Just Books

For almost three years now, I have sporadically been reading classic works (or at least really old works) of literature and reporting on them here at LitKicks for the Jamelah Reads the Classics series. So far, I’ve read and reported on several books. (At present, I’m still quasi-working on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Maybe I’ll be done with that by June.)

It’s been an interesting experience, and I’ve encountered books that I’ve enjoyed, and books that have made me want to claw out my eyes, as one would when undertaking such a project. My reason for embarking on the Jamelah Reads the Classics series was a simple one — there are a lot of books in the world, and maybe I should make a concerted effort to read some of the ones I haven’t gotten to yet. Easy as that. So that’s what I’ve been doing, simply as a reader, not as a scholar or a snob or anything. Just to read.

Back in my student days, I spent literature course after literature course analyzing novels and stories and poems for statements about race, class and gender, and I remember telling a friend that reading had become so much work, because, I said “I can’t just read a book. I always have to be on the lookout for what it all MEANS.” He replied that maybe I was still enjoying literature, just in a different way, but I remained dubious. And it only got worse when I got serious about writing, because then, not only was I constantly analyzing every line of everything for some hidden meaning, I was also paying close attention to the way everything was written and thinking about why these writers chose to write the things they did. It got exhausting, and I didn’t want to read anymore.

But once a reader, always a reader, and over time, I figured out that hey, nobody’s making me write papers about this stuff, so I can kind of, you know, just read it. Which is what I do. And when it comes to reading the classics, I’ve found that they’re infinitely more enjoyable when I read them like they’re regular books, which, it turns out, they are. This may not seem like news, at least not on the surface, yet over the years I’ve been writing my series on the classics I read, I’ve discovered that to some, classic works of literature aren’t just books, they are The Hallowed Classics and should be revered as such.

And this is where I get to the point, because when it comes to that opinion, I call bullshit.

At what point does a book lose its status as a book and become some sort of incontrovertible entity of greatness? After it’s survived for years and had people fawn over its brilliance for a generation or more? Ridiculous. Certainly, some books are indeed wonderful or powerful or great (or some or all of the above) but that does not raise them above opinion, and I don’t care if they’ve been around for 500 years or 5 minutes. Books are books. That’s all. Just books.

I wrote last week about how it’s a shame that some of the books that are good for us are sometimes so awfully dull, and it’s little fun to live on a literary diet of so-called healthy reading alone. It’s a position I stand by, though I didn’t get into the other point I wanted to make, which is that I don’t think we do classic literature any favors by not giving anybody any reason to read it other than it’s supposedly so great. Of course, opinions differ on what’s great and what’s not as great (as some of the comments on that post will attest), but “great” is not really all that descriptive. Why should I (or anyone) want to read something by someone who’s been dead for at least 100 years? Because it’s great? Why? Because. So shut up and eat your vegetables? Please.

So much so-called great literature does little more than sit on library shelves, and sure, people may think it’s great because that’s what they’ve been told to believe, but how often do people pick up (and finish reading), say, Don Quixote? Maybe if we’d stop treating classic literature like it’s some sort of rarefied untouchable thing and start treating it like it is what it really is — stuff meant to be consumed for entertainment — then more people might be interested in interacting with it. There’s enough stuff in the world competing for my attention, and I’m not going to read a book if I can’t enjoy it. If I can’t poke a stick at Dante or think Margery Kempe was completely fucking insane. And you know what? I really did think Anna Karenina was long and boring and I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. And so what? It’s just a book. They’re all just books. Not liking them, not reading them, not revering them like they’re sacred… well, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not on par with pushing strangers out into traffic or drowning puppies. For instance.

Every form of entertainment has its devoted superfans, and literature is no different, but nobody likes to talk about stuff with pretentious snobs (except maybe other pretentious snobs). I used to be a book snob, but I got over it, because for one thing, I think that’s something you’re supposed to do once you’re over the age of 25, and for another thing, when it comes down to it, reading is really nothing more than just another form of entertainment, and it doesn’t do any good to pretend like it’s something else.

33 Responses

  1. I think what happened is, Lit
    I think what happened is, Lit teachers needed to choose some good examples of well-written books, by whatever criteria, and it became easier to use the same lesson plan over & over. Years turned to decades, and decades to eras.

