Every few months some new list of a zillion books is passed around on social media with the warning, sometime explicit, that if you don’t spend hundreds of hours reading these you’re a bad literary citizen and should feel ashamed. If you don’t know the classics, you’re ignorant. If you don’t know the latest authors, you’re out of touch. If you yourself are a writer, you’re selfish for not supporting enough of your peers.
According to my Goodreads count, I’ve read 84 books since the start of 2014. Even though this list includes a few poetry chapbooks and volumes of manga, you can’t deny that this is a lot of reading. Many of these books I could have gotten more out of, intellectually or emotionally, if I had spent more time with them. But still, I feel this push for more, more, more.
When people in the literary field complain about easy, fast, consumer experiences ruining reading, they blame the TV, fast food, and Amazon reviews, but maybe they should also be looking at themselves.
Literature is a form of media. We give it a higher status in our society because it has been around longer that movies, TV or social networking, but it is just as much a part of our media saturated landscape as anything else. There are, by some counts, 100,000 new works of fiction released in the United State every year, and each work has its own champions, demanding that it deserves your attention more than the millions of books that are already out there.
When a work of art is advertised, promoted, touted as “the next new thing” that you need in your life, it ceases to be a work of art and becomes a commodity. There is no difference between telling someone they must read the latest books and telling someone the must buy the latest fashion. What is a book review but a creation of a new false need? As a writer, I must be reading whenever I’m not writing, in other words, I must be consuming whenever I’m not producing. Sure I believe, it is possible to experience transcendence from literature, but I could also experience transcendence from taking a walk, meditating or having a good conversation--you know, living the the present moment.
Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” begins: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
According to Debord, capitalism shifts are values from being into having and from having into the representational--in other words consuming media. High art and low art are equally part of this same system of consumption.
Yes, even literature is one way that human experiences, from walks in the woods to struggles with ailing parents, are turned into commodities, which can be sold in place of lived experiences. There are provable benefits to writing about one’s life experience, and provable benefits to reading about others experiences, but when books are promoted as a never-ending stream of new needs, literature moves away from something life sustaining and becomes a source of anxiety.
In the future I hope to read fewer books: slowly, deliberately, and for my own reasons. After all, as Ezra Pound said, "Man can learn more about poetry by really knowing and examining a few of the best poems than by meandering about among a great many."