Monday, January 25, 2016


Not to boast, I have two characteristics that give me advantages over some others: self-awareness and self-discipline. Addictions are not a problem for me if I just pay attention. Thus, for example, contrary to some dubious theories about weight gain, I have never been overweight, unlike the current 68.8 percent of adult Americans who are. If you watch your weight and don't overeat you'll never get fat, no matter what anyone tells you. I used to smoke Camels, but in 1976 I recognized that smoking was unhealthy, that cigarettes didn't taste good, and that they were a waste of money, so I quit and haven't smoked since, other than a cigar on rare occasions. Whenever I notice that one of my habits is affecting me adversely I try to do something about it.

Over the last two years I've spent a lot of time thinking about how the Internet disturbs me and have taken steps that seem to be working to remedy my malaise. One part of the problem is the sheer volume of information that is available, and I decided that I am better off not even attempting to stay remotely up to date. I still use it regularly for shopping, news and specific research, but I've cut out scanning for random articles that I might find interesting. This means that I hardly ever go browsing on 3 Quarks Daily or other sites that I used to peruse regularly. That part of the change deals with information overload, and I decided that even though it might be nice to have an infinite amount of knowledge, my brain simply can't handle it. The other part has to do with Internet discussion, which I've already written about. Here the problem is that websites can harbor a false sense of community; you delude yourself into thinking that you've found a group of like-minded people, but once you scratch the surface you discover – repeatedly – that there is no group cohesion and you have little in common with most of the others. As I said, I've stopped posting on sites other than this blog. I have been in a better mood since I made these changes.

I am also making headway on a different problem that has occupied me for even longer: what literary works should I read? Thinking about The Mandarins has helped me put this into perspective. I liked Middlemarch a lot, and that had made me think that novels would be my preferred form of literature. The Mandarins is ostensibly a novel, but actually it is a memoir. I remembered Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, which is an autobiography. These are three of my favorite literary works, and one thing they have in common is realism. Middlemarch is fiction, but it includes characters that contain elements of actual people. George Eliot herself appears both as Dorothea Brooke and Mary Garth. G.H. Lewes inhabits Will Ladislaw. Edward Casaubon is a composite of several scholarly men known by George Eliot. In all three of these works real people provided a basis for the text. I already knew that I preferred realism, but I've just recognized what it is beyond realism that sustains my interest. In these three works, the clincher is that I think the same way as the narrator, and this creates far more intimate communication than I am able to find in other works. There are different literary works that I enjoy, but I'm not crazy about them because I don't think quite like their authors. I enjoy D.H. Lawrence and Emily Brontë, but I don't think the same way they do. Gustave Flaubert comes closer, but there is still a difference. Marcel Proust is an excellent writer, but I'll never get past what I think of as his obtuseness.

So it appears that a crucial ingredient for me in literature is like-mindedness. It is probably no coincidence that George Eliot was inspired by Confessions and that Simone de Beauvoir was inspired by The Mill on the Floss. From this vantage point, it would be fair to say that there may not be enough literature in existence that would meet my requirements. Confessions was published in 1789, Middlemarch was published in 1874 and The Mandarins was published in 1954. On this basis you might estimate that a literary work that deeply affects me is published once every 80 to 85 years, so there may not be a new one out until about 2034 – 18 years from now! The prognosis is even worse if you include other factors. The Mandarins is not currently a popular work and probably isn't on the "to read" list of anyone who is or plans to become a writer. Technology, in my opinion, is dumbing down people so drastically that the number of potential writers alive who think, feel and express themselves in a manner that I would find agreeable is likely to be in steep decline, and any market for their work is becoming minuscule.

My current plan for finding literature to read is therefore essentially to give up. I'm going to stop complaining about what crap American fiction is and start ignoring it completely, in a disciplined way. If I had more scholarly proclivities than I actually possess, I suppose that I could look into other works by Rousseau and de Beauvoir, since I've already read all of George Eliot's fiction. However, based on my experience with George Eliot, it is probably best to stick to the masterpieces. If you get carried away with reading a writer's oeuvre, your reading soon begins to resemble biographical research, which is not the same thing as enjoying and appreciating literature.

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