    Not only that, but I’ve often wondered if there was some politics going on. Like the pharmacy lab rep who supplies your family doctor with free samples of Nexium until that’s all he prescribes.


    “Not so fast, Ginsberg,” growls the Head of the English Department. “This isn’t the 19th Century! You can’t waltz in here the way Walt Whitman used to drop in at the Dean’s Office with a box of books, a bottle of wine, and a promise on his lips.
    You come back after you’ve incorporated, and when I have a few shares in my portfolio, maybe we can play ball.”

  2. To say that reading is just
    To say that reading is just another form of entertainment is like saying that making love is just another way of hanging out.

  3. This is an interesting post.
    This is an interesting post. I agree with the sentiment. There is another cant to the question though. Great works are not exciting or dull or vegetables or ice cream. They are true. Scott Turow wrote in the last NYTBR that something to the essence of ungreat works tell us something we know not to be the case. Ulysses is rigid but would you rather hear about unicorns? Poke Dante but get ready to get a poke back. Better to shake his hand.

  4. Amen, Jamelah … a-MEN! I
    Amen, Jamelah … a-MEN! I think discussion of literature would be a lot more palatable and welcoming if people just got over themselves once in a while. It certainly is a hell of a thing.

  5. Jamelah, I agree with you. I
    Jamelah, I agree with you. I have been there, done that and now am off it. As far as how books become classics – I think it’s simple. Bestseller of today, classics of the next age. I have read a lot of classics and recent ones and found no reason to stop reading one for the other. I know of a lot of readers who keep reading a book just to finish it, even if the reading becomes painful mid-way. I was one such reader. However, I have discovered that one must read whatever one feels like. Liking a book is very subjective and the same person might like to read a stuff at some point of time and find it stupid at another. We change, evolve, whatever…So do our likings.

    Look at it this way – a lot of contemporary literature will definitely become ‘classics’ later. For many of u, that ‘later’ might not be within lifetime. So why miss out on a potential classic of tomorrow for one of yesterday? I believe each one should have the right to tag a book as classic on his own.

  6. I agree with Brian. A great
    I agree with Brian. A great work, even if it is fiction, will embody truth in its theme, or message, or outlook. I don’t know if I’m using the right words to say what I mean.

  7. I think reading generally
    I think reading generally offers a LOT more than most other forms of entertainment…

    What about authors seeking the ‘higher truths’ and all that jazz? Think it’s all just a bullshit?

    Literature, for this reader, is both entertainment and philosophy. Films are once in awhile, music is sometimes… TV?

    I’m sorry, but my most prized books would most certainly find themselves classified as Art, not merely entertainment… at least by this bibliophile.

    The only real truth on the matter lies in the hands of the reader… but if all you really glean from your reading is entertainment, I can only feel sorry for you.

  8. Just stop reading, Jamelah.
    Just stop reading, Jamelah. You don’t seem to enjoy it much. It’s such a chore for you, it seems. Become functionally illiterate. Read only magazines. Watch a lot of TV. See how far that gets ya.

  9. Willful misinterpretations
    Willful misinterpretations aside, I do enjoy reading, but it’s just one of many things I enjoy. I do watch TV, and I read magazines. I also read several blogs. I watch films and I listen to a lot of music. And I read books. But like I already wrote more than once, they’re just another form of entertainment to me, and I don’t worship at the altar of literature. That doesn’t mean that I think reading is just so hard and I want to stop, but it does mean that to me, books are just books, and far more enjoyable when I think of them that way.

    Why in the world would thinking of literature as entertainment be offensive? (Or at least bothersome?) Aren’t we supposed to enjoy reading?

  10. I think you’re thinking of
    I think you’re thinking of something else… but then again you think you’re so beat and your poetry sucks.

  11. Well, my two cents is just
    Well, my two cents is just that after reading for fun all the time and then reading more closely and critically as a lit major in college, I now pretty much always read with a pen in hand. I do see that there’s a sense in which reading to “identify” critical “themes” and “elements” saps some of the fun out of literature, but I also think that close and careful reading tends to impart deeper understanding, and to separate bad books from good.

  12. Ah, the jejune jesuit

    Ah, the jejune jesuit

    This is interwsting:

    “Look at it this way – a lot of contemporary literature will definitely become ‘classics’ later.”

