Thursday, December 08, 2005
Bad book math
[As Jonathan just posted on reading lists:]
In an otherwise fluffy piece for the LA Times, staff writer Susan Salter Reynolds disturbs that deep river of anxiety felt by all readers at one time or another: that “so little time, so many books” anxiety that is at the bottom of the widespread irritation, yet perverse fascination, with the ubiquitous lists of “best,” “most influential,” or “must have read in order to be considered even basically literate” lists of books. Damn her, she even runs the numbers:
I read on average 50 pages per hour. That’s around a book a day (life will intervene), 365 a year. If I squeeze out another 40 years, that’s a mere 14,600 books, which simply will not do. For every classic you haven’t read and should, there are at least five new books you’ll want to read as well.
Epiphany: I just realized why I hate serials: in the sense of “world’s visited,” the longest multi-volume set can still only count as “one.” Given that reading has now become a race that none of us can even think of finishing or even completing the first lap what nerve! what absolute cheek for any writer to think that we will waste precious hours on some interminable tale. Why, I have just now made a resolution to read only books of 300 pages or less; otherwise, I won’t even make the book-a-day quota. Or even book a week.
I have not actually counted the books on my “to-read”
shelf shelves, nor in the annex piles on the floor. Not to mention the many, many books that get shelved amongst other, mostly read, books. On one hand, to contemplate them gives me a certain satisfaction: should my house be hurled into space, like the house in Zathura, I would have sufficient reading material for light-years to come. But then I consider the fantasy piles behind those piles other people’s lists; my own lists, never written down (I have read Emma,1 after all) but floating there, nonetheless and that complacency turns to something approaching panic.
My mortality is never closer than when I make the mistake of thinking too clearly about the ratio of the ever-burgeoning number of books in the world, to the sliver of books I have read or am yet likely to read.
The Lifetime Reading Plan by Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major
The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written by Martin Seymour-Smith
Classics Revisited by Kenneth Rexroth
The 100 Most Influential Books Since the War, London’s Times Literary Supplement
Gazillion other lists
Various lists and memes I have linked to from my blog.
[cross-posted to my blog]
There’s also Anthony Burgess’s 99 Novels, an edition of which I found on a bookshelf at home and read through several times (as if in doing so I could sort of by proxy read the books themselves).
Though I doubt I would have come across Lanark if not for it, so it did me some good, at least.
Well, and I hadn’t come across it until you mentioned it here.
I hereby promise never to make fun of those lists again.
Over the weekend I was using Project Muse and I happened to notice their list of sample issues, so of course I went browsing through it. Turns out that the free issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas includes an article by Ann Blair on, well, “Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca. 1550-1700." Opening paragraph:
The “multitude of books” was a subject of wonder and anxiety for authors who reflected on the scholarly condition in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. In the preface to his massive project of cataloguing all known books in the Bibliotheca univeralis (1545) Conrad Gesner complained of that “confusing and harmful abundance of books,” a problem which he called on kings and princes and the learned to solve. 1 By 1685 the situation seemed absolutely dire to Adrien Baillet, who warned:
<blockquote> We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not. 2
In this way Baillet claimed to have warded off barbarity itself with his collection of judgments on the learned in his nine-volume (and still only half-completed) Jugemens des sçavans.</blockquote>
This is going on my to read pile.
And yet, I read — somewhere or other — that it wasn’t until some point in the early eighteenth century that the quantity of written material crossed the line and a single individual could not longer hope to have a handle on it (i.e. have read, or at least be familiar with, all printed knowledge).
This is fascinating, eb. Perhaps our panicked response to the quantity of the printed word and information in general is similar to current apocalyptic anxieties: something, as Northrup Frye said, that every generation feels.
When students walk into my office, they sometimes ask, in a tone of wonderment, “Have you read all these books?” I answer judiciously that I have read most of them & that I intend to read the rest. Then I tell them I have twice as many books at home. It is impossible to keep up & I no longer really try: I’ve decided I’m old enough now to follow my whims when it comes to reading. I’m no longer after mastery.
