A good book is a good book is a . . .
A couple of weeks ago, the online magazine Slate hosted a celebration and discussion of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. During this online roundtable, book critic Meghan O’Rourke made this observation: “I tend to imagine that Jack Kerouac didn't approve much of literary criticism, avid reader though he was.” (Italics mine).
That term “avid reader” made me ask, what other kinds of readers are there? There are of course, the non-readers: some of them are indifferent to reading and books; and then those others who wouldn’t open a book if had instructions on how to save their own lives. “I never took that up that habit!” one sneered at me as though I were shooting heroin in front of the children.
There are the non-avid readers, the professionals of all stripes who read because their livelihoods depend on it, but once that chore is done, it’s off to Sunday NFL or Doom or the Sims. (One exception: President Cheney’s assistant who, last year, engaged in the odd practice of “Competitive” reading with that former White House aide who looks like a giant infant; I lay odds that both their retention rates were pretty low).
Now, let’s step up to the third level of readers, and back to the first clause in Ms. O’Rourke’s sentence: “Jack Kerouac didn’t much approve much of literary criticism, avid reader, though he was.” (Again, italics mine). This seems to imply that avid readers are those who also pay serious attention to literary criticism, but I think Ms. O’Rourke may be wrong. She may have meant another subcategory: those readers who do approve of literary criticism and take it with the utmost seriousness: Let’s call them “serious readers.”
Webster’s 11th defines “avid” as one who is “characterized by enthusiasm and vigorous pursuit.” It may also mean someone tolerant, adventuresome, and maybe even free-spirited. They may not pay much attention to “literary criticism” and when they do, it’s because they’re looking for a signpost or two to point them to their next destination or to keep track of a favorite author or genre.
I’ve not read On the Road and the Slate discussion doesn’t say what Kerouac’s reading tastes were, but I will lay a humble wager that, judging from his celebrated novel’s subject matter and setting, this avid reader and legendary author may well have been on a nodding acquaintance with the Western novel, one of the more despised genres. As an avid reader, he may very well have devoured many genre novels—western, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction or classic. He may very well have wandered the world of fiction on the wings of the same free spirit that set him out on the open road.
Not so with most “serious readers” as I’ve known them. These folks are as discriminating as I am about the scotch I drink. For them, it’s high-minded novels only: the works of Trollope, Dickens (except for A Christmas Carol), Proust, Joyce, Larry Woiwode, Ann Beattie, Francine Prose, among others. They can be as hot-headed as John McCain, as strict as a Christian mullah. Recently, Ruth Franklin, another Slate book reviewer, excoriated Pulitzer Prize Winner and genre champion Michael Chabon for trying to “drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.”
Clearly, Michael Chabon isn’t a “serious” reader, either and we can safely bet that Ms. Franklin never poisons her eyes with a mystery novel and if she does, she probably keeps it hidden with the porn.
You readers, of course, know which subspecies I am. Do I oppose “serious literature?” like one of those knuckle-dragging reverse snobs (“Ha! I only read Shopping-and-Fucking Novels! Ha! I stare down from the balcony of my nose upon you miserly snobs!”)
Of course not. I’d be the blindest of fools and a worse hack than I am now if not for reading The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Pale Fire, Gravity’s Rainbow, A Bend in the River and many more. I love books that “are good for me.” The sheer challenge of many of them is an inspiration in itself. Bring on Don Quixote! Bring on War and Peace!
Just last week, I snapped shut Elmore Leonard’s 1950s western The Bounty Hunter with a happy smile and whipped right around into Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel Mary (which promises to be the start of a long-lasting obsession with Nabokoviana). I did this without a blink. I suffered no helium swell of nobility. And I read both these books with an equal amount of attention (but not, I emphasize, the same kind.)
The puzzle for serious readers is how do I stand the cognitive dissonance? It’s not that there is no difference between “serious” literature” and “genre” literature (sadly, I haven’t the time, nor you the patience, for that discussion.) Because Leonard’s world, and his way of writing it, differs so much from Nabokov’s, (except for the employment of stream of consciousness; yes, it’s true.), his best books call on a different corner of my consciousness, call on me to exercise different brain muscles. I respond to Elmore Leonard with different thoughts and emotions, and different set of no-less
stringent standards. Genre readers can be as discriminating as any New York Review of Books critic.
To avid readers like myself, it’s not the categories that count, although I’m aware of them, but the specific work itself on its own terms. Call us anarchists, if you want. Genre hopping is an act of near-absolute freedom. It’s the freedom to turn from the crystalline world of homesick exiled Russians in 1920s Berlin to, say, the corkscrew supernatural Liverpool of horror master (and passionate Nabokov reader) Ramsey Campbell that inspires us. We seek new worlds, always, whether it be the Wild West or a windswept moor.
In this crowded world that seems to be turning more and more toward murderous and authoritarian absolutes, art and literature are likely the last bastions of freedom our souls can ever hope to find. It’s sure looking that way to me. The last thing us avid readers need is the hectoring of high-strung critics.
Gotta go, now. I hear a Charlie Chan mystery calling!
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield