say that something would’ve been different.

And then there’s this, ‘wasted time’. I shudder to think at all the time I waste thinking about previous ‘wasted time’. I wonder how I’ll think of such waste in the years to come.

“I need to read that”

I.

Last night my father and I watched Mulholland Drive together. Afterwards, standing at opposing ends of the kitchen, we fell into a conversation regarding the extent of interpretation one can carry out in regards to the film; and later in the conversation, in regards to paintings and literature.

I’m not the biggest cheerleader for David Lynch’s films, but I certainly don’t disparage them. He introduced notions into films that will leave him remembered as much as Fellini in the film world. But that doesn’t mean I’ll pop in a David Lynch film on my day off and enjoy myself. It’s like noticing an aesthetically pleasing woman on the subway; I won’t deny that she is beautiful, but I don’t want to take her home and show her my books. That being said, I admire his work, but the slightly formulaic (a particular formula he devised, of course) nature of his films tires me during the act of watching.

 

II.

He suggested that the first part of the movie was the ‘dream sequence’, while the second was the ‘reality’, to which I responded that the same can be said of the reverse, and if anything it seemed as though the movie attempted to expand on a non-linear notion. Breaking the audience away from the need of a one-way arrow narration and diegesis. I wasn’t trying to imply that this was necessarily the intention of the movie, but this was the sense I got from it.

After each comment I made, his response would unfailingly be “I understand that and I agree with that, but…”, attempting to justify his linear understanding of the film despite my comment that perhaps Lynch is attempting to steer the audience away from the need of linearity. It was just a very back and forth conversation, hinging on argument, just because of the haze of justification that seemed to permeate through the kitchen.

Then the conversation tumbled down a few stairs and landed upon the subject of participation in the act of watching a film versus that of reading a text. I offered the opinion that the act of reading a text requires more participation and activity than that of watching a film, at the very least due to the constructed nature of the film; it’s ready-made.

 

III.

When I tried to put it simply as “the text doesn’t really exist without the reader”, he understood it as an elementary aphorism, akin to “if a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I just began reading a text that outlines reader-response criticism, and the last line of the first paragraph of the introduction went like so; “Its [a poems] ‘effects,’ psychological and otherwise, are essential to any accurate description of its meaning, since that meaning has no effective existence outside of its realization in the mind of the reader.”[1]

Now, the essentiality of the effect is a strange thing to consider, because how would one measure the effect of a text on a reader? Do different readings imply paradoxical meanings, or a methodological text?
IV.

It does stand, in my opinion, that a text beckons the participation of a reader. A participation that involves a great deal more ‘giving-up’, so to speak, than one is often accustomed in current times. A book fools you because while you may hold the entire thing in your hands, turning it round and round, flipping through the pages, feeling the veil of raised text on paper, despite any immediacy the book may present for itself, there’s an unspoken amount of time that must be devoted to this book for one to truly ‘have it’.

 


[1] Reader Response Criticism; From Formalism to Post-Structuralism, edited by Jane P. Tompkins

Aiming the arrow–why write

The other morning I started filling in/out an application. It never occurred to me that both those directions would be appropriate. Regardless.

The application was for a writing mentorship. I wasn’t particularly interested in it, but I started filling it with the thought that, “Hey, if I finish it, I might as well turn it in”. I rattled off a few paragraphs for each question, but then I went back to the first question, which I had intentionally skipped to begin with because it put me on edge;

“What do you hope to achieve as a writer?”

First of all, the word achieve puts me on edge. The most in my head that I hope to achieve is to be a writer. If I were to set up goals for my writing to accomplish, then my writing would be steered towards that accomplishment. The track would be laid out and we all know how difficult it is (though not impossible) for trains to jump tracks.

However, this did bring up some thought and concern. Why do I want to write? I’ve wanted to write poetry ever since the second grade when I entered one of those scam poetry.com contests, but that’s probably/mostly because I enjoyed writing poetry. Since then my writing passes between poetry and literary criticism and philosophical sprinkling. My manuscript attempted to emphasize the relationship between text and the reader. But if the reader were to notice this relationship that I am pointing at, so what? If I go on and on about the different interpretations of a few lines in The Master and Margarita, so what? Will it be useful to anyone?

This notion of usefulness is something that I try not to think of in my writing. Because whatever I deem useful may be entirely overlooked, and the most useless words may be highlighted and examined for days on end. It betrays the idea of what a text is to try to emphasize what is useful, what should be noticed, what should be achieved through the reading.

George Steiner begins his text Tolstoy or Dostoevsky with the line, “Literary criticism should arise out of a debt of love” and the first page ends with “Through some primary instinct of communion we seek to convey to others the quality and force of our experience. We would persuade them to lay themselves open to it. In this attempt at persuasion originate the truest insights criticism can offer”.

“Debt of love” and “lay themselves open to it” I believe are two of the most important phrases in those lines. Because that is not only what a text is aiming to do, but that is what one’s own writing, whether it be creative or criticism, should aim for as well. The achievement should lie not in hitting the bullseye, but being able to aim the arrow at all, for yourself or for another.