I would assume that the amount of knowledge in print was smaller than the amount of printed books: there must have been repetitive works - collections of excerpts, reference works duplicating knowledge held in other works - as well of works that were, well, not worth reading. So it may be that it was possible to keep a handle on printed knowledge for longer than it would have been possible to keep a handle on all books. It’s also possible that the claim about the 18th century is about knowledge “worth knowing” so that a certain amount of selectiveness is included in it.
Blair’s article mentions selection, but mostly it’s about reading strategies that can apply to any book, and not so much about deciding which books to read.
In addition to the increase in the general amount of knowledge (for nonfiction), and the increase in the absolute number of writers as the population increases (for fiction), there is also the change in the percentage of the population that are writers. For poetry, as discussed on this Acephalous thread, the number of poetry readers is approximately equal to the number of poetry writers. That leads to an additional phantasmagoric expansion of the possible reading universe. Admittedly the vast majority of poems are unpublished, but since most amateur poets don’t seem to write in isolation, the median poetry reader is likely to be an unpublished poetry writer with friends that they write with in some fashion and whose work they therefore could be reading.
Plus, of course, there is the buildup of old works which for one reason or another have not become obsolete. Every now and then a popular genre is kind of dumped wholesale (western) or never makes it far enough up from pulp so that any pretense of keeping old works around is made (romance, perhaps?). And there are always popular books that no one reads decades later. But for generic literature that has “stood the test of time”, every decade brings more.
Finally, translations of works in other languages are becoming more and more available, and the world as a whole is becoming more literate, so that huge additional numbers of people are starting to write.
I predict the rebirth of evaluative criticism, in a supremely harsh and dismissive form.
Either that or, perhaps, ubik. There’s a guy in the town where I live that takes local amateurs’ poems, photocopies them, and puts them up on bulletin boards all over. It’s sort of unimportant who wrote what; you just pass by a bulletin board and there’s likely to be a poem—I’ve rarely seen the same one twice. It’s just sort of there, a quality of the environment, like the old mass media people used to say about TV but perhaps less intrusive.
Rich, sorry, the number of poetry readers is not equal to the number of poetry writers. There are actually fewer readers of poetry than writers of poetry. That’s right: we have to deduct poets like John Cage and Jackson Mac Lowe, who doubtlessly never read the poems they themselves produced (even if they read them outloud, they never “took them in"). And as many on the Valve will testify, Language Poetry itself is actually a conspiracy produced by government robots to allow even poetry to be taken over by identity politics. So Hejinian and Bernstein aren’t even poets, if by poets we mean HUMAN poets, anyway. But even if we count robot poets as poets, we must remember that robot poets only produce poetry, they don’t consume it.
Then there’s the poetry produced by my three cats, which was recently published in *The Anti-Enlightenment/Anti-Humanist Reader* (Verso, 2006). Problem is, my cats don’t even *read* poetry. They just write it. And publish it. That’s how much they hate humanism and the enlightenment. Here’s an excerpt:
Commune with nature,
Theory romantic: but watch
out for bees, who will sting
Themselves like Shelley’s
scorpions, right after stinging
your rosy bottom, Theory romantic.
We cats hate humanism,
we love Derrida,
and we’ll bite you
even as you stroke us.
Voltaire smells like
(from “An Anti-Humanist Ode for
Holbo,” pp. 66-71)
All of which is to say: I’ve met hundreds of non-poet poetry readers and listeners. I’m one of them.
"And as many on the Valve will testify, Language Poetry itself is actually a conspiracy produced by government robots to allow even poetry to be taken over by identity politics.”
Oh well, I don’t even know who on the Valve is being lampooned here.
But does anyone really think that Language Poetry has some connection with identity politics? I always thought it was the poetry of academia. I mean, take it away Marjorie Perloff in After Language Poetry: Innovation and its Theoretical Discontents:
“At the same time poetry, insofar as it had become the domain of the Creative Writing workshop, was no longer the contested site it had been in the days of Pound, Eliot. and Williams, or even of the “raw versus cooked” debates of the early sixties. In the seventies, for reasons too complex to go into here, the production of poetry had become a kind of bland cottage industry, designed for those whose intellect was not up to reading Barthes or Foucault or Kristeva.”
