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comment by kleinbl00
kleinbl00  ·  676 days ago  ·  link  ·    ·  parent  ·  post: Books you just couldn't fucking get into?

- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

The uninsightful insights of an uninteresting man who misunderstands zen and knows fuckall about motorcycle maintenance.

- Jane Austen's complete works.

"Not bad for someone who didn't read the book," my english teacher said, handing back the quiz I got a B plus on simply by extrapolating logical answers from the questions asked. "Not bad for someone who couldn't even get through the cliff notes," I corrected her. We were not friends.

- Nietzsche.

So far I have tried Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil and a few essays. I generally find them starting out as bombasts from a misanthrope and by the time I put them down, spittle-flecked diatribes against our Precious Bodily Fluids.

- Dune.

Which is not to say I didn't read it. I even read half of Dune Messiah. But Frank Herbert and the Space Arabs never gets any better, never gets interesting, and is always some form of "jihad is justified when you're crushing Imperialists" and never makes the vaguest attempt to explore the nuance.

- Walden.

Thoreau gets through his adventures in the woods by hanging out at Emerson's house whenever things get rough.

- A Sand County Almanac.

Yeah, see, it's not that evil is as evil does. Axes are evil and shovels are good. Full stop.

______________________________________________________________________

I'm ambivalent about this entire line of questioning. On the one hand, there are a great many classics that I have had shoved down my throat or beaten over the head with by friends and they fucking suck. They do. The truths they wish to expose are lies, the perspectives they grant are flawed, and the characters mouthing the prose are repellant. That the weight of the Western World has decided these books are genius makes you socially and mentally deficient if you cant grok their wisdom.

On the other hand, books are great, books are good, only bad people ban books, us intellectuals always know how to look down our noses at those horrible people who ban Horton Hears a Who because of its subversive ecological message. Therefore thou shalt not slag on the heroes of others because obviously that makes you a goose-stepping Nazi.

But when I say "Gormenghast" it means fuckall to anybody here. Yet it was a major portion of pop culture for 30-odd years. Toynbee? Toynbee was the guy that everybody quoted when talking about history from about 1930 to about 1970. His perspective was the perspective on the world until Durant. Now nobody remembers Durant. It's all about Jared Fucking Diamond. Before Toynbee it was Frazer.

Edward Said basically made his bones by going through 1000 years of literature and pointing out that the perspective of the entire goddamn Western World on the Middle East was bullshit, chapter and verse, point by point, book by book. The only way to refresh a culture is to cast aside old, useless things.

And the pedagogy of "great books" is bullshit, too. As Gardner pointed out, most books are taught not because they are good, but because they simply and clearly illustrate whatever point the instructor is trying to make. You read Pride and Prejudice because it's the quintessential comedy of manners. You read The Scarlet Letter because it's the quintessential moralist play. And you read Last of the Mohicans because it's just about the only thing from that era that still exists. There. Now you're well-read. Now make every child you encounter suffer through the same hazing.

The danger in threads like this is we all bring our baggage to them. I was in a really, really shitty place when I had Jane Fucking Austen shoved down my throat and Pride and Prejudice could be personally read to me by Carmen Elektra in a nightie and I'd still walk out of the room. And we forget that when we engage in these discussions - your baggage ain't mine, mine ain't yours, and god help you if you try to make me carry yours or put mine down.




illu45  ·  675 days ago  ·  link  ·  

This probably isn't worth writing, given that your perspective is so very different from mine, but I feel the need to rebut some of your claims.

    The truths they wish to expose are lies, the perspectives they grant are flawed, and the characters mouthing the prose are repellant.

Well, these are very broad claims. I would start by pointing out that searching for "truth" via novels is usually an ill-fated endeavour. It's even one that Austen herself mocks and cautions against. Rather, novels offer ideas and arguments about those ideas. Reading a novel doesn't mean you have to agree with it. You just have to think about the ideas it presents. And that's what great novels do: they make you think. They absolutely offer flawed perspectives and loathsome characters, but hopefully those flaws and characters are rendered in ways that are at least interesting (and might get readers to see things from a different perspective).

