Friday, March 11, 2016

The League of Intrepid Readers

It is no sin to write, or to read, a book that demands one's full attention for a week or so before opening its kimono ... and no great virtue to write, or to read, a book that offers coitus on the first date.

We need more books, I think, that kiss us goodnight, close the door and expect us to be the one who makes the next move.

Stupidity is more fashionable than it should be. We need books that mess with us a little bit. With Trump in power, with demagogues on the rise everywhere, with new religiously-fueled variations on McCarthyism more stylish every day in every nominally secular state, with extremists in the Middle East burning down libraries and extremists in the US demanding that store clerks say "Merry Christmas" instead of "Happy Holidays," such books -- books that puzzle us, books that refuse to pose simple questions with simple answers, books designed make us stop and think -- are more important than ever.

The world is shutting down its collective mind, rewarding ignorance, rewarding fear. We need more intrepid readers, and we need them now.

All the books that really mattered to me have kissed me goodnight early and sent me away, the better to test my mettle. To see whether I was brave enough to return.

All those books confused me at first, then beguiled me until I finished them -- or imagined I had finished them.

Once I had completed my first pass, all those books demanded a second read, a closer read than the first. In fact, all of them refused to be considered "finished" at all. They demanded a lifetime's worth of attention. For me, such books include:

  • Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
  • Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
  • The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Proprietor, Robert Coover
  • Possession, A. S. Byatt
  • Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
  • And Shakespeare of course, who wrote most of his plays for not one but two audiences: those willing to pay to see his plays performed once ... and the performers in his ensemble he knew would perform (and therefore experience) the plays over and over and over, gaining insights with each new encounter with the material. It was two actors from his company, we must remember, who saw to it that the complete plays were published in a single volume.

The list could go on, but you get the point. The books that define us are like the people who define us: they are the ones we commit to. The ones who test how willing we are to show a little patience. To return.

  • An intrepid reader is not afraid of a book that takes its time to reveal its world on its own terms.
  • An intrepid reader is not afraid of a book that demands to be read, and rewards being read, a second or third time. 
  • If you have no fear of these kinds of books, welcome to the League of Intrepid Readers. 
  • Here at the League, we believe we should never apologize for writing, or reading, a book that keeps its secrets until the reader has gotten to know it a little better. 

Our times demand functioning human minds. In times like these, times when we are all likely to be pressured sooner or later, and probably sooner, to shift our collective brain into neutral, I begin to wonder whether it is morally defensible to read, or write, a book that puts out on the first date.