Thursday, October 11, 2007

Insight: or, In a New Light


Why do we read books? For entertainment, to be sure, but also to gain insight.
And what is insight? An understanding of patterns or conditions which explain the chaos of "everyday life" in some way, or something--an object, an emotion, a thought, a chart, a film-- which nudges us to see ourselves or human life in a new light.

As you can tell by scanning my "Essential Books" (left sidebar), I am drawn to books which illuminate the powerful forces or conditions which will shape our world: oil scarcity. demographics, the limitations of the human mind, and historical cycles.

Fiction--novels--work a different level of insight. By making a situation which was merely intellectual or understood at arms-length--another culture, a distant landscape, another era, or something terrible like combat or torture--we gain insight into the human condition, and see ourselves and events in a new light.

Literary fiction has deservedly earned a reputation for being "not worth the effort." We are told--by our intellectual superiors, of course--that if we were as smart as them, we would grasp that the richness and complexity of modern literature are not hindrances but conditions which generate huge pay-offs for the reader--once you slog through the incomprehensible text.

But what if they're wrong? What if the pay-off is, for most of us, paltry? Alas, literary fiction is, like painting, music, dance and all the arts, in the cold, relentless grasp of fad and fashion. For decades, fiction has been in thrall to a post-modern sensibility which extols the cutting and pasting of characters, places and ideas in a pastiche which transforms the text from comprehensibility to an "other state" of incomprehensibility which will supposedly generate deep insights in the reader once they slog through it.

Many will claim this is true. There are readers who swear by James Joyce's Ulyssses and Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, and critics who worship Haruki Murakami. I have found that none of these offer much in the way of reward for the pain and suffering required to slog through their text.

Other classics, such as Nabokov's Lolita or Melville's Moby-Dick have challenging passages, but they manage the work with the standard comprehensible parts of fiction: characters, plots which advance to a conclusion or denouement, etc. No "tricks" are required.

Given this disparity between "modern" and "post-modern" literature, I suspect that a hundred or two hundred years hence (assuming we have not devolved to wood fires and storytelling) our entire era of fiction will be forgotten and dismissed as a foolish fashion for the obscure and the incomrehensible, as if these traits bestowed some higher understanding in and of themselves. Alas, they do not.

Generally, the most powerful ideas and forces are rather simple: for instance, Special Relativity and natural selection. It is as if literature in our era is the impoverished and resentful stepchild of the natural sciences; while science has been digging up deep insights at a furious pace for the past hundred years, literature remains mere storytelling. To compensate for its sense of being surpassed, literature has strived for a complexity which equals that of the sciences, as if to say, "Look at us! We're complicated and incomprehensible, too! Now can we join the big boys and girls? We're advancing, aren't we? We're still important, too!"

As a reader, it seems to me the literary emperors have no clothes. Their complexity is artificial and forced; every generation of writers seeks new tricks--jumping characters through time, shuffling the narrative, loading the text with pop-culture references, etc.--to obscure the story, hoping that critics will see the tricks as proof of literary genius.

Alas, making things obscure and difficult is only genius if you are a German philosopher.

Which all brings me to a literary novel I can recommend to you without reservation: Walk On, Bright Boy by Charles Davis. It is a slim book, only 144 pages long, a few hours read at most, but packed with descriptions and scenes which offer immediate rewards. For instance, you may well come to a new appreciation of walking--yes, the simple act of taking a walk.

This is the purview of literature: to make us appreciate or see something like the act of walking in a new light.

This short book has ideas and action aplenty, and works as a simple story--a village boy in Old Spain, a Moor, the Inquisition, mysterious disappearances of village boys--and as a meditation on action, the guilt experienced when we do not act in defense of truth, the slippery nature of Evil, and religious faith's role in guilt and action.

A good book will speak to each reader differently, so I can't tell you exactly what you will gain from reading this small book; I can only suggest that you will gain something which is not available in the pages of natural sciences or history, as rich in insight as they might be.

Disclaimer: this book is published by The Permanent Press, which also published my novel I-State Lines. I do not receive any compensation whatsoever for recommending this book, or if you order it from The Permanent Press. If you buy it via Amazon.com (Walk On, Bright Boy ) you pay no more than if you went to Amazon.com from a new browser window, but I do receive a couple percent commission as an Amazon Associate--the same fee structure behind all Amazon links on this site. As a free alternative: borrow the book at your library, or recommend your library buy it if the book is not available.

All of which is to say: I recommend this book to you as a reader, not as an entrepreneur.


Thank you, Faith A., ($18.48) for your thoughtful donation to this humble site for a book. I am greatly honored by your contribution and readership. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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