"Great Books" programs and "the canon" certainly have problems. But books do not survive simply because instructors wish to use them to prove a specific point (which really isn't really what instruction in literature aims to do). I think Barbara Herrnstein Smith is quite apt in pointing out that books survive the "test of time" because they are able to offer different readings that are of interest to different generations of readers. Today, we venerate Shakespeare because of the psychological depth of his characters. Restoration audiences liked his complex plots (and would often cut out soliloquies in order to place more emphasis on plot). Early Modernists enjoyed his jokes and his class subversiveness. Tastes change over time. Multi-dimensional works are able to survive because they remain interesting despite changes in taste.

Orientalism is certainly an issue of concern to many academics and readers. Orientalist depictions of 'the East' still being created in all sorts of media. Are you going to "cast aside" newspaper articles about the US invasion of Iraq because they "other" the East, or are you going to accept that the articles have a flawed viewpoint but still treat them as worthwhile texts?

I absolutely agree with you that we bring our baggage to the books we read, just as we do with pretty much anything we consume (from the food on our plate to the music we hear and even the people we meet). Good critics are able to separate their baggage from the text. The rest of us just enjoy what we enjoy and don't enjoy what we don't, and there's nothing wrong with that. I think it's foolhardy to try to tell someone that they have to like a book, whether it be Pride and Prejudice or Gormenghast.

kleinbl00  ·  675 days ago  ·  link  ·  

My disagreement with your objection relates to the way "great books" are inflicted on others: as thought-provoking, as containing (or describing) truth. Here you are, yourself:

    And that's what great novels do: they make you think.

Despite the fact that a third of Zen is dedicated to Robert Persig's problematic understanding of motorcycles, two or three lines in Grapes of Wrath communicate a worldview and a reality with far more clarity and insight. This is my whole point: Zen didn't make me think. Pride & Prejudice didn't make me think. Nietzsche didn't make me think; rather, I'd argue that his diseased and angry worldview can be discounted by inspection.

And I disagree: in many cases, books do survive because generation after generation after generation has been forced to read them. This isn't to say all old books are bad. I'm not gonna say a single negative thing about Shakespeare.

Invoking journalism only serves to muddy the water. We're talking "great books" not things written last week. We're talking works that stand the test of time (however they accomplish it), not immediate works for immediate digestion.

    I think it's foolhardy to try to tell someone that they have to like a book, whether it be Pride and Prejudice or Gormenghast.

And that's my beef - I've been told over and over again that I have to like Jane Austen.

And I don't.

And fuck them for saying I do.

kcWDD  ·  671 days ago  ·  link  ·  

then you should think about why they didn't make you think duh

bfv  ·  675 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    Nietzsche didn't make me think; rather, I'd argue that his diseased and angry worldview can be discounted by inspection.

Nietzsche was optimistic, or at least trying for optimism. He has a reputation for nihilism, but he was really trying to offer an alternative to nihilism. The quote from The Gay Science everyone knows means something different in context

    God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche started out wanting to be a minister, becoming an atheist was hard on him, but he didn't think Christianity worked in the modern world. He was trying to break with tradition that couldn't work anymore, and figure out what could replace it. Looking at the harm people clinging to tradition and trying to force the rest of us to as well have done and keep doing, I say we could have used a few more Nietzsches. That said, I meet more people who have gotten "hooray for being an asshole" from Nietzsche than anything worthwhile, so all the aphorisms and bombast might have been counterproductive.

kleinbl00  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    so all the aphorisms and bombast might have been counterproductive.

circle gets the square

This furthers my contempt of the whole pantheon of "great books" - "you must like this." "but I don't." "That's because you don't understand it." "That's fine. There's all sortsa shit I don't understand that I'm not required to like. Quit triangulating to a place where it's my failing that makes this a bad book to me."

illu45  ·  675 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    in many cases, books do survive because generation after generation after generation has been forced to read them.

