What to read? (Part 2) Like / don’t like
According to Roland Barthes, the laziest form of literary criticism is that which focuses purely on enjoyment. In a famous passage from Roland Barthes (translated here by Richard Howard) he questions the validity of an aesthetic response that digs no deeper than “j’aime / je n’aime pas.” He mocks the arbitrary nature of yes-or-no judgments in this over-the-top plethora of preferences:
“I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay…walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France…the Marx Brothers, the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, etc.…I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord…”
And so on. It reads like a prickly self-description for an online dating service.
But Barthes argues that all this information on personal leanings is empty in the end: “I like, I don’t like: this is of no importance to anyone; this, apparently, has no meaning.” When applied to the study of literature, I take his point to be that one should never cease the discussion with “did you like it?” Any English teacher or book club coordinator would be dismayed by the one-word answers this question elicits. If the best you can say for a book is “I liked it,” it is possible that you never fully engaged with it – that you failed to notice the author’s style, the choice of narrative voice, the strength or weakness of the characterization, the piecing together of the plot. Similarly, if you can say nothing beyond “I didn’t like it,” it is doubtful that you could have given the book a fair chance. Any book has redeeming qualities. And either a positive or a negative response must be backed up with evidence; this is one of the first things we all learned in our high school English classes, where we were drilled for hours on how to write thesis statements with three supporting topic sentences. (A terrific example of a systematically justified demolition of a hated book, in this case Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, can be found here.)
Yet no less a reader than Virginia Woolf acknowledged the difficulty of stretching oneself beyond the dichotomized yea/nay response: “there is always a demon in us who whispers ‘I hate, I love,’ and we cannot silence him.” However, she stresses the need to parse the weak from the strong in each book encountered, rather than making unsophisticated blanket statements – “here it fails; here it succeeds; this is bad; that is good.” Approaching a book with this discerning generosity allows for the possibility that reading it might benefit you, no matter how much or how little you think you are ‘enjoying’ it along the way.
Baseball and snails
Here’s another question I suspect has little significance: whether or not you have a natural personal affinity with the book’s subject matter. For instance, one of my favorite novels I read last year was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, even though I have no enthusiasm for sports. In this case, knowledge or ignorance of baseball makes no difference because the sport is merely a window onto life. Harbach even confirms this metaphorical usage explicitly in the novel: “this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball…an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition.” So for me baseball is neither here nor there when reading The Art of Fielding; it’s just a prism for refracting light onto ideas about friendship and failure. Message and voice supersede content.
“There are certain things in this book I do not like. But they are not important, or really part of it. They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a leaf – no more, – and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as from a kind of silliness. But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting [she’s certainly absorbed the Laurentian tactic of sexualizing everything], outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.”
As you’ll know if you’ve seen my column “A Bibliophile’s Miscellany,” I adore a book list. Numbered lists of the best examples of a genre, random strangers’ lists of their favorite books, year-end lists of the best books – I love ’em all. Really, I like anything (bar sports) that involves a competitive component, with points scored and places earned, whether it be the Oscars or American Idol. But to take Barthes’ and Woolf’s criticism seriously is to question the worth of this type of quantitative evaluation. So the star ratings that I give to each book I finish on Goodreads, for instance – ranging from “did not like it” (1 star) to “it was amazing” (5 stars) – would be on Barthes’ list of subjective nonsense. I don’t think I could ever denounce list keeping; I have too much fun reading other people’s lists and creating my own. The lesson to take away, though, is that even if you don’t personally enjoy a book, you can redeem the reading experience by seeking out what you learned – even if that lesson is what not to do in a book.
So when we finish books in the future, let’s not just ask ourselves “do I like it?” – would I give it the Facebook thumbs-up? – but instead progress to a few better questions, such as: Is it good? Is it true? Does it speak to my situation? Is it of lasting value? And let’s always leave the door open for our literary taste to change and develop – more on which topic next week.