A Calm Place to Think: On Reading the Classics

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Like many recovering English majors before me, I have a longstanding infatuation with heavy Russian novels. So on one level, a new edition of Dead Souls seems like a no-brainer: an excuse to return to a story that has endured for nearly two centuries.

Nikolai Gogol’s masterpiece centers on a con man named Chichikov who is literally buying dead souls — or more accurately, serfs who have died but are still counted on official tax rolls. His journey sweeps through a swath of 19th-century Russian life, as he glides from landowner to landowner, trying to charm and flatter them in an effort to buy as many deceased serfs as possible. The book is smart and funny; it deftly unpacks the social structure of 19th-century Russian life. It says something profound about the dehumanizing effects of buying and selling everything. And it’s the first of the great Russian novels — predating War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and all the rest of those weighty tomes that pretentious undergraduates lug around to coffee houses. And that gives it mystique.

But as I sat down to read Donald Rayfield’s new translation of the book, I felt a sensation I didn’t expect — guilt. I got to thinking about my reading over the past few months, as I’ve hopped from The Radetzky March to Jude the Obscure to Demons to Chekhov’s plays. All of them brilliant, and all of them properly vetted by the relevant authorities. And I realized I don’t want to get in the habit of “checklist reading” — paging through an old book for no other reason than to say I’ve read it. Ultimately, we live in a consumer society, and it is really easy to let the habits of consumption, the habits of a collector, seep into everything. Even our reading choices.

As Dwight Macdonald pointed out decades ago in his (now ironically canonical) essay “Masscult and Midcult,” “The chief negative aspect is that so far our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive, a matter of consuming rather than creating, a catching up on our reading on a continental scale… We have, in short, become skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped by the proper authorities.” And that’s why I can’t manage to love the classics without reservation. I am afraid that it is far too easy to read them passively — to get so caught up in their mystique that the words don’t matter. And I fear it would be very easy to get stuck in the books of the past, and miss out on newer ones that might relate more directly to the world as I experience the rest of the day.

For example, David Shields’s Reality Hunger, while nowhere near as brilliant as Dead Souls, made a profound impact on how I think about contemporary media. Shields’s book-length essay, which came out about two years ago, is downright dismissive of the traditional novel, announcing, “To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.” But, more importantly, it backs up its iconoclasm with a fragmentary style that genuinely captures something about the way people read today. A literary collage that collects fragments (mostly) taken from preexisting works by other writers and then weaves them into a single “manifesto,” it is a genuinely unique work, one that captures something very real about our — or at least my — current reading habits.

Engaging with Reality Hunger’s bits of text made me more attuned to the way much of my reading — on Twitter, or just surfing online — consists of gliding between small bursts of words. Instead of presenting a clean, straightforward argument, Shields makes his case for collage-style writing through accumulation. His fragments build and build, until the reader is able to piece together the argument is his or her own mind. I do the same thing online every day. I read tweets and status updates and blog posts one after another, and eventually, I piece them together in my head to form a coherent view of the world. Shields’s book finally made me aware of something I had done unconsciously for years. This is what literature is supposed to do — call our attention to the way society or technology or history has shaped us.

Reading matters because of its relationship to thinking. What I love most about books is the way they force the reader to get involved. Unlike other leisure activities, a reader needs to actually participate in the experience. You don’t just turn a book on and enjoy it — you need to actively engage with the material, not only sorting out the words, but imagining what they describe. The scenes, the characters, the voices: all of it needs to be created inside the reader’s mind. In that way, reading itself is an imaginative act.

I’ve always seen a minor parallel between a reader and a concert musician — a pianist for example — just in the sense that both are taking notations written by someone else and bringing them to life. In both cases, the work of art as it exists on paper is mediated by someone else. A reader may follow the cues of the author, she may give every word her full attention, her emotions may stir in exactly the way they were intended to — but the images and voice she creates in her mind are hers. But they are not only hers — they are a collaboration between her and the writer. Alone among the arts, reading/writing involves mingling the thoughts of the artist and the audience. In a way, reading is itself a performance.

