Monday, June 17, 2013

On Reading and Re-Reading

An inaugural footnote: Your patience is requested as I adjust myself to what for me will be a new mode of communication. Long have I envied the life of a blogger, but watched them all from afar. Now, I get to make all the same mistakes, and invent some new ones, I'm sure.

I'll go at this in an "I Write As I Please" format to some degree, but will probably focus on my immediate concerns these days: my writing, science fiction,  the teaching of writing, the teaching of writing science fiction, all the various related literatures, arts, cultures popular and obscure, and whatever little details intersect with these interests.

Along with those, I also plan to post some "Dispatches from Sauria" -- unless I decide to create a new blog solely devoted to the saurs and to saurian activity, most likely including the harangues of one Agnes A. Stegosaur It's always good to have someone like Agnes around. If ever I find myself short of an opinion, Agnes is only too ready to provide one. For this I feel truly blessed.

Recently, at Wiscon, I appeared on a panel, "Rereading: What Stands the Test of Time and Why?" It's a topic that seems dear to many bloggers and commentators, especially (if not exclusively) to those in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

I wrote this (somewhat edited) on the topic in the thread of one of my Facebook postings, before attending the panel:

"I don't know what "test of time" means . . . All I know is that mucho folks are digging out old tomes and filling blogs with their opinions as to why this one here is no longer relevant (relevant to what?) or that one there has been unfairly neglected (by whom?").

"I don't believe many of these commentators have an objective criterion to make their determinations -- none of them are holding judgeships in the Great Court of Literature and, when I last checked, no authors have been brought before that body to face charges of 'literary irrelevancy' anyway.

"Some of the immediate motivations for this interest in tests and time vary between spite, indignation and a need to trim down a personal library that's grown way too big to manage anymore. Maybe another motivation: a feeling that folks within our little community are checking out which books will embarrass 'the genre' if ever we achieve another modicum of literary respectability, and said books need to be stricken from the shelves, which is an even sillier (and pettier) reason than spite and indignation.

"What continues to be read by readers continues to be read because for one reason or another (even for no reason at all) these works still speak to them. In my class, "The Cold Equations" still generates intense and lively discussions, and I can't tell you how many pieces in NYRSF, essays and letters of comment alike, have tried to bury that story [And, after attending another panel at Wiscon, I can confirm that academics still cringe at the mention of "The Cold Equations" I can't tell you how thrilling and fascinating it was to watch one particular academic's face twinge into 'cringe mode' as I uttered that title. It was like reciting a magical incantation.].

"I am no fan of 'The Nine Billion Names of God,' and yet when a colleague assailed me (good-naturedly, I confess) about its continued relevancy, it being a "punchline story," as he put it, I defended it by pairing it against a more recent story [the most rewarding "Infinites" by Vandana Singh], and tried to demonstrate how the older story addresses concerns which haven't entirely disappeared in the sixty-odd years since it was first written. My opinion of the story has little to do with the conversation created between stories and readers when you put the two together.

"There's no quicker way to gather negative critical responses than by having your work chosen by the Library of America. There seem to be more people who know what LoA shouldn't publish than agree on what what it should. If I have to read one more blog entry by Joe Sourball going back to read to some personally significant work that first lured him into reading SF, and finding that it creaks and totters, I will barbecue Mr. Sourball's cat personally. I'm participating in the panel because I also find this 'test of time' business puzzling and hope to come out of it better informed about what it's all supposed to mean."

Well, that panel has been and gone, and as always happens after a panel, I couldn't really figure out what I had to say until a few weeks after. The panel itself, through no fault of its own, equipped with a capable, intelligent cast and an equally smart audience, made no further headway on the topic. At cons, panels like this often break down to the audience asking for titles to put on their "to read" (or "not to read") lists.

The one thing that's struck me, though, since attending that panel: You know that whole experience of going back to some favorite book, reading it again (or trying to read it again) and finding it somehow diminished, or lacking (for 'lack' of a better word), or otherwise not living up to one's memories of the book? Never happened to me.

Never. Not once.

Why? Am I so lacking in critical faculties? Were my tastes always so highly refined that I gravitated only toward the greatest of masterpieces? Or am I such a bottom-feeder that anything written above the level of a semi-literate ransom thrills me?

I don't think so, bottom-feeder though I may be. I think it has more to do with the way I read books. It may not be that I'm lacking in critical faculties, but that what faculties I utilize are applied to different ends.

Stating this, though, makes me pause, because it's three in the morning and I'm about to enter a labyrinth of "explanation." Let me see if I can find a quick way to explain what I mean:

The book (or story, or novelette, or poem) is itself. It's also the creative act of its author. It's also the creative act of its reader(s). The reading of the book is the summary of the time, place, author, reader -- all sorts of things along with the book itself. Each reading creates its own individual context, and each of these contexts is fascinating to me (no, not too strong a word) -- even if it's of no interest to anyone else.

I don't read books to "test" them. I read books to read them, and will take my pleasures where I find them.

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