What’s Wrong with Affirmative Reading — or Looking?

images-1I 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 imagesapproach 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.

1901532I 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.

A book worth my time is a kind of treasure that can tell me something, today and tomorrow.

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

 Credits: Tree image, Copper Beech Ink Drawings – Elizabeth Slayton www.elizabethslayton.com


One comment

  1. Tucker Cox

    Lovely essay, one needed, a refreshing reminder of the pleasure of books and the joy each finds in a favorite volume. Most enjoyable and memorable. Thanks.


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