I'm not going to argue that canonicity isn't self-perpetuating to some extent. Leonard Diepeveen has an interesting look at the ways in which anthologies feed off of and perpetuate ideas about time periods and their authors, to give just one example. At the end of the day, there's a whole range of factors that determine which texts survive the 'test of time' and which ones do not (and academia certainly plays a role in that process). I would add that significant amounts of time and energy are often spent on deciding which authors to include in course syllabi and curricula. Moreover, while it's absolutely your prerogative to dismiss any book for whatever reason you like, personally, I've found that I can get a lot more out of books if I give their authors credit for having something interesting to say rather than simply getting annoyed at the fact that they're 'canonical' or dismissing them because they're 'popular'.

    Invoking journalism only serves to muddy the water. We're talking "great books" not things written last week. We're talking works that stand the test of time (however they accomplish it), not immediate works for immediate digestion.

I invoke journalism only to point out that the publication of Orientalism doesn't mean we should throw out everything written before 1978.

I don't disagree with you that people telling you that you have to like Austen (or anything else for that matter) are assholes, if not idiots. I don't like Game of Thrones. That means that I get left out of some conversations amongst my friends, and people told me that they think it's a great show, but no one tells me I have to like it. On the flip side, I'm not going to tell my friends that Game of Thrones has no value or that they only like it because it's popular. But, despite my dislike of Game of Thrones, I recognize that it does interesting things in terms of world development and subverting TV audience expectations, and that lets me have productive things to say about it rather than simply dismissing it.

    My disagreement with your objection relates to the way "great books" are inflicted on others: as thought-provoking, as containing (or describing) truth.

I don't think anyone who teaches literature actually believes that books contain "truth" in any objective way, at least. But yes, people tend to teach books that they find thought-provoking. If I'm going to spend my time trying to get students to think about books, the arguments they make, and the ways in which they make them, I'm sure as hell going to choose books that I think have interesting arguments to make (and/or books that make arguments in interesting ways). I don't expect my students to like all (or even any) of the books that they read, but I do expect them to be willing to engage with those books and the arguments they make.

kleinbl00  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Since you're an educator I'll spend a little extra time on this:

I stopped writing for ten years because I was required to 'give authors credit for having something interesting to say.'

I stopped writing for ten years because I was required to find something nice to say about Aldo Fucking Leopold.

I stopped writing for ten years because Willa Fucking Cather was held up as someone worth studying while Rudyard Kipling was held up as someone to mock.

I've made over 10 grand with my writing. I have, in the past, shared an agency with Stephen King (and hope to in the future). I am an objectively skilled writer and the approach my educators took in sharing "great books" drove me to mechanical engineering.

There's a world of difference between disagreeing with your friends as to whether or not Game of Thrones is of value and having your grade depend on the correct interpretation of Axe in Hand.

    I don't think anyone who teaches literature actually believes that books contain "truth" in any objective way, at least.

I went to a school that, at the time, was ranked in the top ten in the United States. I choked on objective fucking truth. MAKE NO MISTAKE - educators and their forced interpretation of 'great works' stopped my enjoyment of literature and my participation in prose COLD for ten.fucking.years. Riddle me this: one of your students hands in a report on, say, the scarlet letter that argues the protagonist is passive, the narrator is sexist even within his own time and the message of the book is 'don't make waves.' Do you consider that student's points? Or do you immediately go to where he misinterpreted things?

I never wrote that essay. But I wrote plenty like them, early on. And what you miss is the fundamental basis of your entire line of argument: you're right, that kid's wrong, and if we can just box his ears a bit he'll come around.

You know why kids are subjected to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Because thirty fuckin' years ago, 'boomers thought it was brilliant. THEY'RE WRONG. But it's gonna be another 20-30 years of dragging kids' faces through the muck before people give up.

Some books just have longer muck hold time.

illu45  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    I stopped writing for ten years because I was required to 'give authors credit for having something interesting to say.'

    I stopped writing for ten years because I was required to find something nice to say about Aldo Fucking Leopold.

    I stopped writing for ten years because Willa Fucking Cather was held up as someone worth studying while Rudyard Kipling was held up as someone to mock.

