Why Do You Read What You Read?
In her introduction to The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing discusses how she used to get a lot of mail from college students asking her for a list of “authorities” and critics who have commented on her work. This, of course, was long before the internet.
That prompts her to write several pointed paragraphs about what she calls the “literary machine.” It’s pretty awesome to read, especially if you tire of the pretentiousness of many literary critics. Here’s part of what she said:
Why are they so parochial, so personal, so small-minded? Why do they always atomize, and belittle, why are they so fascinated by detail, and uninterested in the whole? Why is their interpretation of the word critic always to find fault? Why are they alway seeing writers as in conflict with each other, rather than complementing each other…simple, that is how they are trained to think. That valuable person who understands what you are doing, what you are aiming for, and can give you advice and real criticism, is nearly always someone right outside the literary machine, even outside the university system; it may be a student just beginning, and still in love with literature, or perhaps it may be a thoughtful person who reads a great deal, following his own instinct.
Lessing goes on to describe what she views as a better way to select books–as opposed to being force fed by the “experts.”
There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag–and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or movement. Remember that book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty–and vice versa….Above all, you should know that the fact that you have to spend one year, or two years, on one book, or one author means that you are badly taught–you should have been taught to read your way from one sympathy to another, you should be learning to follow your own intuitive feeling about what you need: that is what you should have been developing, not the way to quote from other people.
I love the spirit of what Doris Lessing says there. And I agree with it, mostly.
Obviously, I don’t mind being “told” what to read, to some degree, since I’m reading from a list of books selected by two book critics from Time Magazine. But this experience is slowly making me agree more and more with Lessing’s viewpoint.
It’s okay to read a book because someone tells you it’s good. But if you get 50 pages in and hate it, there’s no reason to continue on. Even if, God forbid, you disagree with a famous book critic! Unless, you’re stupid like me, of course, and decided to read EVERYTHING off a certain list.
On the flip side, I think it’s important that 18 year olds in college know what’s out there, what’s considered to be “good” literature. We need a reference point. But from there, we’ve got to form our own opinion without being swayed by the prevailing thoughts.
Yeah, that’s tricky in college. Because you’ve got to finish the books your professor makes you read, at least if you want a decent grade. That makes me wonder–why don’t literature professors allow for more freedom in what their students read? Let them choose.
I’m rambling now.
What do you think about Lessing’s opinion on book critics, the “literary machine,” and how you choose what to read?
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)