Friday, August 13, 2010

You Are What You Read

I stumbled upon this interesting piece from John Meacham at Newsweek, which opens with this interesting observation about books and friends –

A friend I thought I knew well startled me the other evening with a sweeping literary judgment that led me, for the first time, to question how much I truly understand him. The subject was mysteries and thrillers. “Oh, I can’t stand books like that,” he said, flatly, leaving no room for argument.

My failure to detect such a colossal character flaw before that moment bothered me, but then—reminding myself that we are always to look outward, toward others, focusing not on the devices and desires of our own hearts—I realized that I should reach out constructively rather than simmer silently.

And since argument from example is often the most effective means of persuasion, I thought I would offer a summertime defense of the mystery-thriller genre.

Now like Meacham, I’ve attended many dinner parties and encountered people [mainly men], who discount reading fiction as “….a waste of time as it is all made-up….” I usually counter the argument by explaining that reading fiction helps us in our daily lives –

[a] In work by enhancing the imagination, which in turn helps resolve the constant flow of business problems that many of us have to confront and overcome.

[b] Understanding the random nature of life and also the motivations within people we interact with by giving greater empathy, especially due to reading fiction [this has been proven by New Scientist]

[c] Seeing and observing the world through another person’s eyes and their value system.

[d] Making one inquisitive and not accepting the world as it is presented by a narrow-ranged [and directed] media.

The reason why I so much enjoy attending literary events such as Bouchercon, is that I am with people who value books and reading, unlike those who enjoy the trivial aspects of our lives, such as what car we drive, the brand label of our suit or what celebrity z-lister of the week is doing today.

While some people [who read novels] use the old chestnut of dismissing reading thrillers as ‘down-market’ and ‘irrelevant’ compared to reading ‘literary fiction, however Meacham makes some interesting points -

Mysteries and thrillers are not the same things, though they are literary siblings. Roughly put, I would say the distinction is that mysteries emphasize motive and psychology whereas thrillers rely more heavily on action and plot. Some mysteries are thrillers and some thrillers are mysteries, but not all mysteries are thrillers, nor are all thrillers mysteries.

It has long been intellectually fashionable to dismiss such books as inconsequential. Thomas Jefferson once joked that he defeated insomnia by trying to write such a tale.

The appeal of both genres for me is precisely the appeal of any other piece of fiction, from Jane Austen to Peter Taylor, or George Eliot to John Cheever. The narratives give us a glimpse, however fleeting, of what William Faulkner called the “old verities and truths of the heart…?love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”
Nero Wolfe is no Elizabeth Bennet, nor is Miss Marple another Dorothea Brooke. But Wolfe and Marple—and James Bond and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher—are characters at work in a dark and confusing and fallen world, a world in which murder and betrayal and treason are constant threats and frequent foes. One would like to think of such novels as fantasy, but the fundamental forces with which they deal are all too real.

As dangerous and arbitrary as lists are, here is what I am going to suggest that my agnostic friend (note I forbore referring to him as heretical, or faithless) explore: Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series (Archie Goodwin, who is forever “hot-footing” it up or downtown, is worth the price of admission); anything by P. D. James (her poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh is a model for all repressed men). I am indebted to my friend and colleague Anna Quindlen for recently putting me onto Denise Mina, who writes tough novels about Glasgow; next door in the British Isles, Benjamin Black, a pseudonym of John Banville’s, writes about a compelling 1950s Dublin pathologist with—surprise!—a problem with the drink. Tana French has written three novels, and the first two (In the Woods and The Likeness) are, to me, quite superior to the newest one that is now out, Faithful Place.

In this summer of
Lisbeth Salander, no discussion of such books would be complete without a stop in the colder European climes. I like Henning Mankell and just lately began to read Arnaldur Indriðason, whose fictional universe is set in Reykjavík, Iceland.

On the thriller front, my taste runs to the provincial. Daniel Silva’s first novel, The Unlikely Spy, is a masterpiece, and I love his series about Gabriel Allon, an Israeli assassin with a passion for art restoration. The aforementioned
Jack Reacher collection, by Lee Child, is great fun. David Ignatius writes brilliant novels about the CIA, and I am an admirer of Charles McCarry’s, especially his Shelley’s Heart. In recent years I have become a fan of Alex Berenson’s nascent CIA series about the post-9/11 world.

Read Meacham’s full piece from Newsweek here

In a world where people lie about what novels they have read, while the ranks of the ‘proudly illiterate’ seem to be massing around us; writers and readers need to make a stand at those who really mean that ‘reading is just too difficult and requires too much cognition’, hence why the knob for reality TV and z-list celebrity culture is thriving around us. Beware the dumbing down of our culture; it’s exactly what the men behind the curtain want. The real threat is from ‘The Blind Commissioner’ and the illiterate and under-educated mob.

Totalitarian regimes burn books, as it helps them prevent the population from developing the cognitive skill of thinking for themselves; and thus more malleable to directed propaganda.

I don’t give a shit if you read on a screen, or on paper, what matters is that you read, because you are what you read. Next time you’re at the dentist, doctor, hairdresser, check out who reads the junk magazines and who reads the novel while waiting.

Top Photo © 2009 Ali Karim “Sunday Morning at Bouchercon Indianapolis Book Giveaway”

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