Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Why i don't read proper books

Here's the vid:

As you may be aware, i don't read "proper" books, by which i mean the likes of Dickens, Lessing, Steinbeck, Hemingway, whomever.  Also, notoriously, i never read poetry, which considering that i'm married to a poet might seem to be a bit problematic.  The above video should serve as an illustration of why.  When i read a book with convincing, realistic-seeming plots, characters and settings, it makes absolutely no sense to me.  Or rather, it appears to make perfect sense but when i come to discuss it with anyone else i find that they have had insights that i haven't had or it's meant something to them which it hasn't to me, and furthermore, others tend to agree broadly on what it means or what insights they've gained.

There was a time when things were different.  Up until i was about seventeen, i was "normal" in my response to novels and poetry.  I wasn't intimidated or overcome by a sense of obscurity.  They just made sense, and the sense they made to me was shared with others.  When i had insights which others hadn't, they often came round to my opinion of them after discussion and seemed to be perceived as meaningful or in some way more advanced than others, or maybe refreshing, I have no idea.  I found the O-level Eng Lit syllabus easy but stimulating and i was happy to read whatever.  The literary canon held no terrors for me and i got one of the highest grades in O-level English at my school, although of course all of that may not be terribly significant because anyone can parrot stuff they're taught.

This even continued up until the point where i applied for university - my initial choice of course was English and Philosophy.  However, for some reason at about the age of seventeen, there was a sudden failure of nerve.  The A-level English Lit syllabus and approach made no sense at all to me, practical criticism seemed to assume there was some kind of common humanity or universality which was entirely alien to me, and of course if it was alien, it wasn't universal because i am human.  Therefore i ran away from literature, abandoned my attempts to pursue it at degree level and abandoned it completely forever.

Now, you might ask me why this matters.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and if you don't "get" something it needn't destroy you.  It's also the case that i have no trouble following and appreciating drama even in the form of scripts, and also have considerable insight into other art forms such as music (which is however dangerously emotionally manipulative, but that's another melody) and painting.  Unfortunately, for literature this is not so, and here's why.

More than anything else, humans are language-users.  The fact that i reject Chomsky's views and think we've stumbled upon it is irrelevant - it still makes us what we are.  Without language, we are trapped in our own worlds, can't benefit from others' wisdom and can only help or communicate to a very limited extent.  Whereas emotion can go some way to transcend that, language is part of that emotional expression.  Look at feral children.  They're an example of what we'd be without language.

Now the highest expression of language is literature.  Poetry, novels and other works of art express and communicate humanity better and more appropriately than any other form of expression or art.  Whereas there are other expressions, they all depend on language to advance and be sustained.  Dance for example would not get very far without it.  Nor would technology.

Therefore, if one fails to appreciate literature, it really, genuinely does make one an inferior, inadequate human being to a much greater degree than any other failure.  I am about to  choose a hackneyed cliche of a metaphor because of this very failing:  i am a flightless bird in a world of birds which can fly, and a mute bird in a world of songbirds.  I am a fish which can't swim, a solitary termite (also known as a cockroach), a barren and blighted leafless tree.  I am literally less than human because of this deficiency, and there is no way back from this realisation.  Prowess in any other area is unimportant compared to this lack.  It makes me necessarily inferior, because humans are language-using primates and i cannot use language to the full.  It's a biological fact.

Nor can i blame this on my schooling, which is the reason for many such problems in others, as if there could be a failure to compare to this one.  In my mid-teens, this was not an issue.  I "got" things better than anyone i knew, including my teachers, although clearly i was hampered somewhat by lack of life experience.  However, something happened when i was seventeen which destroyed that and it's gone forever.  It's like being blinded.  It has nothing to do with confidence or boredom.  I can approach a piece of work without fear of failure and express my reaction to it, and i can guarantee that that reaction will have nothing in common with anyone else's.  When i read a story or a poem, i write my own and i can't see beyond it.  The only way i could express my appreciation of a work of literature would be to photocopy it.  I might as well go through it, cross out all the O's and count them.

I don't really know where i'm going with this.  If i could end this properly and neatly, i wouldn't have this problem.  I just wish i knew what had happened, why i died inside without even noticing and why every time i have to confront a "proper" piece of writing it feels like i'm slicing open my innards and rubbing bleach into them, but that is how it feels.  A total, devastating sense of inferiority from which there can be no recovery.

It's all very well being able to heal the sick and raise the dead, and you can be as compassionate and competent, and as intuitive as you like, but if you don't appreciate poetry you might as well never have been born.  That's how i feel about myself anyway.  I wouldn't impose that on anyone else, but face it:  that's the truth.