January 28th, 2004

Relax!  Grab a Book!

(no subject)

Last Saturday my book club met to discuss Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. I had a revelation of sorts.

We had a heated discussion about what the author was trying to say. In many respects, it resembled the debate we had when we gathered to discuss W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge almost a year ago. Dan and JC ultimately did not like that book because they felt it didn't say anything. Maugham's novel explores the idea that there is a greater truth and describes the paths of various characters as they search for or skirt around this truth. Dan and JC felt they could not enjoy this book because the author "failed" to make a point or voice an opinion about this truth. Depicting the journey was not enough for them.

The same issues exist for them with All the King's Men, another novel about self-discovery, this time framed as a journey from idealism to loss of innocence and as a search for a philosophy of life that can reconcile good and evil. But Penn Warren doesn't definitively answer any questions. He brings to life various characters, each of whom experience this journey in diverse ways and struggle with its consequences, but he remains morally ambivalent. Dan and JC insisted they wanted the author to state a position, not just describe the process by which different characters reach their own personal and varying conclusions.

At least this time around treacle_well is a member of the book club, so that I didn't have to defend my position by myself.

I realized that the two camps divide pretty neatly according to reading speed. The fast readers (JC and Dan) are reading with a specific end in mind. They want what they're reading to say something, to state an opinion, to present arguments and draw conclusions. They don't want vague, unanswerable questions. They don't want to read 400+ pages exploring ideas and themes unless the author can say something definitive about these ideas. They see the 400+ pages as a means to an end, as the way to get from point A to point B. But the slow readers (me, treacle_well) tend to enjoy the journey as a means in itself. We are enriched by the open-ended question(s), the peek into someone's voyage of discovery, the journey.

I don't think the division on reading speed was coincidental. I have discovered that I am perfectly capable of reading faster if I need to and still maintain a fair amount of comprehension. But I do subvocalize the words in my mind as I read. This effectively slows me down, as I can then not read much faster than I can speak, but I tend to pay closer attention to details, nuance of language, color, inflection, etc. And I don't miss very much. I suspect (and at least Dan has confirmed this suspicion) that those who speed read miss a lot. They pick up on the broader meaning of what they are reading but miss the important little details that bring a work to life -- the ones that allow the perceptive reader to distinguish a diamond from cubic zirconia. No wonder they feel cheated if they don't get answers when they reach their destination, for they haven't stopped to smell the roses along the way.

I made an analogy to other forms of art. I contended that great literature is like great painting or great music. What was Beethoven trying to say in his Fifth Symphony? Van Gogh in his landscapes or self-portraits? Sure, sometimes there is a specific message being conveyed, such as with Picasso's Guernica or Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, but more often than not the artwork is a vehicle for exploration, for asking the unanswerable and expressing the inexpressible, just like a lot of great literature.

I was disappointed by JC and Dan's response. Literature is not art. Because it uses words and language, it cannot fulfill the same function as painting or song or sculpture or dance. They claim one can't (or shouldn't?) use words to express the inexpressible, for if it can be put into words it should express something expressible. And because of the time involved in reading a book, the author has an obligation to state an opinion on something, to say how he feels about his subject matter, to use his words towards a pragmatic end. Apparently, one cannot invest the same amount of time on art as one does on literature.

I called them philistines. They don't realize that I wasn't being tongue-in-cheek.