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May 1, 2011

The Common Reader

I really enjoyed the essay Narcissus Regards a Novel, about how readers read to be entertained, about how there is no longer cultural authority, media doesn’t shape taste but simply reflects it, good is what makes us feel good, what affirms our ideas about who we are. I particularly liked the last half of the essay, which posits that perhaps there still exists some readers in possession of that “strange mixture of humility and confidence” that allows the invitation of influence, the possibility of second thoughts. (I believe this was called “flip-flopping” in the 2004 American presidential election.) Irresoluteness is not commonly regarded as a virtue in our society, though I actually find it kind of attractive. Mark Edmundson, the essay’s author, thinks so too, and he thinks we’re all out there waiting for the right works to deliver us from our Narcissism:  “… the truly common reader—this impossible, possible man or woman who is both confident and humble, both ready to change and skeptical of all easy remedies”.

And this is not a yes, but. If anything it’s a yes yes yes yes yes!, but, because I love the idea of the moveable reader, and of reading as the antidote to a society of prescriptive consumerism, but the beginning of the essay still rankles me. Because while our reluctance to judge the value of artistic works has certainly lowered the cultural tone, the alternative is even more disgusting (and I think of Parley Burns in Elizabeth Hay’s new novel: “What a ranking, comparing, depressing mind he had.”) I think of literary critic William Arthur Deacon who was also obsessed with determining what was great and what wasn’t, and how history has determined he was wrong, wrong, wrong. (I hope he knew it too, somewhere in his heart, before he died a painful, lonely death. He was a horrid man.) Who gets to be the decider? I’m not saying that everything I love is brilliant, but some of it is, and critics would still leave it out of the canon.

The beginning of the essay also gets me, because I wonder about anyone to tell me how I read, why I read, let alone how I should read. I do desire to be Edmundson’s elusive common reader, but so what if I didn’t? Who is he to tell me how I should be? Or what literature should do, as though books ever only do just one thing (and if they do, please don’t let it be to “be an ice-axe to break the frozen sea within us.” I hate the violence of that image, and my sea isn’t even frozen).

I was thinking about this even before I read this essay, as I rode the subway on Tuesday evening and watched the woman across the train from me reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. She was coming home from a job that required her to wear attire that didn’t suit her, which I knew because her casual/sporty jacket did not go with her skirt and nylons. Over her nylons, she was wearing socks and running shoes, which meant her daytime footwear didn’t suit her physical needs either. It was 6:45, which is late to be commuting downtown, and I thought, “Wow, you can have your book. You don’t get to pick your own clothes, or your schedule, so surely I’ll grant you your book.” I thought, “Office lady in the running shoes. You read whatever you damn well please.”

I am lucky that I can afford to be elitist, because I don’t want to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and because I once tried to read The Da Vinci Code, but I thought it seemed long and more than a bit boring. I am also lucky because I get to spend a lot of my life doing creative, fulfilling things, but I think that kind of life can put one more than a bit out of touch with reality. And so I do like to check my snobbery from time to time, and stay irresolute about most things, such as what’s great and what isn’t, and who’s allowed to tell who to read what and what for.

3 thoughts on “The Common Reader”

  1. patricia says:

    Yes yes yes yes yes!

  2. Kiley says:

    Oh YEAH, Kerry. Score. You think good, you.

  3. Melwyk says:

    Beautifully put — and yes from me as well! Though I cherish irresoluteness, or is that irresolutability? Irresolution?

    (ps: I share your views of Deacon!)

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