Monday, July 3, 2017

Deciding what (and what not) to read

"Seriously," Carla was saying, "have you read all of these books?"

"All the paperbacks. About half of the hard stuff. For instance, I have yet to read Proust, but I have of course read The Adventurers."
Jincy Willett, The Writing Class

I love that exchange in Jincy Willett's novel The Writing Class. Carla visits the home of Amy Gallup, her creative writing instructor and asks the dreaded question: Have you read all these books. More candid than most of us would be, Amy says she has read all the paperbacks and half of the hardbacks and, of the latter, she has read The Adventurers but nothing by Proust. And I love the phrase "of course." As if, who wouldn't read Harold Robbins before Marcel Proust?

I have never read anything by either of those writers and never expect to, but if The Adventurers and Swann's Way were the only options on my proverbial desert island, I have no doubt that I would read Robbins first, then hope the rescue party found me before I had to start Proust. Most of us most of the time will read a bad book that's fun and easy to follow before tackling a great book that is difficult to understand. It's like playing a game of solitaire before settling down to work at our computer or eating the steak before the asparagus.

It's much the same with movies. I own DVDs of both King Ralph, the silly John Goodman comedy, and Red, the French film by the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Red is by far the better film, but I have watched it but once. It takes some effort to follow, and one must read subtitles besides. King Ralph, by contrast, provides effortless entertainment and is always good for a few laughs. I have watched it numerous times.

Most of us, including college writing instructors (and perhaps even literature professors) will pick a thriller, mystery or romance over even a middlebrow serious novel most of the time. My practice of having several books in progress at the same time is my way fighting this tendency I find in myself. At present, for example, I am reading a Will Thomas mystery, The Hellfire Conspiracy, for light reading and Cousin Henry by Anthony Trollope for literary reading, while Jincy Willet's novel, sort of a literary mystery, falls somewhere in between. Of course, I end up reading more of the lighter stuff simply because they make faster reading. I can usually read two chapters in Thomas for every one I read in Trollope. But the point is, I'm still reading Trollope.

I'll have more to say on this subject next time.

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