Suppose you had to justify to someone why you read. Asked to account for the hours you spend sitting still with words, how might you respond?
I read to take the offer of the author to follow a narrative and witness the experiences of characters. Whether I then use those experiences to inform my own understanding of the world seems to have more to do with the narrative itself than with the reading as an activity, but the best books do seem to demand this kind of reinterpretation of my own existence. I read because I love the startling surprise of an expression I’ve never encountered before, the abundant and obvious beauty of great writing. I read, too, for the solitude and quiet afforded by the activity, the temporary vacuum that seals me within a narrative.
Out of peculiar circumstances I find myself writing about Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons in the same blog post. The two seem strange bedfellows – Miller routinely held up as a master of literature, Brown decried by the literary folk for terrible writing – and were it merely a measure of writing quality, I’d agree, the two are most dissimilar. However different, the two books arrived for me at a moment in time when I needed to read: I needed a plot that could distract me, and I needed writing that might inspire a belief in possibility. By a measure of need both Miller and Brown’s books are “good,” in that they provided, in their very different ways, exactly what this reader required.
That my momentarily uncertain mind could be captivated by Miller’s narrative that holds at least a diffident view of plot and chronology, speaks to the punch of paragraphs that demand recognition as utterly beautiful.
For necessary relief from my own thoughts I turned to Brown who unapologetically burdens his text with cliches, mixed metaphors, conventional and predictable characters, but nevertheless manages to offer a plot that allows the dulling of introspection. That this should be viewed as a “good” may strike you as immoderate (or perhaps immoral), but it is, nevertheless, a function of reading I occasionally crave and which Brown delivers.
In terms of writing quality its something of a crime to compare Miller and Brown. So I won’t. I’ll instead give snippets from each to make clear that while both are “books” they are not, in some sense, the same kinds of texts (oh yes, I’m invoking a ‘high’ and ‘low’ art paradigm, and if this comparison does not bear out the validity of such a distinction, we’re different people).
“the monstrous thing is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that, for some reason or other, they should want roses. For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured – disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui – in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable. And all the while a meter is running inside and there is no hand that can reach in there and shut it off. All the while someone is eating the bread of life and drinking the wine, some dirty fat cockroach of a priest who hides a way in the cellar guzzling it, while up above in the light of the street a phantom host touches the lips and the blood is pale as water. And out of the endless torment and misery no miracle comes forth, no microscopic vestige of relief. Only ideas, pale, attenuated ideas which have to be fattened by slaughter, ideas which come forth like bile, like the guts of a pig when the carcass is ripped open. And so I think what a miracle it would be if this miracle which man attends eternally should turn out to be nothing more than these two enormous turds.”
“Through the tempest of emotions now coursing through her blood, a single word tolled like a distant bell. Pristine. Cruel.” or this one “She found an inexplicable refuge in his eyes…like the harmony of the oceans.”
Had I read Angels and Demons last year you’d be reading a very different review. So rather than recommend one book or the other, as is my custom, I’ll instead hope that whatever it is you might read next will fill the precise and present need you have as a reader, knowing as I do that the needs of readers change.