I'm sorry that you've had bad experiences with how literature was taught to you. Unfortunately, lots of subjects are taught very poorly, especially at the secondary level. The way that literature was taught to you is not how I teach. Nor is it the way that everyone I know in academia teaches.

    Riddle me this: one of your students hands in a report on, say, the scarlet letter that argues the protagonist is passive, the narrator is sexist even within his own time and the message of the book is 'don't make waves.' Do you consider that student's points? Or do you immediately go to where he misinterpreted things?

Of course I consider the student's points. I am paid to consider the points made by every single student in my class, in their essays, in their discussions with their peers, and in their talks with me in my office. That's my job. I consider the points my students make and the evidence that they use to support those points. If the points are well-made and the evidence is well-presented, the student gets a good mark. Though I realize you may not believe me when I say this, whether or not I personally agree with the points being made really isn't relevant if the evidence is there. I (and every other literature educator I know) isn't trying to get kids to say the 'right thing' about texts. If that was all there was to it, we'd just give everyone multiple choice tests rather than making them slog through essays that they find difficult to write and we find time-consuming to mark. We're trying to get them to engage and think carefully about the texts we read. I yearn for my students to come up with their own arguments about texts rather than just parroting what I've said back to them. Often those arguments are weak (or sometimes actually wrong in the sense of being completely contradicted by the text), and that's when I try to get the students to consider the text in more depth, pointing out what I think are relevant passages and helping them think of ways to make their arguments stronger.

I'm not hoping to convince you of the value of literary analysis or of 'great books' here. It was clear before I wrote my first post that we've had very different experiences when it comes to literature and education. I have no doubt that your writing has served you well. I'm not here to denigrate or dismiss your books. Would you please stop trying to denigrate and dismiss mine?

kleinbl00  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

For clarity, our discussion started when I took the pedagogy I've encountered to task for its inflexibility and certainty of perspective. You responded to say, in essence, that you don't teach that way and neither does anyone you know.

My answer was basically "that's fine, but that's all I encountered." Your response was basically "that's fine, but I teach like this."

My answer was "No, listen. The way you think you're teaching? It fucking drove me away from literature." Now your answer is basically "well, sure. That was high school. Here in college we don't do that."

Here's the thing: by the time you're teaching literature in college? You're getting the kids that agree with you. Your audience has self-selected to your worldview. You will never encounter anyone like me because those lesser teachers have already fucked us up.

I am here to denigrate and dismiss books. That's what the entire point of this thread is about. In every other form of art critique, it's acceptable and encouraged to say "this work is fucking bullshit, chapter and verse." In literature there's a consensus view. Disagree with that consensus view and you're an infidel.

I haven't taken your courses. I never will. I commend you for your commitment to excellence and open-mindedness. But you have not made a compelling argument that my criticisms of literature and its instruction are unfounded. More than that, you've reinforced my suspicion that people who are part of the problem think they're part of the solution.

illu45  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    Here's the thing: by the time you're teaching literature in college? You're getting the kids that agree with you. Your audience has self-selected to your worldview. You will never encounter anyone like me because those lesser teachers have already fucked us up.

You're right, there's absolutely a high amount of self-selection in college. This isn't unique to literary studies, though. I speak mostly about college because that's what I have the most experience with, but I know many secondary-level educators, and none of them teach the way you describe. Again, if the goal of literary studies at the secondary level was to tell kids what to think about books, teachers would assign multiple choice tests instead of essays (God knows high school teachers are more overworked than college instructors).

I don't doubt the veracity of your personal experiences with literature classes. I simply ask you to stop extrapolating from "I stopped writing for ten years because I was required to find something nice to say about Aldo Fucking Leopold" to " the pedagogy of "great books" is bullshit" as though your poor personal experience has made you an authority on the pedagogy of literary studies.

Stuff like

    The way you think you're teaching? It fucking drove me away from literature

is an unnecessary and unsupported attack on my pedagogy. I've tried to demonstrate over and over again how my pedagogy is different from the pedagogy you've encountered, yet, because of your personal negative experience, you've refused to listen, instead doing a great deal of work in order to keep insisting that I (along with all other literary educators) must be doing harm with our teaching.

