Friday, January 14, 2011

Alright, Why Do You Read?

 Even though it was observed as a resident element inhuman behavior even before Heraclitus observed that one cannot bathe in the same river twice, the observation was not named for anyone.  William of Occam had his contextual razor named after him, Robert Boyle had a law-for a fixed amount of an ideal gas kept at a fixed temperature, pressure and volume are inversely proportional; while one doubles, the other halves--and Jacques Charles had his own law about the manner in which gas expands.

The unnamed law you are considering staking a claim to resides in the dichotomy of those who read to be entertained and those who read to be comforted.  You could also stake claim to the pair of opposites in which a great number of people are always on the look out for breaking matters into dichotomies.  There are any number of Lowenkopf's Laws; as a teacher and a writer, you are versed in making statements that sound as though they have been tested, argued, then ratified into law.  There are, in fact, so many Lowenkopf's Laws that you have trouble remembering them, and resolve, the next time you are accorded sabbatical, to codify them.

You have no objection to being entertained while you read; depending on the author, you find yourself moving with dispatch along the enjoyment highway, in particular when the author has begun in deft, dramatic fashion, to expose some institution.  Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is a prime example.  While Chabon is entertaining, he is also exposing bravura ability to use exaggeration to take down pomposity.  Although there are times when you read for the literary counterpart of comfort food, you have formed the greater habit of reading to deconstruct, to see how they--the men and women writers you so admire--achieve effects you find admirable to the point of wishing to include them in your own tool kit.  Thus you read to further your education, as an individual and as a writer.

Richard Russo's novel, Straight Man, is the sort of literary prank you admire.  Under its apparent burlesque and farcical story line beats a heart of serious concern, adding realism to the concerns and to the situations and circumstances that appear to be farcical in the first place.  From the first paragraph, Russo's protagonist sets off on a riff about being entertained that sets a stage for serious inner conversations with one's self and, later, with one's friends and associates.

In a comforting way, there is a nice logic here, in particular when you ask yourself as you do here the rhetorical question: Alright, if you read for education, what do you write for?  The answer always amazes you even though it does not surprise you.  You write for education.  You write to understand how you feel about situations and circumstances you may have slept through, either actually, or in metaphor such as the metaphor of being so engaged in arousal with a certain young lady that you were in danger of failing the classes you had together.

You are constantly working out worst-case scenarios, situations that combust in the night, for which you have no practical instruction manual.  You can pretty well take a new computer from its box and have it working to your specifications within a matter of an hour or so, but the approach you take to story means that you have to write not only the story and its resident situations but as well its instruction book, the Idiot's Guide or Cliffs Notes, or For Dummies.


Anonymous said...

The Lowenkopf Laws: if nothing else, how about listing the Chapter Headings?

Storm Dweller said...

I have to read to be entertained the first time through, and then the second pass is when I begin to pull the gems from the sand so to speak, as the entertainment value has worn a little thin by the second pass. Unless of course it is some such literature as Mark Twain, in which mining the nuggets is dressed up as the source of entertainment, and lacks resemblance to effort and work. you can tell he knew Tom Sawyer intimately, as he tells us how much fun it is to whitewash his fence, and somehow convinces us that we are missing something grand by leaving the task completely to him.