When a critic like B.R. Myers sniffs at contemporary writing by declaring, “Every new book we read in our brief and busy lives means that a classic is left unread,” I immediately worry that an entire reading life spent rehashing books approved by the proper authorities risks turning a reader (like me) into a perpetual student, someone who treats literature as a way to check off titles on an imaginary syllabus. Someone passive. I worry those images in my head will be subsumed by what I think they’re supposed to be; what a well-known Gogol critic like Vladimir Nabokov thinks they should look like. I worry Dead Souls belongs to so many people, it might never belong to me the way a book really need to. I worry my performance as a reader will borrow to heavy on the performances of others.

And yet I want Gogol’s novel in my head. It remains a profoundly inventive book, with a narrator who comments on the story as it goes along, even to the point of upbraiding the audience:
I apologize. It would seem that a phrase picked up on the streets has slipped from our hero’s lips. What can one do? That’s the situation a writer in Russia finds himself in. Though, if a street word finds its way into a book, it’s not the writer’s fault, it’s the readers’, above all readers in high society: they’re the last people you will hear a decent Russian word from…
Harold Bloom has used the term “canonical strangeness,” and it is precisely an inherent weirdness that makes Dead Souls so hard to give up. Think of a symphony, where a certain movement may repeat in a slightly different key — the subtle repetitions built into Gogol’s text help build the absurdity, the humor, and the emotional force of his tale. It isn’t very realistic — life is not so well constructed — but that’s okay. It gives us an opportunity — if only an opportunity — to stand outside our regular way of looking at the world, and perhaps notice something we have been taking for granted.

The strangeness of Dead Souls, its alien subject matter and its realistic-but-not-lifelike narrative structure actually aid a reader’s performance precisely because, when taken on their own terms, they draw attention away from the process of reading the book. They demand so much energy to really follow, to navigate on their own terms, that the reader’s performance becomes, if not unconscious, at least less self-conscious. As soon as I realized that, my guilt about spending so much time immersed in old books began to melt away.

The way to avoid passive reading is to pay attention to what is on the page and engage it as best you can. This matters because reading offers us something quite rare — a quiet, solitary activity that allows us to clear a little space in our minds. This feels especially true in the context of my own daily habits, which involve spending an extraordinary amount of time online, a decidedly noisy, un-solitary environment that encourages the reader to respond — through retweeting, commenting, or “liking” — as opposed to reflecting.

Reality Hunger sticks with me because it made me more sensitive to the noisy media landscape I inhabit almost continuously. The book forced me to read actively by calling attention to just how I was looking at text. Its fragments made the fragments in my head all too obvious. Dead Souls does the opposite. It is quiet and strange and in some respects inaccessible; it uses a plot that doesn’t dwell too much on the rambling pointlessness of daily life; it is set in a past I don’t understand as much as I pretend to. It is the opposite of the tailored, easy-to-digest world of social media. With the right attitude, the right approach, its contrast with today’s fragmentary reading environment can be every bit as valuable as Shields’s effort to engage it.

The key is to take both together — to avoid getting trapped only reading classics, like Macdonald’s “catch-up” reader, or only reading fragments or bits of text online. The point is not to set up a dichotomy between old and new — and certainly not between “good” and “bad” approaches to writing or reading. What both Shields, with his contempt for traditional narratives, and Myers, in his contempt for everything else, both miss is that each kind of text — those grounded in the technology of the present and those insulated from it — is equally valuable, because it offers the reader a chance to perform (to think) in very different ways. Both matter because a good performer — good reader — is one with a lot of range, and the only way to develop that range is to perform as many different kinds of stories as possible.

In conversation, I’m fond of telling people that the difference between a work of art and a mere product is that art ultimately aspires to contemplation, while a product aspires only to consumption. I suppose my anxiety about turning the classics into a checklist stems from my realization that “art” exists only through collaboration between the artist/creator/writer and an audience; that it’s not the work that should aspire to contemplation, but myself. And that, as a reader, that means I need to be willing to work hard. To approach the performance of reading with every bit as much seriousness and effort as I expect the writer to approach the performance of writing. Art can’t exist without an audience to take it seriously.