    I am here to denigrate and dismiss books.

That's fine, lots of people like to denigrate and dismiss books. Personally, I think that's a silly pursuit. I also think that denigrating "great books" is really no different from denigrating popular ones. Both revolve around a weirdly prescriptivist view about what others should like and dislike (and I know that you think that that's a view that literary educators take, but believe me, it really isn't). But for some reason some people get really worked up when someone else says that they like something that those people happen to dislike. I guess those sorts of discussions are what the Internet is about these days...

EDIT:

    you have not made a compelling argument that my criticisms of literature and its instruction are unfounded

I wanted to address this, since perhaps calling on my personal experience in talking to educators, designing syllabi, and participating in curricula reviews is simply too personal an appeal. Your claim, as I understand it, is that a) high school teachers only teach texts that have been deemed by society to be "great works" and b) that in teaching those texts, they simply want their students to be able to figure out and regurgitate the "objective truth" of those texts. While I would argue that both things can be disproven by simply talking to a high school English teacher, I'll provide some actual studies on the topic.

First, Jane Agee's 2000 study, "What is effective literature instruction?" (if there's a paywall let me know and I can post the pdf somewhere), page 307:

    English educators concur that an exclusive focus on surveys of national literatures or on literary conventions and analysis allows little room for developing intellectual curiosity and growth (Dias, 1992,1996; HiƱes, 1995; Langer, 1992,1995; Purves, Rogers, & Soter, 1995; Rabinowitz 8c Smith, 1997). Narrow conceptions of literature and reading, especially those that are marked by monologic rather than dialogic practices, establish literature as a cultural icon with little room for students to develop critical interpretive skills.

Teachers agree that simply teaching students the "messages" or "truths" of "great books" is unengaging and unproductive, and they've done so for at least 20 years.

Similarly, in a highly-cited 2003 study by some of the foremost researchers in pedagogy in the US states, the researchers state:

    A variety of investigators have argued that high-quality discussion and exploration of ideas-not just the presentation of high-quality content by the teacher or text-are central to the developing understandings of readers and writers (Alvermann et al., 1996; Eeds & Wells,1989; Gambrel & Almasi, 1996; Guthrie, Schafer, Wang, & Afflerbach, 1995)
(688)

English teachers are interested in discussion and the exploration of ideas, not in simply presenting content to students (and again, they have been interested in this for at least the past two decades). Moreover, these studies demonstrate that teachers are often deeply interested in issues of pedagogy and spend time and energy thinking about the courses they construct and the texts they select. The vast majority of teachers are not trying to "make every child [they] encounter suffer through the same hazing" that they apparently went through.

kleinbl00  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    I guess those sorts of discussions are what the Internet is about these days...

How high-minded of you.

Every study you cited was conducted after I graduated. It's entirely possible that things have gotten radically better since the stone age - but since you chose to pick a fight with my assertion that books are bullshit, you're certainly not convincing me.

oyster  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I wouldn't rate my English classes very high but you get salty like that when you have to get yourself screened for dyslexia after dropping out of college the first time. I even had the better English teacher, the other one completely ruined the subject for a number of my friends.

illu45  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Well, what evidence do you have to support your claim that books are bullshit? Which books are we talking about, anyhow, exactly?

kleinbl00  ·  674 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Let's back it out and look at it from another way: what evidence do you have that continuing this discussion will do anything but annoy me and exasperate you?

My whole argument has been that forcing literature down someone's throat turns them off from literature. I've gone ten rounds on this. I haven't read something I was forced to read in twenty fuckin' years, yo, and here I am, being lectured by a college professor to leave your fucking books alone ("Would you please stop trying to denigrate and dismiss mine?").

Is this supposed to make me come around to your way of thinking? Am I now supposed to see the error of my ways? Yes - I have an n of 1 but this particular n is the alpha and omega of my own private Idaho so the correlation is strong and relevant to me. Here's where I was:

    And we forget that when we engage in these discussions - your baggage ain't mine, mine ain't yours, and god help you if you try to make me carry yours or put mine down.