    What do people think are examples of this?

    I throw this out because I have no idea.

    I mean besides Henry’s Porter and the Worcestershire Sauce (and will that be a classic?).

  13. I just finished a book that I
    I just finished a book that I do believe will become known as a classic. It’s called City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer. It’s like H.P. Lovecraft and Steven Wright got lost in the House of Leaves and called on Borges to guide them out.

  14. great this or that is based
    great this or that is based on what? it reminds me of my weekly Friday night arguments of the greatest QB or SS or some other sports thing. I don’t want to go into the greatest ethnic food choices LOL LOL This stuff does massage the mind when being argued about. My only complaint is can something be great when it’s a chore or hard work to read or understand? I don’t mean in a context of understanding on an extremely low level but rather the idea of Moby Dick and Huck Finn being a joy to read and great rather then Joyce being a pain. Granted some may find Joyce a joy and Moby Dick pain which shoots down my total argument. Kinda like when I switch from Montana to Brady as being great QBs during my weekly Friday night etc Oh well arguing with one’s self is another point of argument.

  15. Serious writers write to
    Serious writers write to change the world. Please don’t minimalize that.

    Dude says to Aeschylus “I could write a dozen plays in the time it takes you to write one.” Aeschylus say “your words might be remembered for a few days. Mine will be remembered forever.”

  16. Jamelah, check this out.
    Jamelah, check this out.

    One year ago today, I picked up a couple of books by Milan Kundera, based on your glowing assessment of the man’s work. You called him “a builder of novels that are stunningly well put together.”

    I was not disappointed.

    Ironically, it was Kundera’s The Art of the Novel that blew me away. I started reading Immortality, which I recall was the one you liked to much, but never finished it.

    I find it interesting that Kundera seems elevate the reading of books, over and above mere entertainment (or is he only elevating the writing of books? It would seem to be both). He says, in The Art of the Novel, that a writer should “seek the poem hidden somewhere behind truth” and only as one finishes writing a novel do they see “that is to be discovered.” He refers to “that which is to be discovered” as the dazzlement.

    While I agree with Kundera’s elevated view of fiction, his novel Immortality did not hold my interest. Conversely, you compare reading with most other forms of entertainment, but you loved his Immortality.

    What does it all mean. I don’t know. It’s just one more thing about that.

  17. Okay, okay, okay. As much as
    Okay, okay, okay. As much as I’m enjoying reading arguments against opinions I don’t actually espouse, I figured I’d step in and explain again.

    Two things:

    1. No matter what its pages say, or how long those pages have existed, or who wrote those pages, a book is a book is a book. To take that further, a book is not a human being and you can’t hurt its feelings, so handling certain books (read: classics) with kid gloves is entirely pointless. Love them or hate them, mock them or revere them, whatever, they’re still just books. And maybe if we weren’t so serious about them, then people might be more likely to pick them up and read them and express opinions about them, because hey, yeah, THEY’RE JUST BOOKS.

    2. I seriously don’t get the objection to the word “entertainment” that I used when I wrote the post. Why is entertainment bad? Why is entertainment somehow some lesser thing? Why can’t you be entertained and intellectually stimulated at the same time? Has that never happened for anybody else before? Call me crazy, but I think using my brain IS entertaining. I LIKE to think. It’s FUN. Sometimes, yeah, I do like really lowbrow entertainment and I’m not even remotely apologetic for it, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t differentiate between different levels of entertainment and things that are smart and things that, well, aren’t. You can learn and be entertained at the same time, or at least I can, because I like to multitask.

    I believe that pretending that literature is some high, holy, untouchable thing that peons who enjoy being entertained can’t approach is damaging to literature as a whole. Why should literature be some sort of club that only intellectual snobs can join? Lame.

    And that is all. Carry on.

  18. I have no objection to
    I have no objection to calling books, even “classics” just another form of entertainment, but there is something hard to swallow about calling all books “just books”. I understand the idea and agree in principle, but its a bit like saying a house is just a house, when in reality a house that one has lived in is not just a house, and a house in which one has not only lived in but also had great experiences in should rightly be given special status.