The wonder of a book like Dead Souls comes from its silence, the way it offers us a calm place to think. But that place is only as valuable as the reader makes it. A calm place to think is only worthwhile if the reader seizes the opportunity to do some thinking. Perhaps it’s not really guilt I fell about the classics but trepidation — because at the end of the day the classics need to earned. So now, it’s up to me to put in the effort to earn them.

Fragmentary: Writing in a Digital Age

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More and more, I read in pieces. So do you. Digital media, in all its forms, is fragmentary. Even the longest stretches of text online are broken up with hyperlinks or other interactive elements (or even ads). This is neither a good nor bad thing, necessarily — it is simply a part of modern reading. And because of that, works that deal with fragmentation, that eschew not only a traditional narrative structure but the very idea of a work comprising a single, linear whole — take on a special kind of relevance. Fragmentary writing is (or at least feels) like the one avant-garde literary approach that best fits our particular moment. It’s not that it’s the only form of writing that matters of course, just that it captures the tension between “digital” and “analog” reading better than anything else out there. And that tension, in many ways, is the defining feature of the contemporary reading experience.

What is fragmentary writing? To answer that, it helps to first look at how writers wrestled with fragmentation in an earlier, pre-digital context. The approach  played a major role in twentieth-century modernist literature, for example, and the very best modernists utilized fragments in particularly revealing ways. Few writers of the period, or any other, understood the nature of fragmentary writing better than Samuel Beckett, who experimented with short, nonlinear forms throughout his career. My favorite example of these fragmentary experiments is a series of thirteen nonlinear prose shorts he wrote called Texts for Nothing.

The Texts are not stories or essays, at least not in the traditional sense. They are instead focused on images/symbols and on the often-prevaricating “voice” (or is it “voices”?) behind each Text. Images and phrases appear in a particular context, and nearly every word is essential to understanding the Text. The voice of each Text often doubles back, contradicts itself, or moves from image to image in no discernible pattern, as in Text 2:
Is this stuff air that permits you to suffocate still, almost audibly at times, it’s possible, a kind of air. What exactly is going on, exactly, ah, old xanthic laugh, no farewell mirth, good riddance, it was never droll. No, but one more memory, one last memory, it may help, to abort again.
The images contained in Text 2 (though not necessarily the other Texts) could be interpreted as a series of “memories,” ranging from a woman digging through a trash can to a man “with only one leg and a half” ringing a bell. Memory often works piecemeal — after all, people don’t really remember an entire experience, instead they hold on to particular images, emotions, or impressions. In that way, the Texts resemble human memory — and human thinking. Their fragmentary nature therefore reflects the fragmentary nature of memory, and of the human mind.

Writing about Franz Kafka — another writer given to fragments, whose work served as a key influence on Beckett’s — Albert Camus declared, “The whole art in Kafka consists in forcing the reader to reread.” The Texts certainly live up to this dictum — they are meant to be looked at more than once, from different points of view. The attentive reader spends time with each Text as a distinct object, since there is not linear narrative or argument to follow forward. Meaning suggests itself indirectly, through the accumulation of phrases and images.

However, while Beckett wrote at a time when rereading was widely encouraged, contemporary media often pulls us in a very different direction. In his recent book about digital reading, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr calls the Net our society’s “communication and information medium of choice,” and says that, “The scope of its use is unprecedented, even by the standards of the mass media.” And he claims that this new medium has changed reading as profoundly as did the bound codex.

