I started this tumblr as a release for the vast torrents of opinion and reaction to the literature in my life. These opinions may not be as academic or as polished as either of us like, but they are, as with all things, really, a work in progress and a product of enthusiasm and engagement. Lots of books appeal to me, and I’ve been a voracious reader since childhood. And though I’ve read a lot in the past, there’s also an extreme amount left to read, and I’m hoping to explore those books here.
Who I am isn’t important, but here’s a fact or two:
- I have an obsessive relationship with Dostoevsky
- My background includes a couple college degrees but none in English
- I’m a relatively young guy, all said and done, and a part of the reason for this tumblr is a distinctive lack of literary discussion or even presence of books among many in my everyday crowds
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog
— Saul Bellow, opening to Herzog
I finished reading through Saul Bellow’s Herzog a couple weeks ago and came away incredibly impressed. Prior to this novel, I’d only read one Saul Bellow novel (a novella, really), which was Seize the Day. And Seize the Day, while it did contain wonderful style and a great plot, hardly left me staggering like the experience of Herzog.
In retrospect, it was a combination of three things that hit home for me. Bellow’s sheer skill with language, for one, is among the best of American twentieth century writing I’ve encountered. Each page was a delight. The back cover, I remember, featured a review that talked about the book being a “feast of language” and I wholeheartedly agree. Secondly, is it stunning to anyone else how freaking smart Saul Bellow is? Talk about needing a reference book. My God. The man leaps through issues of philosophy, physics, politics on and on and not in a particularly pretentious way, I think, but in a truly educated and engaged way.
And that, of course, leads me right into my third big reason for loving Herzog, which is the main character of Herzog and the plot itself. This main character and all he represented resonated with me more than almost any protagonist in recent memory. I loved the first line, I loved the flirtations with the border of sanity, the pathos of his relationship with Valentine and his ex-wives, the wealth of characters he described and interacted with, and especially that his own academic background justified the depth and range of knowledge presented throughout Herzog.
That knowledge, aside from being interesting, reminded me of the huge distiction between rich knowledge and exceptional writing style. This novel contains both.
People, I’m gonna say it once and probably a thousand more times.
Literature is FINE.
There’s a lot of people who predict that reading is on its way out, that new media overtakes print completely, that no one will be reading long form in 100 years. Philip Roth’s talked about that in interviews before, I remember. The general theme is that the novel is running through its last generation or two now, that it was a historical curiosity that won’t sustain the intense technological transformations of the coming century.
But here’s the thing: literature was always embraced by a smaller cadre of followers. It was always niche. The reason that people believe literature is dying is because technology, while hardly diminishing the numbers of educated people reading books, has highlighted what the general population of society looks like, significantly, for the first time in history. Social media and general democracy, Internet commenting and mass media entertainment via cable and movie theaters…it all gives us a sense of what the real mass of humanity looks like in terms of taste and in terms of what we typically call culture. We see the reality TV, the banality, the blockbusters, the mainstream and for economic reasons, society caters to that (which is fine!). Yet that doesn’t change the significant and passionate readers of quote unquote literature, a following whose numbers exceed those of past book centuries. As long as those readers don’t buy into the doomsaying, we’re fine. People are getting smarter and our entertainment is merely apparent and democratized, visibly, for the first century in history.
And besides, can people seriously believe reading’s on its way out given the hype surrounding an innovation like the Kindle? Literature’s never had more potential in history. Don’t let the other parts of our culture (and a very prominent disinterest in books as a whole) shout out what you’ve always found worthwhile.
I think there are more people engaged with literature than there ever have been,” he [Nathaniel Rich] said. “When people think about the golden age of the novel in the 19th century, literacy rates were absurdly low. There wasn’t electricity to read by: People weren’t just sitting around reading all day then either.