Bicycle Diaries: <i>You are what you read</i>

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You are what you read

The 1st of 3 essays
books, bikes, and thinking

There's been another odd skirmish in the ongoing Battle of the Books. Last week, the Greater Washington Initiative launched a supprise attack on Metro commuters who read trashy bodice-rippers rather than dusty great books authored by those dead white guys.

Appearing in Metro stations as well as local newspapers and magazines, the ads highlight D.C.'s well-read, white-collar workforce in order to lure businesses to the area.

Needless to say, those who prefer heartstrings to Hegel have not remained silent. Letters and phone calls, nearly all negative, have rocked the GWI offices with the same force as a shipboard love affair. Even two of the republic's most venerable arbitrators of brainiac literary taste, The New York Times and The Washington Post, have run stories on the boohish brouhaha.

What was Tim Priest thinking? Did the highbrow executive director of the GWI really expect that the afficiandos of amour wouldn't resent being labelled average? Does he ride the Metro? Anyone who has, myself included, can't help but notice the incredible popularity of romance novels. Actually I think he just didn't give a shit. Highbrow eggheads just love taking the piss out of the great unwashed particularly for its fondness of so-called lowbrow books.

I was part of a similar skirmish in Melbourne, Australia. Back in 2001, I was training private school teachers when the Harry Potter novels were becoming a global phenomenon. During dinner with a school headmaster and three of her English teachers, I innocently suggested that the wildly popular fantasy novels could be a powerful tool for getting kids to read.
Anyone who reads THOSE books, sniffed the stiffly coiffed headmster, are doing a great diservice to serious educators everywhere.
There is nothing new about this attitude, especially when it pits established classics against new works. Teachers and other high culture paragons have been ranting about popular literature for centuries. It became so loud in the 18th Century that Johnathan Swift couldn't help but lampoon it in the introduction to his The Tale of the Tub.

In Swift's Battle of the Books, the ancient and modern books of London's St. James Library come alive one night to compare the merits of their respective authors. Not unlike the impish books at Harry Potter's Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they quickly descend to personal insult, then injury. Ultimately, the ancient books prevail against the pulpish upstarts by John Donne and Daniel Defoe.

Swift's famous satire supports the cause of the dead white guys. Although it would be helpful if it had explored how one era's trash becomes a later era's treasure. Be that as it may, what most highbrows miss is that Swift is criticising much more than these literary battles. He also satires readers who wear their literary tastes on their sleaves. In his day, these were the critics who extolled the classics simply to impress or shame others.

That's what really, really bugs me about the folks over at GWI as well as their fellow-traveller, my Australian headmaster. They're not trying to promote reading in general. They're only concerned that white-collar Metro commuters may not be furrowing their brows over the classics.

As for the rest of us without white-collars, let alone suits, we can go on polluting our minds with pulp fiction. But what about those frowsy suburban housewives on the Metro who furrow their brows over Plato? It ain't so far-fetched; I've seen them myself on the Chicago el. And I've watched 10s of 1000s of nice middle class ladies take up Oprah's suggestion to tackle Anna Karenina and actually love it. In other words, you can't, and shouldn't, judge a reader by the cover.

As someone much smarter than me has said,

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Blogger TOR¬†Hershman said...

Done did read that lill' song & dance, by Plato, when moi 'twas 15.

Pubic-transport, sieg hive!

Stay on Groovin' (DNA Jungle) Safari,

15/10/06 02:56  

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