He points to a series of studies that indicate “people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” Essentially, hypertext distracts the reader enough to change the reading experience — even a long, linear text becomes fragmented with the addition of links, because the unconscious mind is forced to devote energy determining the value of the link (and whether or not to click on it). In Carr’s telling, the Internet creates not fragmentary but fragmented reading, where the mind is so distracted that it is difficult to become fully immersed in a given text. This is a different process than what happens when we read a fragmentary work — as Carr explains, “When transcribed to a page, a stream of consciousness becomes literary and linear.” The structure of a print book — its existence as a discrete, finite object, the lack of distractions built in to the format — creates a contemplative atmosphere that allows the reader to “merge” with a text; or as Carr puts it, “The reader becomes the book.” Beckett’s Texts for Nothing, with their emphasis on contemplation, accumulation, and rereading, are firmly rooted in the quieter, more contemplative world of “analog” media. For a writer interested in engaging the digital world, however, there are different challenges and that calls for a different kind of fragmentary writing.

The most prominent fragmentary work in recent years is probably David Shields’ Reality Hunger, a book made up primarily of quotations from other texts. While most critics focused on its two most controversial assertions — that the linear novel is an obsolete form, and that writers should feel free to “borrow” text from other works, the way a DJ might sample a piece of music — the book’s fragmentary structure is far more compelling. It is intended as a “literary collage,” in keeping with Shields’ belief that, “Collage, the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image, was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century.” Shields wants “a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation,” in effect, a literature that reflects the workings of the human mind. And his collection of fragments is his effort to produce that kind of work. If Shields fails in this effort — and I think he does, though understandably so — he is able to give the reader an idea of how his mind processes the written word. The breadth of his reading is evident not only from the wide range of writers “appropriated” into Reality Hunger — Walter Pater, James Joyce, and Walter Benjamin, among others — but from the obvious restlessness visible on the page.

Like Beckett’s Text 2, the fragmentary nature of Reality Hunger has its roots in human memory. As Shields points out, his interest in the essay stems from his belief that, “The essay consists of double translation: memory translates experience; essay translates memory.” And his essay resembles the way many of us remember the books we read — we hold on to particular ideas, images, and quotes, which hold the place of the larger work in our memories. I’ve read Hamlet three times in the last year and a half — and many times before then — but I can’t recite the entire play by heart. Instead, certain lines stand out (“The rest is silence,” etc.), and when I “remember” the play, it is those lines that spring to mind. In that way, Shields’ book gives us a window into how he reads — it shows us not only the works he gravitates too, but what pieces of those works he keeps with him.

Where Shields differs from earlier fragmentary writers, including Beckett, is that Reality Hunger, due to its origin in many different works, not only emphasizes its fragmentary nature, but uses it to connect with the reader. While making my way through the book, I found myself copying out Shields’ most interesting fragments into a separate notebook; when I want to “reread” Reality Hunger, I simply look at my own, private version instead. This seems at least in part to be Shields’ intention — the fragmentary style of his book forces the reader to become an active participant in the work itself. In that way, it draws from online writing styles, including blogging, which encourage readers to comment on, excerpt, or link to an existing text (which, as Carr points out, brings on even more fragmentation). Perhaps the most extreme version of this is the blogging platform Twitter, which both limits users to writing 140-chracters at a time, and encourages them to “retweet” other users’ content.

The most interesting use of the platform that I’ve seen is Masha Tupitsyn’s (print) book Laconia: 1,200 Tweets on Film, which she composed entirely on the site. The end result, however, is presented not as a mere assembly of Tweets, but as an experiment in form. As she explains in the introduction, “I avoided tweeting arbitrarily or simply churning out a collection of tweets that would result in a book. Instead, I wrote and crafted each entry as though it was for and part of a book, rather than the other way around.” One of Carr’s great worries about the digital realm is the way it appropriates and changes print forms. As he explains, “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image.” With Laconia, Tupitsyn attempts the reverse, re-creating a digital medium (Twitter) in an “analog” space. In a sense, Tupitsyn is appropriating a digital space into print.

What’s especially interesting about that appropriation is the way she toys with Twitter’s 140-character limit. Often, she will break multi-tweet passages abruptly, calling attention to the platform’s tendency toward fragmentation. For example, tweets 782 and 783 (each tweet in the book is numbered and time-stamped) appear this way:
Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces. Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions

about our feelings and emotions.
It would be very easy to recast these tweets in a way that keeps both sentences whole:
Our feelings and emotions about our lives and our faces are in other people’s faces.