I am no devotee of the Creative Writing workshop, but re-reading that last sentence, really, can you get any farther from any kind of politics? It’s the same tired old pretense that the avante garde isn’t just another part of the middle class, with a weird dollop of added American meritocracy—if some people like to write self-centered lyrical poems, why it must be because they’re not *smart* enough. Who knows what kind of low-grade intelligences Perloff thinks must inhabit the whole spoken word scene, which is noteably unconcerned with Barthes, Foucault, or Kristeva.
Perloff continues about the effect that Language Poetry has had: “ [...] most important--there was actually something at stake in producing a body of poems, and that poetic discourse belonged to the same universe as philosophical and political discourse.” This is just so odd at so many levels. Philosophical? Yeah, nobody reads any of the philosophical poetry since the metaphysical poets I guess, so the Language Poets were really needed to remind everyone. Political? Politics requires an actual attempt to communicate.
That last one is what really amuses me. It’s the replacement of actual politics with pretend-politics. Just a day or so ago, with the recent confirmation that U.S.-sponsored death squads are indeed active in Iraq as the earlier stories had suggested, I re-read my poem The Salvador Option to an audience of Barnes & Noble goers. I guarantee that if it had been written Language Poetry style, no politics would have occured. I’m not claiming any great effectiveness—that’s too much to ask for any kind of poetry—but some people talked about it with me afterwards who hadn’t had any idea that we were sponsoring death squads once again.
Anyways, sorry to go off on that. If your poem was written by your three cats, shouldn’t they have gone for a more Stevie Smith style? (I mean, assuming their names are Brown and Fry and Hyde or something.) But really, it was pretty funny. However, I suspect that you aided your cats. Which means that you’re on the road to being a poetry writer instead of reader. Sure, it starts with a casual parody poem; “I’m not a poet”, you think—but it’s a gateway drug. You will be assimilated, LB.
Rich writes, “However, I suspect that you aided your cats. Which means that you’re on the road to being a poetry writer instead of reader. Sure, it starts with a casual parody poem; “I’m not a poet”, you think—but it’s a gateway drug. You will be assimilated, LB.”
Hey—isn’t that a slippery slope argument? Or rather, is Rich simply on the slippery slope toward a slippery slope argument?
Rich, you claim that “Language Poetry” is “the poetry of academia,” but your proof cites a literary academic rather than a poet. All you’ve shown is that the arguments of academics tend to be highly colored by academic manners—sometimes to the extent of completely obscuring their purported subjects.
I much prefer reading (some) “Language"-branded poets (and the predecessors who inspired them) to reading Marjorie Perloff. Few of them have been academics. My guess is that not many of them gave a shit about Kristeva, either. Certainly it’s only very recently that any of their work could be found in academia. Insofar as LP gained an institutional presence, it was after a long period of mostly unobserved communal work which set itself against such academically-centered communities as the Iowa MFA program and the Yale Younger Poets volumes.
In a “Language’s Empire” conspiracy theory, I guess Charles Bernstein at SUNY in the ‘90s would play the part of De Man at Yale? But in terms of their relative importance within the smaller community or their influence outside it, I don’t think the comparison works.
Which reminds me—as far as unread-book-guilt instilling goes, Silliman’s blog is a killer—especially since he has the nerve to complain about being a slow reader. (I still haven’t gotten to the latest Susan Howe!)
The Language Poets are mostly fine, gifted poets, I assume from the little I’ve read. It’s just that, first, I have a general distaste for the avant-garde—so predictably hunting for rules to break, opponents to shock. I keep waiting for people to finally decide that there are no poetic rules that haven’t been broken, but it’s like the Onion article thanking the 5% of men of a particular age who don’t wear ponytails for keeping the other 95% “rebellious”; the rules will be manufactured by the rebels if necessary.
Here’s a case in point, since you don’t like me quoting from Perloff. (By the way, did you know that her on-line bio credits her in part with the success of language poetry and adds “the comparative obscurity which remains the fate of the related British “experimental” poetries can be said to be due to the continuing absence from the critical scene of a “British Perloff."”?) For an example of a poet writing about poetry, here’s a slight piece, Against National Poetry Month As Such by Bernstein. Some snippets with the standard features follow.
