Friday, August 24, 2012

Too Open Minded?

On the surface it may seem that I am too open minded about books and authors. A sentiment often heard is that a person cannot be too open minded about things. It turns out that I actually do not agree with that line of reasoning. I have from time to time heard people state something akin to – “I like all music equally” or “all books are good.” I believe that such views are untenable. Please do not try to tell me for instance that JRR Tolkien (An author that I love) is aesthetically equal to William Shakespeare. Furthermore, there is art, literature, film, music, etc. that on every level is absolutely vile. I believe that a thinking person must express some aesthetic judgment.

Yet, a reader of my blog will observe that for almost every book discussed, I have a positive impression. Furthermore, I write about everything that I read. Indeed, I would contend that I am very open - minded.  If I perceive that a work or author has something important to say about the world, or if the story, characters or philosophy are presented in a way that is either aesthetically pleasing or original and innovative, I usually take great joy in the work. This is true even if I disagree with the authors’ opinions or views, unless such views are very offensive. Still when I look at the vast majority of books on bestseller lists as well as what I observe what most people are reading, I think that there is a great deal of literature out there that I would dislike.

So why do I like such a high percentage of what I read? I believe that this is the case because I am very selective regarding my reading material. I am an adherent of Harold Bloom’s assertion, spelled out in his The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, that there are so many worthy books out there, and a very limited amount of lifetime available to read them, and that time wasted on trivial and bad works is unaffordable. I feel that it is important to mention that my own list of worthwhile books is much, much larger and more diverse than Bloom’s controversial and somewhat restrictive Western Cannon. Of course this just makes the problem worse for me! The result however, is that I tend to read things that I judge to be culturally, historically, philosophically, aesthetically or scientifically significant.

I am not trying to get through a list. I take immense pleasure in mining books for interesting and important ideas. It is enormous fun for me to find connections between what I find in literature, philosophy, history and science. In a way, I feel as if I am sitting before an immense jigsaw puzzle called “Human Thought” and I am slowly putting the pieces in. I am having a grand time working this puzzle! This analogy is limited; a more accurate description would be a multidimensional puzzle that is constantly growing. More fun still!

As I seem to have chosen well, I very rarely read works that I do not like.

People will occasionally ask me if sometimes I would rather “relax” and read something with no meaning, no strong characterization or little aesthetic value. While I think that it is fine to read in such a manor if one wants to do so, I have no desire to ever do this. I find that reading for meaning and aesthetic perception is one of the most soothing activities that life has to offer. It does not seem like work, it is pure relaxation for me. In fact, I sometimes lull myself into sleep at as I think about the stories, characters and ideas that I read about during the day.

In a nutshell, I like or love almost everything that I read. I am very carful about what I pick. For me, it is all about exploration and digging deep. This is one of the most fulfilling of life’s activities. Of course the question was rhetorical -  I am NOT too open - minded.


LMR said...

Very wise. One of the reasons I'm seldom disappointed by the books I read is because I try to make sure they're the ones I want to read. Most books I read are either by writers I grew to love or come recommended by writers I respect. It's not an exact science, of course, and sometimes I have disappointments.

And sometimes word of mouth also leads me to new authors and books that I love.

Violet said...

I agree that life is too short to read books we don't get along with. I read in order to learn things and to connect with great minds, but I also read for entertainment sometimes. You seem to be a fairly serious, discerning reader, and you use your reading time well. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel -

I agree that recommendations are a key to this. There are so many sources out there.

Though I will once again emphasize that it I think that it is too restrictive, Boom's Western Cannon is a very good starting place.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - The one thing for me is that important books from great thinkers are extremely entertaining for me.

Caroline said...

I am sometimes disappointed in the books I choose because I often pick brand new books about which I don't know a lot. Just today I finished something in one sitting but then I realized that I liked thinking about why I didn't like it and in the end I must say, while the book was on the awful side (well written though) I still liked the experience and will review it. I suppose when you read more classics or non-fiction you are less disappointed on the other hand to find somethng new that no one knows and and dicover a gem is a rare pleasure too.

Guy Savage said...

