I remember a long book review from the 90s of a well-known New York film critic’s collection of weekly reports. The reviewer of the collected reports noted that of the 163 films that were considered, the critic only gave a positive grade to four. The tale is not apocryphal, and is worth retelling because we tend to think that critique or review is finding fault. But there’s a kind of reading that can be affirmative through and through.
What I have in mind is our approach to books we love, and that we return to again and again. Of course if you have no books you love what I say will slip by like distant noise. But most of us reading a post like this will have books we love, and art we love listening to or looking at — and, I hope, people we love and listen and attend to; we can indulge affirmative sensibilities.
It’s not only a handful of professional movie reviewers who like to tally mistakes and give mostly C’s and D’s. Academics like to approach works with harsh measuring sticks, as well. I was once told by a colleague that appreciating literature the way one appreciates one’s favorite painting in a museum was a dangerous ideological practice because as we all know museums came into vogue during the age of imperialist capture and collection of colonial artifacts. So if I were teaching by holding up a text as if it were a museum treasure I was promoting rapacious colonialism. Of course!
And there are no end of measures by which to find literature wanting: sexism, capitalism, nostalgia, the fallacy of assumed presence, the fallacies of New Criticism, liberalism, Neo-liberalism, utopianism, historicism, a-historicism, presentism, elitism, sentimentalism, fascism, . . . you get the picture.
If I read a book because I love it I don’t have to believe everything it says or everything it seems to present positively. If it’s a book worth my time, a kind of treasure, I assume it can tell me something, today and tomorrow — and new things, today and tomorrow. My job is exploring what may be lurking in its corners, as yet unexposed, unexplored by me, new this time around. A good book will remind me of what is easily forgotten, which helps explain why I go back to it again and again like returning to music that exposes, reveals, restores, provokes, and helps me transcend whatever doldrums or slack time has threatened to set in.
I don’t need to read my favorite books for majestic timeless truths. Sometimes I relish the little truths, the little detail, the sort of meaningful moments in a life we easily overlook, or brush off as being too small to be significant. I love to rediscover how Tolstoy describes quite ordinary moments – the pitch of a voice, the too-casual tilt of a hat, the distracted eye, the misdirected conversation – the things we overlook in our lives at our peril. Noticing them makes the present moment, in life or in literature, richer.
I hope I learn, or recover, in affirmatively reading, looking, or listening, the virtues of attention, of care and gratitude, and of patience. It is less important to me whether I agree with an apparent claim or position in a work than to know what this very image or event can possibly mean. If it’s all too obvious what it means, then it’s not a book I return to again and again.
What do I cherish in this person or this book? Is it all that easy to state? I need to find the right pitch of appreciation, the right tone in recounting what makes what I cherish something to cherish.
A book or painting or drawing — or a wonderful tree in the back yard — can capture my gaze without presenting a problem to solve or a target for ideological critique, or a bit of new knowledge. It can present an alluring mystery or set of questions to return to again and again — let’s hope with abiding charity, gratitude, and patience.
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor