Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Murky Twilight World Between the Pages of the Promiscuous Reader

I'm feeling enervated and neurasthenic tonight, so I'm just going to paste in this little piece I wrote for the student paper back in the 90s. It's a sort of Promiscuous Reader's Manifesto.

[Wealthy 19th-century bibliophiles] were people who also enjoyed the smell of fine leather, the feel of rich papers, the colors of lustrous inks and the look of clean, crisp type.
--"Savoring Literary Treasures", The Chicago Tribune, 27 January 1995

In his younger days, the Promiscuous Reader had to concede, he had been rather indiscriminate, even reckless at times. But he would never denigrate the excitement he'd felt, after years of deprivation, prowling for whole afternoons in the poorly lit and disorganized shelves of the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Store or the White Elephant Shoppe, where used paperbacks were 10 cents and hardcovers went for fifty cents, a dollar tops. It had begun innocently enough, with a comic book or two behind the barn; then he'd moved on to paperbacks bought from a rack at the local drugstore. Only years later, when he had a job, could he afford to move on to the hard stuff. "You'll go blind," his mother warned him. "So," he shrugged, "I'll do it till I need glasses."

He knew that some evangelists loved to induce a voluptuous shiver of loathing in their congregations with horror stories about people like him: "And some of these so-called intellectuals," they would say, "read as many as five hundred books in a lifetime!" (Little did they know: the Promiscuous Reader's personal tally was about ten times that.) No decent person really needed more than one Book, they asserted, with at most a Pilgrim's Progress or Family Shakespeare for the more worldly. Wasn't that, after all, why Jesus had exhorted his followers to pluck out their eyes, rather than be led by them to sin? It was far better for your hopes of salvation if you received the divine charism of illiteracy.

The Promiscuous Reader was less disturbed by such squeamishness than by certain feminist theorists' attack on "linear narrative" and "patriarchal print media." In the same vein, some Men's Movement writers had deplored the life of the mind as an artifact of the Industrial Revolution, to say nothing of William Burroughs's insistence that language is a malign extraterrestrial virus -- though the Promiscuous Reader noted sourly that these folks' beliefs didn't stop them from writing and publishing many tedious books.

Then there were the champions of the Academic Canon, who held that Great Works of Literature, if read in the missionary position, were no fun whatsoever. This, be it noted, was intended as a compliment: by submitting to the minds of the Great Master Spirits of the Past (who by an amazing coincidence were nearly all male and white, though often not heterosexual) one might improve oneself in a way formerly associated with the effects of cold showers, castor oil. and high colonics.

Supporters of this "family-values" approach to reading cited a new University of Chicago study which supposedly revealed that Americans' favorite pleasure reading were Hamlet, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and Aquinas' Summa in the original Latin; also that 95% of Playboy readers bought it solely for the articles. This study was welcomed in the media as evidence that the New York Times best-seller lists were a ruse by the "cultural elite" to make it appear that Americans preferred trash like Stephen King and Danielle Steele to the Classics.

The Promiscuous Reader bought none of it. Reading was dirty, if you did it right, and the classics were no exception. The Victorians had reason to produce censored versions of Plato, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Chaucer, just as Plato had reason to ban poets from his ideal republic. Those who wish that citizens were robots, docile and interchangeable, have always tried to domesticate literature, washing off the sweat and other unclean body fluids, turning it into in a chaste and proper bride for the virtuous reader. The real lovers of books love them passionately and messily, not for their corseted leather bindings and smooth creamy paper, but for their wicked, hairy, anarchic human souls.