Sunday, December 14, 2008

dastardly readers

I feel like this and this are really acts of preemption. See, if you accuse everyone of lying about how well read they are, you are effectively saving yourself from the position of ever meeting someone who is better read than you are. If someone makes such a claim, well, they're liars. It's a generalizing claim about something that is essentially impossible to disprove, and it invokes some of our most unfortunate urges: anti-intellectualism, reverse snobbery, solipsism. Yglesias and Olmstead are guilty of something I talked about in this article: asserting that others must have a failing as a way to avoid the implication of judgment of their own behavior. I know that Yglesias is specifically referring to some (unconvincing, to my mind) sociological data, but he's still making some pretty unfair claims.

Look: I am a very well-read person, or well read for a 27-year old, anyway. I try never to make that overbearing or to use that as an excuse to self-aggrandize. I think my more loyal readers can probably back me up on that. I just love reading, I always have, and consuming tons of whatever I could get my hands on as a child, I think, has been the most crucial element of my intellectual development. I was actually sociable and popular growing up, but I was also an intense reader, and reading was a deeply lonely activity. I know this is the most banal thought possible on the subject. But being someone who read constantly was always to feel like an outsider or a weirdo. It's not just that people didn't like to read themselves. It's that they had such an aggressive way of insisting that no one could really enjoy reading, that no one could find actual pleasure in challenging reading. Yglesias's comments thread has the inevitable "No one likes Ulysses!" snark going on. Well, I like Ulysses. It's fine if others don't. But what hurts is the suggestion that the only people who claim to like it or works of similar intensity are people who are lying to self-aggrandize. Yglesias and Olmstead take that one further by asserting that not only do most people who claim to enjoy it not enjoy, they must be lying about actually reading it-- an assertion it is almost impossible for an individual to disprove.

Well, no, I don't lie about how much I read. There's been many books I started to read and couldn't get through, and some I own that I've never even gotten the heart up to start. I know that a big reason I continue to read so much is that I have the privilege of the time to do so, which is a function of the personal and professional realities of my life. And, again, there's no judgment of people who aren't similarly addicted to books. I don't look down my nose at anyone who isn't into reading. I just want the right to love books as much as I do, and not to have people assume that my stated appetite for books is a lie intended to make me appear smart (I know how to pronounce Foucault!) or, bizarrely, to get girls. I like reading, I read voraciously, and if you don't, that's cool. I don't want to be too hard on Yglesias and Olmstead. But their posts make a lonely endeavor seem a little lonelier still.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

If I may, I suggest that the bad behaviors that Yglesias mentions may be more common in the New York/Ivy set than in your social circle. That is, a profession of ignorance about anything isn't a sign of general ignorance. -K.

raft said...

books read aren't some special category of lying. it's like if tell a girl I climbed Mt. Fuji once. I'm not insulting real mountain climbers--the other way around, i wish i were one. Same for books.

they're jealous of you, Freddie.

laylah said...

Raft is right. I lie indiscriminately about a lot of things... and I don't think I'm unusual in this. Sometimes it is expedient to do so, and sometimes it's just easier. But mostly, my lying says more about who I wish I was. I don't find Olmstead's article particularly shocking; elitism or feigning elitism has a certain cachet and I'd rather be in the company of those who were pretending to be smart than those who couldn't care less. And I'm not alone. I don't think my dishonesty will result in a dumbed down culture, but instead, pushes me to strive harder for understanding.

Mason said...

Congrats on actually liking "Ulysses", because that puts you in rather rarefied company.

As a fellow voracious reader I empathize with the annoyance of people loudly mocking the possible enjoyment of reading.

laylah -- interesting that you readily admit to lying often. Is it purely in the arena of constructively misrepresenting oneself, or what other utility do you most associate with it?

laylah said...

Mason, everyone lies. It's just the one thing I don't feel the need to be dishonest about. Mostly - it makes my life easier, because the truth often makes less sense.