And now I've got two sets. So thanks for that.

Here's the dumb thing: I was the one person in this entire thread who left a little room for the idea that slagging on books wasn't the greatest idea. Now? Now I'm radicalized. I feel like starting a fire with a couple copies of Jane Austen just to piss you off. All I did was express an opinion and make the mistake of defending it instead of telling you to STFU. Is this what you wanted to accomplish?

illu45  ·  673 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    Is this supposed to make me come around to your way of thinking?

No. I'm not hoping that you'll suddenly come to love Austen or come to think that literary educators are great. It's very clear to me (and has been from the very start) that I'm not going to change your opinion on this. As you yourself said, "I haven't taken your courses. I never will".

What I've tried to do is demonstrate that your broad-sided, authoritative-sounding attacks on not only a whole bunch of books but also a whole set of professions are based on nothing more than anger and ignorance. You claimed "the pedagogy of "great books" is bullshit" and that "most books are taught not because they are good, but because they simply and clearly illustrate whatever point the instructor is trying to make". I've provided evidence demonstrating that this is not the pedagogy of most literary educators (and hasn't been for the past two decades). You responded by saying that my evidence isn't relevant to your experience. But I never questioned the veracity of your experience. What I questioned is your use of your experience to make broad, authoritative statements about books and teaching.

    I was the one person in this entire thread who left a little room for the idea that slagging on books wasn't the greatest idea.

Most people here weren't slagging on books. They were relating their personal experience with particular books. Some people offered reflections on their reading preferences and habits. When I suggested to you that "I've found that I can get a lot more out of books if I give their authors credit for having something interesting to say" your response was to tell me how much harm it's done to you to have to give credit to authors that you disliked. You then went on to state "I am here to denigrate and dismiss books. ". And that's fine. If you want to denigrate and dismiss books, you're welcome to do so. If that's all you had done, I wouldn't have bothered to respond. But you didn't stop there. You went on to make sweeping claims about books and teaching as though they were facts rather than opinions. And that's why I logged in and offered a rebuttal of those claims, with the evidence that you so summarily dismissed. Since this is meant to be the "thoughtful web" I figured that maybe providing evidence and discussing my experience would be met with something other than attacks on me and what I do, but that hasn't proven to be the case.

EDIT: Thanks for the block. I guess that's one way of dealing with disagreement over your claims...

kleinbl00  ·  673 days ago  ·  link  ·  

    On the other hand, books are great, books are good, only bad people ban books, us intellectuals always know how to look down our noses at those horrible people who ban Horton Hears a Who because of its subversive ecological message. Therefore thou shalt not slag on the heroes of others because obviously that makes you a goose-stepping Nazi.

    What I've tried to do is demonstrate that your broad-sided, authoritative-sounding attacks on not only a whole bunch of books but also a whole set of professions are based on nothing more than anger and ignorance.

What you've done is proven my point.

Don't worry, I won't ever make you log in again.

cgod  ·  676 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I have an abridged Toynbee.

I'd pull it out and find a citation in any history orientated paper I wrote in school. Teachers love citations and I think they found it a nice oddity to have a community college student whipping out Toynbee.

kleinbl00  ·  676 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I have (half) of an unabridged (paperback) Toynbee. I haven't made a move on it, though.

I have all of a Durant. I've done all but three books as audiobook, which if I'm not mistaken is the equivalent of reading Lord of the Rings followed by Harry Potter followed by the extant Game of Thrones.

I wanted to get the pretentious edition but I discovered that Gore Vidal's copy was going for a song on eBay.

cgod  ·  676 days ago  ·  link  ·  

Toynbee isn't worth reading, unless you have your mind on a certain place and time and than it's worth a look to see what he has to say.

kleinbl00  ·  676 days ago  ·  link  ·  

I'm actually interested in that era's particular interpretation of comparative religion... the perspective on "why" that I'm told isn't a part of the abridgement.