“The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest. . .”

People are all the time giving me books to read or suggesting the book I must read next in order that my life be complete.

I make my own reality?

I make my own truth?

Every academician—or anyone who wants to be thought of as literate and intelligent—knows one is supposed to read books. Lots of books.

I don’t get it. I don’t like to read. I find it very difficult to read. I used to read. I used to read a lot. I have hundreds of books behind me on homemade shelves to prove it. I’ve read (at least parts of) almost all of them.

I find the thought of plowing through a book daunting. I can’t concentrate. I can’t keep a story in my mind (if it’s fiction), and I can’t absorb huge amounts (or even small amounts) of information (if it’s non-fiction).

If this is a sign of old age, my old age began when I was about 55. The last time I read lots of books was 1999 when I was preparing for the qualifying exams for my (2nd—unfinished) PhD. I passed the exams after I finished reading 30 novels in one summer. Mostly 20th-century American, so—if there had not been so many of them—it would have been fun (Madison Smartt’s Washington Square Ensemble was my favorite).

In the last week I have bought the Nook versions of:
Rottenberg, Jonathan. The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic. New York: Basic Books (2014), 272 pages.
and
Gardiner, John Eliot. Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013), 672 pages. (672 pages! Yikes!)

I usually won’t even look at—much less purchase—any book over 300 pages. It seems impossible that anyone can write 672 pages worth reading. I don’t know why reading is such a chore.

I’ll bet most people who tell me I must read such-and-so book (or what? I won’t go to heaven?) have read that one book and not another in the last year. Not “all” — “most.” I know people who read all the time. Most of them watch a lot of movies and listen to music, too (unless they’re academics, in which case they live somewhere the rest of us don’t even want to visit).

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Jo Nesbo. My kind of guy?

Here’s the truth. The books I read these days are Stieg Larsson’s novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest –I’ve read the entire trilogy); Jo Nesbit’s trilogy (The Bat, Cockroaches, and The Redbreast—I’m on the second one); John Morgan Wilson’s “Justice” trilogy—which I started, but—as so often happens with gay literature—being gay is more important than being a good story, so I didn’t finish even the first of those.

So what’s with this? Crime, mystery, serial novels. Right up my alley these days. None of them is as good as Raymond Chandler, of course (who is?), but they keep my mind occupied and hold my interest. I suppose Danielle Steele is next. Or, HORRORS! J.K. Rowling. (No, even in my dotage I can’t stoop to that level of BAD writing. Shudder. What insults to the English language.)

I don’t understand. I’m supposed to be at least a “pseudo” intellectual. I remember 35 years ago having a conversation with a friend in Muscatine, IA, when I was in graduate school (for my first PhD, which I did finish). She was the go-getter director of a foundation that did lots of educational stuff, and she said to me, “Isn’t great that we’re part of the intellectual elite?” Well, no one who was would say so, and I knew we certainly were not.

As Rosencrantz says, “I like a good story with a beginning, a middle, and an end” (Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Act II, line 322).

You see, I’m at an age when pretense and obfuscation (in the name of whatever intellectual game) are just silliness to me. If a writer can’t say what they mean in plain English and spin a good yarn, I don’t want to be bothered. I tell my students to write for their 6th-grade siblings, that Poor Dumb Reader is just that, “dumb.”

And then I come across a passage in one of those low-brow books that I think is worth not only reading, but making note of.

Truth is relative. . . We have forensic psychiatrists who try to draw a line between those who are sick and those who are criminal, and they bend and twist the truth to make it fit into their world of theoretical models. . . and journalists who would like to be seen as idealists because they make their names by exposing others in the belief that they’re establishing some kind of justice. But the truth? The truth is that no one lives off the truth and that’s why no one cares about the truth. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.  [Nesbo, Jo. The Bat. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (2013) page 200. I think it’s unfortunate that the detective’s name is Harry Hole, but. . .]

OK. I know it’s Nesbo slipping not-very-intellectual “big ideas” into his fiction. Preaching even. Not subtle. But an idea I can get my mind around. The truth we make for ourselves is just the sum of what is in someone’s interest, balanced by the power they hold.