A Kundera quote comes to mind: On the surface, an intelligible lie. Underneath, the unintelligible truth. Sums me up quite nicely.

laylah said...

To clarify, I am perfectly comfortable living in a world where innocuous lies and half truths are commonplace. I don't feel morally compromised in the least by my own complicity in what I assume is a universal phenomenon. Have I read The Satanic Versus? Lie: sure - I found it really boring. Truth: I read 100 or so dreadful pages and found it so boring I stopped. Big deal. Really... big Deal.

inozemets said...

Yglesias is the master of preemptive ironical self-absolution. For example.

The practice--the preemptive self-absolution, designed to deflect criticism--is a prominent trait of our "elite," and I think indicative of its rot.

Cf. stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, the intro to Eggers' Heartbreaking Work, most of Slate.

The Abstracted Engineer said...

Maybe you'd feel better if you posted an analysis of a good book after you finished it. That'd also give you some credibility so people couldn't accuse you of lying, like here where I took a dump on Hobbes' Leviathan just to make my brother-in-law mad (it worked).

Roque Nuevo said...

Just so you know I'm not here to pick a fight all the time, I agree with you about Ulysses. At least I agreed with you until I was 27 years old, which was the last time I read it. Back then I thought that nobody could ever write a better novel. Something like that. I haven't tried it again lately because I'm scared I won't like it anymore and I want to die liking it.

I also agree with you that it's pretentious to hold out one's reading habits as something to be admired. Mine resemble yours--except mine have had some decades more to develop than yours have. I've always thought of it more as a curse than a blessing--I can't stop reading even if I tried. I'll read the labels on the back of stuff if there's nothing else to read. So I never go around bragging about it because I'd rather that people didn't find out about my dirty habit.

Related to this post is something I read in the NYT some time ago in one of their "lifestyle" pieces. It was about this topic. They talked to people in the dating scene in NY and found that reading habits were a turnoff. One can't go out with someone who has lowbrow reading habits--something like that.

But the interesting part for me was the last person they talked to. She was an editor. She said that she could care less abour her partner's reading habits, or the lack of them. She said that "sharing interests" was not how she chooses her partners. She can live with people who don't share her interests, but what she looks for is for someone who can share her "perversions." I put the word in quotes because I'm pretty sure that's the word she used.

I thought that this was the attitude of someone who had been through the mill in relationships, therefore it was the attitude of a mature adult. I appreciated it all the more since she articulated my own attitude these days. I don't care a bit what my partner reads or doesn't. Am I a pervert?

Sabina's hat said...

I read the comments over at Yglesias's site, and Freddie's posting as well, and was really surprised how passionate people are about this lying about reading issue.

I read a lot; have always read a lot. To a certain extent I can sympathize with Freddie's feeling of being an outsider because of this. However, I was never ashamed of being a reader (I want to cancel the implication that Freddie was). If anything, I looked down on people who didn't regularly read as being intellectually inferior. I didn't resent those who didn't read--I pitied them. Freddie seems to actively resent them (which might be justified).

I suppose this is why Freddie's reaction (and similiar one's) seems strange to me. I assume that people who haven't read much want to be seen as having read more than they have. But in the same way that I don't resent those who envy the rich, or smart, or talented, I don't resent, but empathize with those who try to seem more well-read than they are.

As for the lying issue--I wouldn't much enjoy a conversation where everyone feels obligated to note that they haven't read a book before discussing it. In my field, philosophy, it is common to be familiar with objections, arguments, theories, etc. raised by a philosopher without having read the relevant works. This is because we also learn through conversation, and so if in conversation someone I trust presents an argument or theory about a topic as representative of particular philosopher, I will accept that characterization and use it in later conversation. I assume that at least sometimes whomever I am talking to believes that I've read that philosopher. I don't see the problem with this. Obviously, reading primary sources is hugely important. But it is impossible to read them all--you sometimes have to rely on summaries.

Joel said...

I lie about how much I've read. Specifically, I lie about not reading books that I have read, because I'm embarrassed to have read them.