I have a friend who, Borges-like, reads everything. He’s long since consumed most of the books that you or I could name off the top of our heads, and now browses more widely. In October, he read not only William Beckford’s Vathek but also Nahum Glatzer’s Hammer on the Rock: A Short Midrash Reader, two volumes of Cambodian poetry, some Beverly Cleary for good measure—and that wasn’t all by a long shot. I read quite a lot, and I’m sad to say that I read nowhere nearly as much as he does. Pop culture aficionados of my generation may recall Johnny 5’s demand for “more input” in the bookstore scene from that great Steve Guttenberg vehicle, Short Circuit. Or was it from the sequel? I’m happy to say that I’m not that much of an aficionado.
Did you know, by the way, that “aficionado” originally referred to a bullfighting enthusiast? I didn’t, until I encountered this fact in The Sun Also Rises, which I read last month for the first time. I’m able to say this without too much embarrassment because of a conscience-soothing roundup of “books we haven’t read” on Slate. Some of the confessions are soothing, at any rate; others are bizarre. Does anyone really believe that it’s shameful not to have digested Naked Lunch? (A digression: Reading it at the right time can be a boon. I picked it up in high school and learned a valuable lesson, that works of art are often tiresome and disappointing in direct proportion to their obscenity.) In New York magazine, there’s this terrific little piece—you’ve probably already read it—on How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read:
My biggest gripe is that Bayard’s conception of reading is entirely social—a way to rack up points at cocktail parties. At the risk of sounding like the fusty old crank everyone does impressions of in the faculty lounge, I still believe in the private ecstasy of reading. It’s one thing to jockey for social position by saying that Dostoyevsky introduced psychology into the novel, or that Chaucer had a fuller grasp of humanity than Shakespeare. It’s another thing to experience, with your full attention, Raskolnikov wandering feverishly around St. Petersburg, or the young scholar farting in the face of his romantic rival in “The Miller’s Tale.” Real reading is not just hoarding fodder for cocktail chatter.
When I look out at the canons arrayed across the literary landscape—Harold Bloom’s, Modern Library’s, n+1’s, to name just three—I’m left thinking not about books but about time, particularly how little of it we have at our disposal. A young man could devote himself obsessively to Bloom’s canon and find himself at the midpoint middle-aged and painfully short on real-life experience. Or he could, should, pick and choose, reading carefully and attentively and learning as much as he can from those choices. Now, before I turn this into some kind of sappy “Reading Rainbow” public service announcement, let me say that the wiser of the two choices is probably clear to anyone with a pulse. (The friend I mentioned above does have a pulse and is not, in fact, a vampire, but his feats of reading are actually a self-treatment for insomnia.)
But this Slate piece about Errol Morris’s near-pathological 25,000-word essay about a Roger Fenton photograph reminded me that very smart people often make very dumb choices about how to invest their time:
Morris begins, and ends, by considering a picture by Roger Fenton called “In the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” a famous photograph from the Crimean War that, according to Susan Sontag, was at least partially staged.
When I wrote about Fenton myself, here on Slate, I repeated Sontag’s claim, somewhat unthinkingly, I have to admit, at least in light of Morris’ vetting. He was more skeptical, and in fact he writes about 25,000 words, over three posts, about his efforts to determine the truth of the accusation. That is about three times the length of a very long magazine article, and Morris digresses a lot; he pulls in maps and charts, he delves into Ruskin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, some notes on the history of fashion; he notes the difference between the Valley of Death and the Valley of the Shadow of Death (they were apparently two distinct places); he travels to the Crimea to see the scene for himself; and he quotes, at considerable length, a series of interviews he conducted with various photography experts, curators, computer scientists, and historians. At one point he reproduces a picture of his Crimean tour guide’s shoes, and I would tell you why, but I’m not quite sure myself.
As I’m fan of Morris’s films First Person and The Thin Blue Line, I made an earnest attempt to read the essay. Trust me that no one could read it but out of a sense of duty. I read a few thousand words. The whole affair struck me as nakedly self-congratulatory: Look what a loon I am! When my brain latches on to a question—one that didn’t even occur to Susan Sontag, much less you, dear reader—it doesn’t let go!
Now, Errol Morris is a strange man, I think, and I’m willing to believe that in his case the interest is genuine and intense. It just didn’t read that way, and it certainly didn’t translate into interest on the reader’s part. But you can, of course, find Morris’s brand of single-minded devotion to trivia in any university in America. I’ll never tire of quoting Lucky Jim on the academic flair for the “funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts,” which can only ever hope to “shed a pseudo-light on non-problems.” Has it begun to leak into the mainstream, when ultra-specialized prattle is foisted upon us not by obscure journals with unusual trim sizes, but by The New York Times?
Pick your books and your interests as you please, I mean, but for God’s sake at least try to make them interesting.