Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Joy of Books!

Our book today is Eric Burns' The Joy of Books, and it underscores a point I've made before: the most curious thing about good reading is how little good writing there is about it. Not that Burns' book is bad – not thoroughly bad, not bad straight through. But its subject sometimes brings out the very worst in him, as it tends to do in virtually every person who sits down to write about it (present company, I trust we can agree, excepted). Burns had a career as a journalist before he paused to woolgather this book, and not just any journalist but a readable one – a very small coterie! But the watchwords of that earlier profession – concision, incision, revision, derision, those sorts of watchwords – were blithely abandoned when he decided to collect a book of musings about What Reading Means To Me.

They always are. I've got a long shelf full of books written in the 20th century about the specific situation of being in love with reading (somehow, I can't imagine such books existing at the end of the 21st century – can anybody really love reading electronically? Even if they can, the 'long shelf full' will be gone, replaced by a file list … as long as your electric bill is paid, that is, and provided your provider doesn't decide to reach out and yank stuff off your device for legal, quasi-legal, or the-hell-of-it reasons), and virtually all of them bear no resemblance to the writing their authors did prior to tackling that subject.

One of the problems is that, like Burns, most of these authors wait too long. Burns writes from his fifties, with two kids and most of his career behind him. He talks about how revivifying reading is for him, but The Joy of Books is as maudlin an act of nostalgia (playin' stickball and watchin' Uncle Miltie make their dutiful appearances, and endless childhood summers are invoked) as a leisurely stroll through yellowed old photo albums. That always happens in books like this: their ostensible purpose is to praise the way books stay vital and effective in our mental lives, but their end effect is to make them seem like just another much-missed feature of a simpler, now-vanished past. At one point in The Joy of Books, Burns watches his young son settle under a tree and commence reading Peter Pan (a childhood favorite of Burns', naturally), but there's no joy of reading in the description – instead, watching the boy blow on a blade of grass or climb around in the tree before settling to read, Burns is clearly just missing his own boyhood, not thrilling to the fact that his kid is about to read a great little book.

So what's wrong with a little nostalgia, you might ask? Not much. But there's quite a bit wrong with a whole freakin' LOT of nostalgia, especially when it's combined – as it always is – with willful credulity. The combination prompts Burns to arias like this:
If, as Ezra Pound has said, literature is “news that stays news,” why are Flaubert and Balzac on the front pages of newspapers, Hardy and Dickens not on the covers of magazines, E.B. White and Truman Capote not on the tips of tongues where reasonable men and women congregate? Why not Anne Tyler on “Nightline,” “20/20” looking clearly at John Le Carre, “48 Hours” devoting at least that much time to Doris Kearns Goodwin?

When a former newsman assumes a lachrymose tone of writing and asks idiotic questions like that, you know one thing for certain: he's too busy setting up straw men to even think about what reading really does, or is, or can be (the straw man Geiger counter is always the summoning of a definition from “Webster's Collegiate Dictionary” - it's to be abhorred as a sure sign that the writer in question is mainly just yammering; Burns does it only three times in The Joy of Books).

There's some good, fun stuff here, of course – Burns can be an interesting common-touch writer, as when he laments the fleeting riches that afflict most of the literary world (then or now):
Maybe a writer can finagle a $30,000 advance for a book, but it will take him so long to write that his hourly rate works out to about the same as the guys who stuff the rodent remains into all-beef hot dogs. Maybe a magazine will pay him $2000 for an article, but by the time the check is in the mail. His is $3000 overdrawn at the bank and too depressed to start his next piece. Maybe a women's club will cough up $500 for a luncheon speech, but the chicken will be tough and the vegetables limp and in the question-and-answer period the ladies will find out that he and John Irving got drunk together one night after a seminar they were conducting on the future of the novel in the post-literate society and will hound him unmercifully for insights on Garp.

And he has the good sense to conclude his book with a list of books – lists of books, no matter whose, no matter where, are always good things. But for the most part, The Joy of Books is yet another misfire, yet another failed volume on the long shelf of books that are allegedly trying to anatomize this thing that gives us all so much pleasure. And maybe that's the problem: real books don't give pure, simple pleasure, and real readers don't look for it from the books they read … books are active company, sometimes joyful, yes, but sometimes aggravating or unsettling. Readers actively engaged in the daily grip of reading (as opposed to warmly, fuzzily remembering readin' under the tree down by the crick) wouldn't have it any other way.

Still, fair warning to Burns: if I ever get around to writing my own book on reading, I'm swiping his title just the same. Despite everything, I like its simplicity.

1 comment:

thom said...

is it available in epub formatting?