Friday, March 20, 2015

How reading has changed . . . part I

I'm old. I'll admit that. I just had a birthday, and I am so tired! (LOL)

I didn't grow up in the Greatest Generation like my mother, though. I was on the tail end of the Baby Boomers, the hippie sub-section, in the late sixties and the seventies. I feel as if I got the best of all worlds, beause not only was the nation still in a postwar boom, but we had a lot of respect for intellectualism and had a so-called "middlebrow culture" in which people felt it important to at least know many authors of "canon" novels and be aware of classical music (Western art music), acknowledging that these things have stood the test of time and must have merit (even if you personally don't prefer it.)

Nowadays, everyone has an opinion, and all opinions are equally valued. People post their opinions and views everywhere and consider that their say is just as valid and important as that of an expert in the field. We see a lot of people contradicting what scientists who are working in the field say, and we see people dismissing the advice of those who are studying whatever it is (world events/politics, music, whatever) and saying that their opinions are just as valid as the experts. "The End of Expertise" has been bemoaned (note my appropriate use of the passive voice, heh), and I think it IS a shame. Doctors know more about how to treat patients than the patients do. Professors of a discipline know more (even if you don't like what they say) than novices in the field.

The ancients were neither stupid nor ignorant. We are where we are because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Much that we know today is based on research and knowledge from the past. I mourn the Library at Alexandria and wonder just how much we've had to rediscover because of its burning. We can learn much from listening to the greats (and even the lesser lights) or the past. We can learn a lot from just watching and listening to those of today, too. We might find out a lot if we don't discount the views of those who seem to oppose us.

BUT ANYWAY. I've noticed a change in the way that readers read, and it kind of hurts me.

Once upon a time, the "average" reader appreciated many of the allusions and literary r3eferences in books. Lots of people were conversant with Shakespeare's plays and with the King James Bible (as literature and history, at least), and many were conversant with a large section of the Great Books (by which I mean the Odyssey, Lysistrata, She Stoops to Conquer, the Commedia dell'Arte, The Importance of Being Earnest, etc.) The Western Canon was not despised but was largely revered. My dad and his mentor Angus Pearson knew EVERYTHING. You could ask either of them anything and they could provide an answer that was correct--sometimes as a result of an educated guess. If you ever watched the PBS series "Connections," you understand what I mean when I say that the knowledgebase you have will allow fairly accurate predictions in related questions. I saw my dad and Angus as perfect. When I was a child, I determined to be just like them when I grew up.

Now I find people complaining about encountering any sort of cultural reference in a novel or story. They say it "is just there to fill pages" and that it irritates them, and often they don't get it at all. People have asked me why I would have any reference in my novels to other novels or to plays, movies, and so forth.

Great Books founder Mortimer Adler (I think) was the first to use the term "The Great Conversation" to refer to the body of work that is the Western Canon in English (and other books that didn't get on the list, as well.) He points out that authors have a Great Conversation going with one another. If you "get" the allusions and references, it deepens your understanding of what the author you're now reading is saying. It adds resonance to the current story and relates it back to what has gone before. Donald E. Westlake used to get away with a LOT of this, as did Lawrence Block. Some now call them self-indulgent for doing it. I disagree.

If an author writes that a character looks like Cary Grant or Frank Sinatra . . . it's probably ME, so let's reframe that . . . I am using those older icons for a reason. I believe that most people have seen Grant and Sinatra on the screen and will twig to what I mean, that the character's general demeanor or charm makes you think of the actor. If I write that someone sounds like Garrison Keillor, perhaps that is a bit more obscure (he hosts Prairie Home Companion on PBS radio and has for many years--his "Lake Wobegon Days" was a huge best-seller and I still get lots of inspiration from his radio programs.) Still, those who get it will get it, and I think it will deepen their first impression of that character AND of the character who sees him that way. In other words, if Kay perceives Whit as sounding like Keillor, then you know she is the sort to listen to PBS.

Oh, I don't know. Perhaps it's fruitless to discuss this. Either you like this sort of thing or you don't. I don't use references to ephemeral things that won't be remembered in a couple of years because I know that will date the text badly. I think that most literate people should have some knowledge of the Western canon and of the culture before hip-hop ruled and baggy pants were on everyone's radar. I could, of course, be wrong.

But if you're thinking those allusions are just thrown in to fill space, or if they're tossed in without a lot of consideration, you're wrong. I always have a reason for referring to "It's a Wonderful Life" or "All About Eve" or whatever. I think other authors do, as well.

Just clearin' that one up for the Gipper.

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