Brian: I've been told that I tend to write generous reviews, but then again I don't personally like reviews that seem to be an attempt to show how clever the REVIEWER is compared to the suthor under consideration.

And let's face it, I can't write a book so I have to nod to that.

I tend to give up fairly early w/books or films I don't like, so I don't review things I really disliked. It wouldn't be fair to review something I gave up on after 5 pages.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I guess one disadvantage to playing it safe is that one will not discover the unknown gem. When it comes to most other things in life such as food, music, etc., I am really all over the place on what I try and love to discover the obscure and unknown. Reading is so time consuming that such free choices become a problem.

There are however much lesser known classics and great works that few others reading that at least partially fill in the gap for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy-You mean that you do not think that we are more clever then these authors that we are talking about ? :)

I must say it has been a long time since I stopped reading a book. I think that it was Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain". I did not stop because I did not like it, I stopped because I felt that I was not ready for it yet.

Part of the thing is that I love ideas, evan if I think they are ill conceived. As long as these ideas are presented in a semi intelligent way, I think that I will like the book to some degree at least.

JaneGS said...

I'm with you when it comes to liking most of what I actually read. I tend to not read new books and so most of what I read comes highly recommended or is in a subject matter that I am exploring.

I also agree that reading books with no meaning is a chore and one that I don't have time for. That said, there are still guilty pleasure books--mysteries, Heyer novels--but the writing has to be good or I simply can't stand to read the book.

I've heard some avid readers say that they have to read so much that if decent material isn't available they'll read shampoo bottles, etc. I'm not that avid!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi jane - Your comment made me think, I rarely read anything new in fiction. Even the non - fiction that I read is usually at least a few years old by the time that I get to it. I guess that takes the mystery out of the books that I read.

I too am somewhat addicted to reading. If they are around and I get a little bored I tend to read labels, instruction manuals, etc.!

Maria Behar said...

You know, your views on reading material really make a lot of sense, and I wholeheartedly agree with everything you've written here. One has to be selective in one's reading material. If you pick books you're pretty sure you'll enjoy reading, it figures that, when you finish, you'll give them a favorable rating. Sometimes, though, you start on a book you think you will enjoy, only to end up hating it. (Of course, the reverse may well happen, as well.)

As for being 'open-minded', that's a term that's interpreted by people in different ways. I tried to be 'open-minded' when I started participating in the ANNA KARENINA read-along, only to discover that I couldn't stomach the book's subject matter...

I can't read certain book genres, like horror and erotica. They make me too uncomfortable. The reason is that I find them to be totally immoral and disgusting. For instance, I would never waste my time reading Stephen King. I don't like feeling scared as I read, IF I can see that there's little to no possibility that the bad guys will be defeated, and get what they deserve. In horror fiction, the bad guys win a lot of the time. I also refuse to read those books everyone seems to be talking about, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY and its sequels. I will NOT read any book containing BDSM and other kinky stuff.

Sometimes, reading outside one's comfort zone can be rewarding, but only if one's own moral values aren't challenged. This is my first criteria when deciding whether or not to read a book. However, I also consider literary value. Still, if a book lauded by the critics is morally reprehensible, I will still refuse to read it, no matter how many literary awards it has garnered.

This is a very thought-provoking piece you've written here, and I might very well return to submit more comments. Very, very interesting stuff!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - Thanks for your comments. You raise some interesting issues especially about evil winning in the end. There is a lot of great literature out there where that happens. I think in these cases the author is trying to say something about a world where very bad things happen a lot of the time and comment upon those things. The best example to me of a book where that happens in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty - Four. Interestingly I will likely never reread that one as it is too disturbing precisely because of what the bad guys achieve in doing.

One thing about the moral part is that I think that we do need to look out for a writer being ironic. For instance, many people mistake Shakespeare's Henry V to represent the glorification of war and charismatic leadership. However I think that Shakespeare is actually attacking those concepts in the play.

Amy said...

Lovely post! Like you, I think even books that I don't agree with or dislike can sometimes have good pieces or points to them. And I love books with meaning to them! While I read some garbage thrown in for fun, much of it is even heavy if you look into the various little pieces the author has thrown together.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for the good word Amy.

