Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Brilliantly Bewildering

There had been an older gentleman in that summer English class. Well, if one could call someone a "gentleman" who thought Daisy Dukes was appropriate college wear. Saw more of him than I ever wanted to. 

Anywho, the professor's policy was to have us exchange papers and critique the others' work; I chose to ignore the comments on mine. At one point, I was handed the fellow's paper. 

It was incomprehensible. I revel in polysyllabic words, but this was above and beyond. And it went on for pages, pages and pages, way more than the teacher required. Even she looked a tad dazed when faced with his offering. 

Same thing with books. "Oh, I found it amaaazing," many will enthuse. Yes, but did you understand it? "Um, well, you have to understand it was a metaphor . . . or something." 
Once, I would have felt unsure of my intelligence when reading something along the lines of Short-Shorts' paper. But then I realized (before coming across the article) that we often mistake inaccessibility for brilliance
Zoë Heller: Some writers compose convoluted, hard-to-read sentences because they don’t have the chops to make simpler ones. Some use 10-cent words just to show that they know them. The reader who assumes that abstruse prose is clever prose, or that there is a reliable correlation between opacity and depth, is bound to waste a lot of time on writing that doesn’t deserve it. She is also liable to end up praising works that confound her, for fear of being revealed as a dimwit if she confesses her perplexity. 
Leslie Jamison: There are silly ways of mistaking inaccessibility for brilliance. It can become some literary version of always wanting the lover who doesn’t want you; the flip side of Groucho Marx’s truism about not wanting to be part of any club that would have you for a member. You worship the one that wouldn’t have you instead.
However, both respond with the importance of stick-to-it-iveness, a dying commodity in this day and age. Heller expresses frustration that her children refuse her book selections because they are, initially, too slow a read. 
I have hit that same wall of "I'm not entertained this second" with the kinfauna, hurling book after book after their bakveimpt backs.  
Heller: Old people like me believe we are at a slight advantage when it comes to readerly perseverance, because we did our formative reading in an age before technology began destroying attention spans. 
As for Jamison, she describes her initial experience tackling a daunting work, and the shame of her inability to "get it." But when she doggedly attempted again, this time with a 50-page-a-day commitment, her perspective shifted: 
That month of commitment ended up mattering not because I was always immersed but because I often wasn’t, and kept reading anyway — because I was perpetually recommitting myself to the novel, and because that recommitment was an act with great wingspan and grit. I was invited into a different understanding of what authentic literary absorption might look like: neither struggle nor bliss but a strange weave of the two; not completely “losing myself” in a book but feeling myself more deeply in the act of reckoning with it — becoming aware of my own attention, becoming an agent in its application.
Yet there we part company. After struggling through more than one tome claiming that I "won't let it get the better of me," I've decided life is too short and books are too many to waste my self-discipline on a tale that does not appeal. 


Daniel Saunders said...

You should read Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language. He complains a lot about people using long words to hide what they mean and has six rules for writing clear English.

What is 'bakveimpt'? I've mentioned that my Yiddish is limited!

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. As a teacher, I go against the official party line in telling my students to use adjectives etc sparingly. I so disagree with the teachers who have their students use any and every possible verb rather than "said" i.e. smirked, smiled,chuckled, barked, muttered etc. Which by the way is overdone in frum lit, too, imo. (Along with having characters wiggle eyebrows, bite lips, shake their heads, and smirk. Not sure why but just abt every story in all the frum magazines way overuse these phrases.)

Altie said...

Throughout college, anytime someone mentioned a book that I had not read but thought I should have already read, I would jot down the title. The list is quite long, and daunting. One professor told us he used to do the same thing as a student. He felt like an outsider, always missing the references. So one summer he decided to read a book a week. And now he's an English professor.

I took out "The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy" from the library, and the librarian looked at it and said, "I could never get through that book". For me, reading it was more about being 'in' on the jokes, (especially the meaning of the number 42), but it was really about my own insecurities, the people I hung out with, the persona I thought I should project.

I agree with you that there is no point in forcing yourself to read a book that you don't understand or enjoy, just so you could sit on the subway and show the world how sophisticated you are. I guess there are some classics that just passed me by, but I'm working on enjoying the books that I enjoy without worrying what the world thinks about it.

Princess Lea said...

DS: It literally means "comfortable." These kids today (oh, wow, I'm now that person) expect to be entertained every second.

Anon: Yes, exactly, there's always "smirked" in frum lit! Even when it's not apropos! Gets on my nerves.

Altie: I'm smothered by one of those lists, too. But I decided to take them out sparingly, lost in the shuffle of my other titles that I would prefer to read first.

I didn't realize THGGTTG was a cult icon when I read it; I LOVED it. It's more about it being a satire than a work of sci-fi. Marvin the Paranoid Android is my particular favorite.

I'm now trying to shed shame in all areas. I don't have to volunteer all my quirks, but if asked, I will forthrightly state, instead of blush.