Changing movie faces are our feelings and emotions about our feelings and emotions.
This would be particularly more readable on Twitter itself, where the more recent tweet — “about our feelings and emotion” — would appear on top. But by breaking them so abruptly, by taking Twitter’s “hard” character count so literally and writing right up until it is reached, Tupitsyn underlines the digital origin of the project.

Where, at least in Carr’s telling, the Web cuts a textual whole into fragments by appropriating it, the print book (at least this particular print book) takes fragments and forces them into a kind of whole. We read tweets 782 and 783 in sequence, and the meaning is obvious. Tupitsyn plays a similar trick with the book’s content. Though the book is ostensibly a work of film criticism, it does not contain anything that resembles a conventional movie review. Instead, it appropriates what social media specializes in — quotations, personal reactions, biographical revelations, and commentary about pop culture — and turns them into something more ambitious. The different fragments are not so much about film as they are about how Tupitsyn watches film. As she puts it, the book “dramatizes the act of thinking through film.”

Reality Hunger and Laconia are very different books, but they share this desire to use fragmentary writing to dramatize the act of thinking through culture (in Shields’ case mostly books, in Tupitsyn’s mostly films). Even this desire has its roots in the digital world, where culture is constantly being repackaged and analyzed. If neither work achieves the majesty of Beckett’s Texts — to be fair, an obscenely high standard — both find an approach to fragmentary writing that pushes the form in a new direction, rather than just rehashing modernism’s innovations. They manage this by drawing on digital forms — Shields by creating a “collage” that mimics the mash-up culture that dominates online media, Tupitsyn by writing her book via Twitter. In so doing, they suggest an interesting new path for both writers and readers, one that takes the clutter of the digital world and transforms it into something quieter and more thoughtful.

It’s not that fragmentary writing is the only acceptable form of writing today — I have no intention of breaking this essay into tweets — but it is the form best suited to address the conundrum Carr is so concerned about in The Shallows. We all read online, and the rise of smartphones, tablets, and e-readers means we will be doing so even more. This means we will all be spending ever more time reading with a medium that encourages distracted, fragmented reading. Fragmentary writing — work that accumulates fragments of text and presents them in a way that encourages introspection and contemplation — seems like a logical response to that experience. And that makes me incredibly curious to see where people will take it.

Image credit: Unsplash/CHUTTERSNAP.

Celebrating St. Crispin’s Day

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We need more literary holidays. Right now we have Bloomsday, and that’s about it. As great as Ulysses may be, we’re missing out on plenty of other books that lend themselves to an annual celebration. For what it’s worth, I want to claim today (October 25) for readers. A lot of people don’t know it, but today is already a holiday — St. Crispin’s Day. In theory, it’s meant to honor a Christian martyr named Crispin, but for me the day belongs to William Shakespeare and his play Henry V. The drama’s most memorable scene is the title character’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech, in which he rallies the British army to face off against a larger French force on the Feast of St. Crispin.

And there are lots of ways we can celebrate it. After all, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech is one of the best inspirational speeches in literature, and it was written by the most famous dramatist in the history of the English language. It practically demands to be read aloud. People could even perform it at home and post it on You Tube. As for myself, I am celebrating by simply reading the play — and thinking about the king at the center of it.

The St. Crispin’s Speech is not only great theater, it is Henry’s defining moment as a character. In it, he brushes aside concerns that his troops are outnumbered by declaring, “The fewer men, the greater share of honor” and insisting that anyone afraid to fight should leave because “We would not die in that man’s company/That fears his fellowship to die with us.” He slowly works these two threads — glory and fellowship — together throughout the address:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.
Henry is playing on his men’s desire for acclaim, telling them that they will be seen as heroes back home, “Familiar in his mouth as household words.” He doesn’t stop there, however. The speech culminates not only with Henry’s most famous line, but also with his boldest promise:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…
Though it is a remarkable piece of rhetoric, inspiring his men to an unexpected victory at the Battle of Agincourt, the attentive reader or playgoer will notice that it is transparently untrue. After all, the play is called Henry V for a reason — because it is Henry, and Henry alone, who is remembered for the victory at Agincourt. The men that make up his “band of brothers” are almost all unnamed in the play and have been forgotten by history. They are fighting for Henry’s glory, not their own. Henry readily admits, “if it be a sin to covet honour,/I am the most offending soul alive.” His speech is a means to that end — he is rallying his troops because he needs them to make himself famous. He is lying to them even as he asks them to give up their lives on his behalf.

