Once I was at an international arts conference in Sardinia, among many eminent and admirable artists, and there I heard a presentation by a slightly louche British designer, whose claim to fame was that he had dreamed up some of the greatest album covers of the punk period. I admired his work a great deal. However, in the middle of his remarks this British designer boasted that he hadn’t read a book since his teens. He thought this remark was cheeky, and he seemed a bit satisfied with it. I turned on him on the spot. And this wasn’t the first time I had encountered this particular variety of garish, anti-intellectual bluster. The more you keep your ears open, the more often you stumble upon such things. For example: the other day I read an interview with a certain pseudonymous post-punk musician of the ’90s in which he remarked that he didn’t really have time to read.
There are guys out there – men and women, in fact – who as we speak are planning their trips to K2 or Everest, or their cross-the-Atlantic rowing expeditions, or their hot-air-around-the-world expeditions, or their swimming-from-Cuba-to-the-mainland expeditions, who cannot be bothered to read a work of literature. As though their physical exertions were the only kind of adventure. As though physical adventure trumps any other kind. But reading is a great and noble adventure as well.
Back when I was a writing student in undergraduate school, my teacher Angela Carter, noted British novelist and short story writer, gave me a list of books to read, in order to further my development, in order to break me out of my American suburban childhood, and the list included Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and Our Lady of Flowers by Jean Genet. The Burroughs novel – in case you haven’t read it – includes a sequence in which a man’s talking asshole takes control of his entire body, including his mouth. Our Lady of Flowers, meanwhile, amounts to a rapturous description of the beauty of prison convicts. Neither book would have been accessible to me, based on prior life experience, but I read them because I wanted to know more about the world, about the heart, about the great buffet of human desires.
Reading was an adventure, for me, because reading described a world I didn’t know well, a world that was topographically different, a world peopled with characters I don’t know, with customs I sometimes didn’t understand, with inclinations I had only heard about, in situations that were new to me. Learning about these characters, these nations, these distant epochs, and living with them, made me bigger, broader, and constituted a travel experience and a philosophical coming of age. With Don Quixote I learned about 16th century Spain, with Brothers Karamazov, I learned about czarist Russia, with Moby Dick, I learned about whaling.
Moby Dick, what a perfect example! The ‘extreme adventure’crowd would stress the harpooning part of Moby Dick, were they ever to turn its pages. Whaling is all about harpooning! Whaling is about standing out there on the long boat, bearing up the weapon, consubstantial with the fish! But the account of the white whale that Melville composed is so much more than a story about harpooning. It’s about everything else too. Moby Dick is nothing if it is not a character study about obsession, grudge holding, the vicissitudes of leadership. Unless you read the book through to its grim conclusion, you don’t understand the many registers in which it does what it does. And those who are impatient with books, in search of the quick fix (the entertainments you can scare up in an airport), are liable to go without the life lessons that the adventure of reading can confer on you. Most people get that eating sugary cereals and watching only daytime talk shows will reduce you to a protoplasmic blob, but they still read crap and think that it is just how it is.
I do not forgive this. The more you trust the adventure of reading, the more it delivers. Resistance to serious literature is saying yes to infomercials,to bachelors and bachelorettes, to all the dim-witted intoxicants of a banal and narcotizing popular culture whose moments of the transcendental are mostly carcinogenic. Deep-sea fishing, let’s say, or the fox hunt, are adventures only in the ledgers of macho, and we know all that stuff is as antique as a starched collar, as antique as Hemingway with the barrel of his shotgun in his mouth.
Why not read a book instead? And challenge yourself?