When I think about it, if an author has a lot to say, it is very likely that I will disagree with much of it. I guess a lot has to do with how they say it.

LMR said...

I, of course, sometimes read something I don't like. But I always try to emphasize the book's best qualities, even though I make it clear I didn't like it very much.

A recent book is Exit Ghost, it's not one of Philip Roth's best novels, but it has some interesting ideas in the way it's connected to the previous novels that made the reading worthwhile.

Moby Dick was another novel I didn't love, but I tried to accentuate the qualities that I liked the most about it.

No one should have to like everything, but I also think we should try not to demolish a book. I've become sensitive to this in recent times - if I thoroughly dislike a book, I prefer not to waste more time thinking about it and just move on something else.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I agree that there will be just some things that one does not like. When I do not like something I sometimes think a lot about why I did not like it. Of course that relates my tendency to overanalyze everything!

The Relentless Reader said...

...very limited amount of lifetime available to read them, and that time wasted on trivial and bad works is unaffordable <~~ THIS! Yes :)

There are so many worthy and wonderful reads out there. I can't see spending time on something that doesn't float my boat. Why? To have a blog that is "even".

Boo to that. I know what I like, I read what I like and I review what I like. So there ;)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jennifer - But the trick is to know if you like it before you read it :) Wait that sounds CLOSED minded!

LMR said...

I read somewhere that on average one only reads some 3000 books in one's lifetime...

... that's nothing... it makes me depressed just to think about it...

So, yes, one has to be very judicious about his tastes.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Miguel - I would say that I average a book about once every twelve days during most stages of my life. So, lets assume a life span 78 (US Average for males) - 13 (maybe I was reading real books by then) = 65 years. 65 x 365 = 23,725 days. 23,725/12 = 1977 books! Ouch! I poked around online, you seem to have a slightly longer average lifespan in Portugal.

LMR said...

I'd still need a few centuries to read everything I want :)

seraillon said...

Brian - First, after reading many of your comments on other blogs, I'm happy finally to arrive at your blog itself! Second, I'm glad to see this topic addressed, since I hear constantly in my head the voice of the Duke in Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess":

"...She had/A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/She looked on, and her looks went everywhere."

It's an admonition, but I don't worry too much about this; those who know better will know better than I if I'm being too indiscriminate, and calibrate accordingly. What interests me more is the tangential question embedded in this topic:how one ends up choosing what to read. One becomes more discriminating the more one reads (I like to think so, anyway). For those of us who are amateurs without a professional obligation to focus on a particular genre or period, the choices may seem overwhelming. But one develops a certain mad method. So whether one's "looks [go] everywhere," I like very much the sometimes mysterious way that one may be drawn to a book, or how one book may lead to another.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Seraillon - Thanks for dropping by. I totally agree that the more one reads good books the more discriminating that one becomes. I find this is true with many things other then books. Food is another good example!

i also find that indeed, often one book will lead to another!

Anonymous said...

Interesting entry. I understand your point of view but it seems a bit dry to me.
I'm going to say it in French: Je veux prendre du plaisir en lisant. Some books are rewarding, challenging, worth reading but don't give pleasure.
I like books just for entertainment, like I'd watch a comedy or an easy film. Good entertaining books are difficult to find when you're picky about the style.

Anyway, the more you read, the more you know your tastes, the publishers that are the most likely to publish books you'll like and the bloggers whose opinion is a good compass.

PS: I can write nasty reviews sometimes. I try to be honest about how I felt and I try to be fair, sometimes I didn't like a book but it doesn't mean it's a bad book. It's just not for me.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - I see how my tastes can seem a bit dry. But I take so much enjoyment out of the attributes that I described above. I find that when I read something that is either without much meaning, or not artistically distinctive that now seems dry and flat to me.

On the other hand, I do not think that i am all that picky about finding such depth. I am at times so enthusiastic about mining a book for these things that I am often happy no matter what I read.

For instance, I would say that the vast majority of books that you cover on your blog sound like they have value.