My interest is in getting through this life with some grace and dignity. I hold almost no power. The sum of my self-interest and my power diminishes every day. And so I stop trying to make “the truth for myself” and care about truth. That’s what Nesbo’s cop is trying to say, I think. Without obfuscation. girl dragon

The Artsy Lover

book rackMy guess is hardly anyone reading this has read The Art Lover by Carole Maso (New Directions, 1990).

In the 1950s travelers could arrive at Scottsbluff, Nebraska , by railroad or Trailways Bus. I think the Trailways depot was at the lower end of Broadway, across the street from the Lincoln Hotel (I’m sure my siblings will correct me if I’m wrong).

The depot was a dingy one-story brick building with a covered driveway where passengers could board buses sheltered from the weather. The waiting room comprised the rest of the building. I may, of course, be confusing this memory with one from—from God-knows-where.

The waiting room had a revolving wire book rack with books for sale. I clearly remember being with my father fetching someone from a bus. One of the books on the rack caught my attention, and I asked my father to buy it for me. His answer was, in essence, that any book one could buy in a bus station one ought not to read.

And so continued my education as a snob. One would hope merely an intellectual snob, but more likely simply “snob.”

That would not be a matter of concern if I possessed any quality, physical, mental, spiritual, or social, worthy of snobbery. But I don’t. And not buying books in bus stations (these days in airports) has deprived me of a great deal of pleasure without accomplishing much to improve my mind or my social standing.

Maintaining this questionable snobbery I’ve deprived myself of Mickey Spillane. Dashiell Hammett. Jonathan Latimer. Erle Stanley Gardner. Ross MacDonald. Michael Collins. Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Danielle Steele. Hundreds of Westerns. Spy novels, detective novels, steamy sex novels, science fiction novels. J.K. Rowling. Much of what I have avoided is probably worthy of avoidance. But I have deprived myself of entertainment, of perfectly harmless but enjoyable means of passing the time. I have avoided “hidden pleasures” (or overt prurience).

As I reported here a couple of weeks ago, this spring I was introduced to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander novels (thank you, Jerome Sims). I am now 200 pages from the end of the last of the three. I have read them with pleasure, interest, and suspense—which is exactly their purpose. When I first began reading, I snobbishly thought Larsson did not have the artistic skills to write the number one best-selling work world-wide. And then I gave up my “attitude.”

I hadn’t read for pleasure since the summer reading program at the Scottsbluff Public Library in about 1955. Kids were in groups named after Western explorers. When one of us finished a book, our explorer went another mile along the Oregon Trail. Mine was the Jim Bridger group. We did not win—because my brother’s friend Delmar Coe was in another group, and he read a book a day.
Save-Freedom-of-Worship
I love The Art Lover. It’s a novel about art, and it morphs into an autobiographical narrative about a friend of Carole Maso’s who died of AIDS, a novelistic tour de force. I love the Wagner Ring operas. I love the El Greco St. Francis in Prayer I first saw at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha when I was in high school. I had no idea what made it great art or why it affected me so deeply.

We are all snobs in our own way. Some wouldn’t see a rock musical for anything. Some wouldn’t attend a concert of music by Stockhausen if it was the last music on earth. Some wouldn’t drive two miles to see a Norman Rockwell painting. Some would drive two miles to avoid seeing a Picasso.

I used to own Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste : Aesthetics in Religious Life by Frank Burch Brown. It’s an interesting book, but on the surface the idea is preposterous. I don’t know where my father learned what “good music” is (surely not at Immanuel Baptist Church in Kansas City in the ‘20s). But I knew from childhood until I was 50 or so, I thought “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” wasn’t “good music.”

I also knew—because his work didn’t hang in the Joslyn—Norman Rockwell wasn’t a great artist. Then I fell in love with the great-grandson of the old lady in his painting Freedom of Worship. Honest. My late partner.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote (I can’t quote it exactly) that one should not try to make art “Christian,” that the quality of love is what makes a work art.

So I’m hoping to give up being a snob, reverse or otherwise, in my old age and begin to experience what people make and do for the quality of love they put into it—not for my opinion if it’s great, or, for that matter, whether or not I like it.