The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Too right!

Posted on: January 3, 2007

The contextualist critic admits that the writer does indeed have, as the didactic critics insist, strong convictions and deep feelings about moral questions. And these convictions and feelings are often at the centre of his creative impulse. But he also sees that, when the writing is at its best, when the writer is caught up in his creation, these personal convictions and feelings are usually shaken. As W.H. Auden has said, the writer’s beliefs are “sacrificed to the poem.” As a result, when a modern critic examines the poem or the novel, he usually finds ambiguity and irony, ambivalence and paradox. To do otherwise, to insist as some critics still do, that a great work must furnish us with a noble idea, or an unambiguous morality, usually implies that we must sacrifice the poem to our beliefs.

Hyman, Lawrence H. “Autonomy and Relevance in Literature.” College English. 30.8. 1969: 623-626.

Gabriel Marquez’s thoughts on his literary influences and favourite works prompted Book Traveller to consider his reading experiences: whether he was truly gleaning all that he could from his literary travels, the merits of re-reading and the necessity for in-depth critical analysis for the average reader. This struck a nerve with me because I often feel my own critical take on novels is…ugh serviceable at best I suppose. Average which isn’t saying much. I started this blog, in part, as a virtual kick in the ass for me to develop my writing and thinking skills for reading, knowing that this would make me sharper at critical thinking in general. Besides all that I just really really love books and wish to give them and the authors the response they deserve, whether good or bad. I expected all of this to result in me reaching unparalleled aesthetic delights.

When I hopped over to litlove she broached the same topic from a different angle, bemoaning the obscure, elitist image of literary criticism, its benefits pooh poohed because an English B.A. does not evoke lucre. With all that and the inside higher ed article on academic fashions I could not stop myself from heading to the library to riffle through a few tomes on reading.

At first I searched for the “good reader” types and spied Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why. Everything I’ve heard about this chap has made me furrow my brows in vague distaste –didn’t he write that horribly titled “Books for Extremely Intelligent Children” or something like that? Where’s the companion volume for the idiots, Harold? Slow Learners too, left them out in the cold eh?–but I gave it a try. And closed it dissatisfied. I’m not particularly interested in what Bloom thinks about Austen or Auden I just want bare facts with some analysis, thanks. Not the book for me.

Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (sixth edition). Aha! That sounds more like what I was looking for, on a very basic level, and I won’t have the writer sharing his intimate thoughts on Keats. I plugged Dorothy Walsh’s Literature and Knowledge into google and read the same Hyman’s review of it, published a year later in the same journal. (I love JSTOR. Are there JSTOR hoodies you think? They should make some. I will have to live near a university always, I cannot imagine my life without access to journals.) Literature and Knowledge does address how to read a novel but in a more consciously academic fashion I suppose, with references to the various schools of criticism, rather than old Harry telling me I “ought” to read Wordsworth. Like Hyman she argues for the autonomy of literature, that it can be its own justification for existence rather than needing to be set and analysed in moral and/or political frameworks to be “worthwhile” or “beneficial”. Both refer quite a bit to Dewey’s Art as Experience which motivates me to give the book more continuous attention.

To help me wade through the theoretical jargon I also picked up A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. Finally, finally I will be able to better understand precisely what that erudite Valve set are talking about. Maybe even participate in a few discussions? (Ha ha, not bloody likely.) I also considered Literature by Peter Widdowson but decided to leave that for another time. I have a ridiculous number of library books checked out and must get the stack down to a more reasonable height.

I need to learn how to speed read.

8 Responses to "Too right!"

Old Harry tastes better with a few grains of salt. Large ones. I’ve especially enjoyed his unfortunately named book for children. It’s quite the collection. You just have to get past the terrible name. I like to think of him as my crazy old uncle who’s read everything and likes to try and surprise me now and then.

To me you are already a critical thinker of some skill…more than me for sure! I enjoy reading your posts for the hint of sarcasm you sprinkle into the honesty of your reviews and thoughts.

Hmmm. I guess associating him with “crazy old uncles” might make him more palatable. I did spy a book he had done on criticism in the library listings. One day I may try that and see if it does anything for me.

Heather I really appreciate your support. It’s encouraging. 🙂

You write good stuff, have an eye for what is important AND interesting. This is a blog I shall return to often.

Thank you kindly, John.

Interesting discussion of books on how to read — I’d stay away from Bloom too 🙂

Do let me know if any of those books turns out to be good, imani. I’m looking for accessible, sensible, mind-opening books on the art of reading, and they really do seem to be few and far between. Why on earth should that be?

I couldn’t say. I guess they figure they must approach this lauded activity with portentous reverence?

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