  19. Literature is one of the few
    Literature is one of the few things that serves to elevate humanity. For instance, the power and truth of the Gulag Archipelago by its lonesome pretty much ended any romantic view an outsider might have of Russia under Lenin and Stalin and Kruschev. I think I understand what you are saying here, but some literature is truly just necessary…When there is justice and peace in the world, then music and movies might become the ultimate art form…but until then…

  20. I don’t object to the E! word
    I don’t object to the E! word at all!
    I get what you’re saying, Jamelah, and I don’t disagree. I was conversatin’ not debatin’ . . .

    and, I thought it was a funny coincidence, how I was searching the Litkicks archives for for that stuff about Kundera, and it just happened to be one year ago today. When fate hands me an opening line like that, I have to append something to it!

  21. It’s lame to say that books
    It’s lame to say that books are just books, nothing more. Consider…what you’d know without them. It’s lame to generalize art as a form of entertainment. It’s like saying prayer and churchgoing are forms of entertainment. It has nothing to do with snobishness or tomfoolery. The wretched uneducated poor were moved by Shakespeare. Not just entertained, but touched, transformed, made better. That’s what art is all about.

  22. No, this is good. Need more
    No, this is good. Need more of this.
    A book is a book. The Bible and Q’uran included. Books.

  23. “They’re just books”

    “They’re just books”

    Um… what? I think that’s beside the point. The book itself is merely a vessel for the ———… sure, a book is just a book, but a piece of literature can be something special beyond words… I’d go as far to say that some works are a lot ‘greater’ than the authors that penned them…

  24. In the begining was the
    In the begining was the ‘word’ its still happening. A ‘jejune jesuit’ don’t we just love a holy paradox, or even a holey pair of socks hand knitted on the right wrong feet. Writing’s like breathing, it just happens the problems begin when it stops.

  25. i think jamelah is just tired
    i think jamelah is just tired of reading ulysses 😛

  26. Well I know I’m a bit late,
    Well I know I’m a bit late, but I felt that I had to comment on this anyway. People obviously all have different tastes; I think that the best comparison to make to this argument is food. Many people consider oysters on the half shell to be a true delicacy, and they are considered by many to be an aphrodisiac. I for one really like them… now. At first I thought that they were disgusting and felt like I was swallowing a big fat loogie. But as I tried more of them I discovered that the flavors are subtle and range from tasting of melons to minerals. To the trained tongue you can usually even tell what part of the world and in which waters the oyster was caught. I get pleasure out of eating them now, because I know how to pick out the flavors I like and ignore the texture that makes me gag, but many think that they still taste like snot. And who can blame them? After all, I too think that a raw oyster is kind of like a big cold ball of phlegm, and yeah that’s pretty disgusting.

    Books are a lot like this, I for one loved Anna Karenina, but I hate just about everything I have ever read of Hemingway. I just don’t enjoy him, I find his books boring. They don’t suit my palette and don’t bring me any “entertainment.” Just like Anna is as boring as can be to others.

    But like many kinds of food, certain authors and books are an acquired taste. I for one had to read many books in college that bored me to tears, until I read them with pen in hand, delved deeper into their meaning and saw that while on the surface they looked like a ball of snot, underneath they had a subtle flare and with careful inspection I too could find flavors and elements that I liked, and even to a large extent enjoyed.

    So I’m going to keep testing Hemingway out, I won’t spend a large amount of my reading time on him, but I’ll give him another chance to see if I can acquire the taste and find enjoyment and meaning where there once was none.

  27. I do not understand why we
    I do not understand why we beome so defensive about what we like. I may consider some of Roth’s books as art and you my consider it porn. But should that offend me? I don’t think so. Will I want to convince you why I consider it art? Well, mostly, unless you are too stubborn.

    I guess the point of this post was to express that one must have the liberty to say I did not like Dostoevsky. Despite the fact that there must be millions around them who love him and consider him the deepest author that ever was (including me, by the way). The point was to say that classics do not deserve to be beyond criticism. I agree totally. I think some of the comments in the later half of the discussion has gone off track and defensive of art and literature. I do not think Jamelah ever said that literature cannot be art. For that matter, who says art cannot be entertainment?

    I think we need to remember what Voltaire said about Rousseau, “I do not agree with a word you say. But I will defend to death your right to say it.”

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