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Over at, Linda Holmes has written an essay calling for all of us NPR listeners (and New Yorker readers, and so on) to recognize the fact that we will never be able to read everything we want to. Nor will we be able to listen to or watch everything on our cultural bucket lists. It is just plain numbers, she says. (How many books can you read in a month, how many months will you live if you live to be 85, what number does that give you? It’s not enough)

Holmes differentiates reactions to this realization into two categories: culling and surrendering. In the former, people take a determined stance to reduce what they consider worthy of attention: I will not watch TV, it is all trash. And while “The Real Wives of Orange County” is likely no great loss to them, they may have really enjoyed “Mad Men” or old Poirot mysteries on A&E or the Superbowl. They won’t know, though, because they have culled TV from their cultural consumption. Dale’s previous post on all the books he won’t read falls (somewhat shakily) into this category: Jane Austen is not worth his time. (Don’t throw things at him. I know she’s a good writer but I am also pretty convinced he can live a happy existence without reading Pride and Prejudice.)

Surrender is the strategy Holmes herself appears to advocate. In this frame of mind, we are completely aware that WE ARE GOING TO MISS SOME GREAT SHIT and we just have to be ok with that. So, for example, if Dale dies without having read Die Blechtrommel or Doktor Faustus (both of which he will not, he tells me, ever read), that does not make him a less-well-read individual. He just knows that there is a finite amount of literature he is going to ingest and he wants to enjoy what he does read and not beat himself about the head and shoulders for not reading Thomas Mann’s greatest novel.

Holmes reminds us that being “well read” is not a destination at which you arrive. It is a process. Are you interested in the cultural production of the world in which you live? How big is that world? I feel compelled to know a bit about what is going on in contemporary German literature, as well as on the US literary market. My desire for an expanded world reduces, in pure page volume, the percentage of what I can know of each. If your cultural wold is the American Midwest in poetry in the twentieth century, you can probably hope to read most of its literary output before you die.

As a professor of literature, I have a bit of difficulty with the surrender notion. We in black, with our Foucault oder Bhaba tucked under our arms, are generally more inclined to talk like the cullers: who me, watch sports? ick. Not worth it when I could be reading Kant. Surrender implies that we know that we cannot know everything and that someone out there will have read more of x, y, or z than we and then we aren’t experts after all and aaaaaaaahhhhhhh. . . . . . .

But deep down inside I have surrendered to the knowledge that I’m just not going to get to it all, nor should I try. I want to always be reading something and am very pleased that the past year or so has meant a return to pleasure reading for me. I’m working through the books that I bought at the MLA, as well as some genre fiction, and have started writing a story of my own. (shhhh) And, in solidarity with Dale, I will now list the Books I Will Not Read (with a healthy side dish of Books I Have Given Up On):

Tolstoy, War and Peace (I brought this with me to Hamburg when I spent my junior year of college abroad. My logic was: I will miss reading English but don’t want to pay a premium for buying British paperbacks. I’ll bring THIS GINORMOUS book and it will tide me over for months and months.) Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know squat about Russia in the nineteenth century and was totally confused about why they were all speaking French and how in the hell in Napoleon get there, anyway? I gave up about 1/4 way through it and know that I just can’t bear to trudge through all of those pages again.

And if I’m really honest here, I’m going to just clump all sorts of Russian literature together and say: won’t get to it. Someone told me to read The Master and Margarita a couple summers ago (blog post here) and I enjoyed it. But it didn’t make me yearn for more.

I’ll also agree with Dale on Faulkner. If any of you read my post on The Sound and the Fury, you’ll know why. Ick.

Autobiographies of any political figure, ever. Clinton, Bush, Bush, Obama, Rumsfeld, whoeverthehellyouare: I don’t care. Reading what you would have to say about the world would spike my blood pressure. I also don’t need to read Master & Commander-style narratives that talk about the political or military exploits of those who never got around to writing their autobiographies.

Any book with the words “chicken soup” in the title, unless it actually involves a dead chicken and a pot of water with veggies.

I am sure there are more. Oh yes, I am sure. But right now I’ve got to run and read more Sookie Stackhouse 🙂


Written by Jennifer

April 20, 2011 at 9:14 pm

Drama Queen

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The Theatre (capital letter intentional) is not my milieu. In Hamburg (location of primo German theater houses), I once walked out during the intermission of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard. I couldn’t bear to watch those women just languishing around on daybeds any more. I frequently find live theater too stilted or too overblown or too “too” (as my mother would say) in a way I can’t always put my finger on. And then there is my tendency to want to analyze what I’m seeing or reading. Maybe theater moves to fast for my ability to analyze narrative? Even when I read dramas, though, I frequently feel like I’m missing some larger point that the playwright incorporated.

I’m beginning to adjust my views. We watched the HBO version of Kushner’s Angels in America earlier this week and I pondered a bit the ways in which the screenplay author Kushner took the playwright Kushner’s text and adapted it for the screen. He retained so many obviously theatrical elements in the film version–I could just see the angels on wires above the stage in my mind’s eye–and that, in turn, got me to thinking about what makes drama drama and film film.

The Angel saying: “I, I, I, I am the Continental Principality” sounded, to my ears, like some sort of code. A new jargon for a novel literary or dramatic theory. All those syllables–it must mean something. . . .mysterious. So I kept watching, keeping my eyes peeled for the theme, the moment, that would tie the whole business together and explain to me what the hell a principality was and why she wanted Prior to slow down, stop moving forward. So I was rather surprised when the theme, the message, the moment turned out to be: don’t ever stop moving forward; keep progress alive; don’t accept the status quo. Of course I’m willing to concede to others out there more familiar with the work than I am that there is a lot more going on in the film (Jewish male identity could be its own dissertation here, I’m thinking)–but progress is a key issue in the piece.

After I was done saying: “is that all? is it that obvious?” it occured to me that drama–a genre written for live performance on a stage in front of an audience with a limited attention span–likely cannot afford complex theoretical narrative within the work itself (it can be informed by complex theory, of course, but is not likely to reproduce complex ideas in a narrative/dialogic way on stage) simply because it moves to fast for the audience to follow such a dialog/monolog/etc. The “too much” of drama that occasionally irritates me might just be the visual representation of the complex issues in the drama that don’t have space in the dialog.

In other words: maybe I haven’t been missing something because I’m too slow. Perhaps I’ve missed things because I haven’t been willing to integrate the visual with the narrative to form a complex picture of what is going on in the work. Angels in America totally blew me away. Knocked my socks off. It’s amazing–well acted, well directed, clever as all hell–and maybe changed the way I look at theater by being a little bit of theater brought to the silver screen.

Written by Jennifer

January 15, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Posted in film, movie reviews

Tagged with , ,

How it went

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Belatedly, I review for you The Company of Wolves.

Sheesh that sucked. Sucked hard. The film actually held faithful to the plot of the Angela Carter short story, (which, incidentally, I had misremembered. Alice is another LRRH-Wolf tale by Carter, but not the one meant here) but boy howdy did they not know quite what to do with fairy tales and special effects.  Yikes. Stay away.

Written by Jennifer

May 26, 2008 at 10:19 pm

Posted in movie reviews