As W.B. Yeats observes, “(Henry) is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows.” Yeats is referring especially to the fate of Bardolph, Henry’s erstwhile friend who is executed by a British officer — with the king’s approval — over a petty theft. What’s most striking about the scene is his coldness about giving the order, saying, “We would have all such offenders so cut off.”

Henry’s treatment of his friends is revealing. Bardolph dies because Henry wants to maintain total discipline in his ranks. Friendship and mercy do not produce victories, so Henry discards them. In the two parts of Henry IV — a pair of earlier plays focused on Henry’s youth — Prince Hal (as he was then known) is a friendly, jovial man, often playing pranks on Bardolph and their mutual friend John Falstaff. Now he is calculating and cruel. In Henry V’s first act, we learn that Falstaff has died of grief after being cast aside by Henry as a political liability. This is especially poignant because in Henry IV, Part One, Falstaff sets himself up as Henry’s one connection to humanity, warning the prince, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

What the execution of Bardolph illustrates is that Henry has indeed “banished all the world,” and done so willingly. He does not have a single conversation in the entire play that doesn’t further his ambitions; he has no friends, no emotional attachments of any kind. All this is done in the service of becoming a “great” man. By some measures, it works. His willingness to say anything to his subjects makes him a great manipulator of emotions, which in turn makes him an effective public speaker. His single-minded pursuit of glory makes him a brave soldier, willing to throw himself into battle alongside his troops if that’s what it takes to impress them. Most importantly, from Henry’s point of view, he is successful — not only conquering France but also seducing the nation’s princess, Katherine, which should ensure that his offspring would inherit the French throne. Henry is a winner, and as he points out in his battlefield address, history remembers winners.

But it is one thing to remember a man; it is another to honor him. The play subtly makes the case that winners aren’t necessarily worth honoring — that greatness is a paltry thing. The poet W. H. Auden says it best: “Hal has no self.” He is incapable of reflection; he wants and he acts and that is all. If to lodge himself in people’s memory, he needs to invade another country on flimsy pretexts, then he does it without a second thought. He will also execute a friend for a relatively minor offense to set an example. He will even promise a woman he has never seen before that he is in love with her in the hopes of adding another title to his own. By showing us the emptiness and selfishness underlying Henry’s noble words and brave deeds, the play warns us to be leery of great speeches, great men, and even great victories.

Henry’s triumph at Agincourt brings no benefit to the English nation. The whole reason his force is so small is because most of his troops are needed back home to prevent a split among the English nobles from turning into a full-fledged rebellion — a split that Henry makes no effort to heal. His friends either end up dead, like Falstaff and Bardolph, or disillusioned. And students of British history know that Henry’s son, Henry VI, will not be able to hold his father’s empire together, and that Henry’s heirs will never truly rule France. Though Henry is acclaimed as a hero at the play’s end, it’s clear the only beneficiary of his heroism is himself. He is a walking statue — emotionless, rigid, and of no practical value to anyone.

In Henry V, Shakespeare offers us an opportunity to see the horror that results from pursuing winning only for its own sake. This is why St. Crispin’s Day ought to belong to Shakespeare’s play, and not the historical Henry’s battle. Because by reading, rereading, or simply thinking about the play, we are reminded that there is often a difference between the achievements that usually get remembered and the achievements that actually make people’s lives better. In a sense, the best counterpoint to Henry is Shakespeare himself, who has managed to take a shallow, dishonest man and turn him into the subject of a profound, candid work of art. That’s the kind of accomplishment I want to celebrate.

Who’s with me?