We’re breaking the rules:
“National Poetry Month is sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, an organization that uses its mainstream status to exclude from its promotional activities much of the formally innovative and “otherstream” poetries that form the inchoate heart of the art of poetry.”
Hunting for opponents:
“Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Only an auctioneer admires all schools of art.” National Poetry month professes to an undifferentiated promotion for “all” poetry, as if supporting all poetry, any more than supporting all politics, you could support any.”
“"Accessibility" has become a kind of Moral Imperative based on the condescending notion that readers are intellectually challenged, and mustn’t be presented with anything but Safe Poetry.”
Self-satisfied bad-boy boasting:
“Poetry: Readers Wanted. The kind of poetry I want is not a happy art with uplifting messages and easy to understand emotions. I want a poetry that’s bad for you.”
Let me wait a bit for the queasiness to go away. OK, better now. Now, of course I could care less about National Poetry Month. But this is worse.
Does that mean the Bernstein isn’t a good poet? No. Does it mean, since there are more good poets than I’m going to be able to read in a lifetime (to get back to the original subject of this thread), that I have any interest in reading his work? No. Does it fill me with interest in the other Language Poets, whether or not there is really a group by this name or it’s just a “brand”? Decidedly, and unfairly, not.
Second, about academia. No contemporary poetry is really free from academia, including even spoken word, because it’s the only steady job for a poet. For the Language Poets, I insta-Googled 13 major ones: 7 are either professors (Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Leslie Scalapino, Fanny Howe) or teach at universities (Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Carla Harryman). The six that didn’t work in academia were Ron Silliman, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, Michael Palmer, Tina Darraugh, and Susan Howe. I wouldn’t say that’s exactly “few”, though I agree that’s less academically dominated than many poetry schools.
But I don’t think that your characterization of them as recent entrants to academic study is really still true. Here’s a quote from a 1994 piece by Eleana Kim:
“For more open-minded English department academics, however, the reception of Language poetry became an interesting exercise in close-readings, with a dash of theory to spice up an essentially Kantian aesthetic of pleasure in recognition. Coinciding with the rise of cultural studies, Language poetry was taken up by leftist academics as a radical alternative to the lyric tradition. Scholars such as Andrew Ross saw their emergence as an opportune moment to reexamine Marxist aesthetics and the its application to culture and language.”
That’s what I meant by the “poetry of academia”. All contemporary poetry is in some way academic, but Language Poetry had its aesthetic claims coincide with the most fashionable academic literary theory of its time. Even if you fully dispute Perloff’s characterization of what Language Poetry is, it does seem that that is what academics thought it was. No academic critic is really thrilled by workshop culture, even if they live off it.
Anyways, another long rant.
Rich, I started reading Language Poetry before Google existed, OK? The major definitional anthology of the quasi-group was put together by Silliman in 1986, quite a while before those professorships. Institutional income (eventually) happened for some because the careers had happened but the careers weren’t built inside the institution. You might as well call Jerry Lewis an academic because he taught at USC.
I agree with you about the tiredness of avant-garde rhetoric, though. That’s where Bernstein and Silliman are at their humorless worst, and probably one reason why Bruce Andrews leaves me completely cold.
On the other hand, the tiredness of anti-avant-garde rhetoric is no prize either, and a lot of it comes from academics. Even your own quote from Kim is qualified “For the most open English departments, however, ...” I only bothered responding to you because of your absurd characterization of LP as “the poetry of academia.” Since you’ve gone on to acknowledge that “No contemporary poetry is really free from academia”, I’ll assume that characterization has been dropped. Regardless, if you want to keep on attacking writing you don’t seem to have particularly followed, maybe you should start a new post to hold the topic.
Ray, I’m sorry that I attacked something that you feel strongly about (though, if you’ll notice, I attacked the statements about the poetry, not the poetry itself), but I don’t drop the characterization I made. Whatever Language Poetry was in 1986, it is now confronting the classic problems of an avant-garde that has already been taken up as a new, most fashionable, branch of orthodoxy. When I wrote “the poetry of academia”, I meant the poetry self-conciously appreciated by academia, not the poetry primarily produced by academia. This leads to, in my opinion, particular difficulties in reading Language Poetry at this historical moment.