The book as thought

Prepare for a rambling post.

I will be the first to admit that my tastes are likely outside the mainstream when it comes to entertainment, and particularly regarding pace. I like slow and detailed stories; thrillers do nothing for me, even if I find myself caught up in one I end up bored which is pretty much the opposite of what the writer intended. I similarly have little time for action and find that many action scenes in both books and movies add nothing to the overall plot even if they do succeed in making me feel tense briefly. But then I ask myself why I would want to feel tense briefly and move on to something else. Comedy I do like, especially when it’s smart or very ridiculous, but there we have something different, something that has transcended entertainment. Hit pause.

Modern life is filled with entertainment, to the extent that even our politics has now become little more than that. Aristotle would shudder at what we call “politics” and he was the guy that labelled humans as zoon politikon – the political animal – building it right into the definition of what we are. (What does how we do politics say about the type of creatures we have become since his time? There are good and bad aspects to be found in answering that, to be sure, but rather we continue.) So all has become entertainment, a turning away, a chasing after pleasant distractions. Is that so unlike previous generations? Perhaps not, but there were outlets for previous generations that offered more than just passing enjoyments and they were often called “books”.

Unpause. I think that our approach to books (and to the writing of books) has shifted significantly in the past century, speeding up since the fall of the Soviet Union and the presumed victory of a certain (rather hollow at its core) ideology. Without doubt there has been plenty of pulp to be read ever since writing began to be used for more than just keeping track of how much grain was in a silo but in my view the pulp has now become the vast majority of what is produced with all the rest marginalized. I do not think I’m alone in holding this view. Blame movies if you like, blame the internet, blame smartphones, blame Suzy Creamcheese next door and her outrageous v-neck sweaters; the point is that we no longer look to books to challenge our thinking but rather simply to coddle us as we sit on a bus or train or have a nice long lie-in on a Sunday morning. This does the idea of a book a tremendous disservice.

If we are simply looking for a good yarn there are a myriad options surrounding us at all times, many of them requiring much less effort than it takes to read a book. We might not like who we encounter in books, as I remarked last week we might not even like who are writing when we set about making a book, but in discovering that we find a chance for personal growth as we reflect on the character, their traits and actions, and on our reactions to them. In the best traditions books have challenged social mores and existing cultural practices and/or trajectories, they have made us think and left us different than they found us when we set them down. Pure entertainment will never be able to accomplish that. Instead of approaching books as mere pastimes, then, I suggest that we view them – and select them – as training, as a means of strengthening those important muscles between our ears and in the center left of our chests. If the content of a book can do that then the logo on its spine will hardly matter.

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2 Comments

  1. Nick Cody
    Posted March 19, 2016 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Wow, Son of Suzy Creamcheese! My first encounter with it. And I gotta say that cheese comes tightly packed into a minute and thirty four! What a force of nature he was. Lastly, the irony of the album title shouldn’t be overlooked in our Days of Youtube.

    Thanks for posting!

  2. Andrew Oberg
    Posted March 19, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Nick! That Suzy is a recurring character for old Frank. I met her via his debut album Freak Out!, which immediately preceded this one. I’m not sure how much she shows up later though; I don’t remember her being on Lumpy Gravy but my memory of that record is not the best.

    Excellent point too on the album title and its continuing relevance. Cheers!

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