Sunday, July 15, 2018


I have officially entered what might be called the summer doldrums. It started with a heatwave that left me enervated, not wanting either to go outside or to stay inside and read (I just watched France win the World Cup, though). It didn't help that I tried stargazing a few nights, which at this time of year entails staying up late, since it doesn't get really dark until almost midnight, and before you know it you're tired. My mind begins to wander, and I return to the question of why I am different from others in my selection of reading materials and why I am often critical of what I read. The answer, I think, starts with the fact that I didn't like reading when I was little and didn't read for pleasure until I was in my thirties. In contrast, literary culture, especially in the U.S., is dominated by people who were early readers and developed a hedonistic outlook in literary matters by the time they were ten. There is probably a gender element to this, in that females are more hedonistic than males, and males are often more analytical, hence less inclined to literary reveries. You hear again and again of female authors who were voracious readers as children, whereas literary men often seem embarrassed by that kind of identity. The fact is that literary matters are hardly ever serious, and there is often an element of escapism in them. Most of the prose produced, with the exception of some nonfiction, is written by and directed toward people who view the purpose of writing as entertainment, and this runs the gamut from children's literature to adult fiction and literary journals.

Lately I've been wondering whether my disinterest in escapism derives from being male or perhaps from Armenian influences that I inherited from my mother. The theory here is that people who have been persecuted for a long time tend to be more practical about how they occupy themselves and are disinclined to engage in pointless activities that make them feel good temporarily. I have noted that, compared to my father, my mother was extremely practical, and, in general, her family was more practical than my father's. This could have been the result of specific challenges that they faced during their lives, but I think that the English have long shown impractical tendencies, and I was reminded of this recently while reading about William Morris and his friends. I have also been thinking about Vladimir Nabokov, who has been identified as a favorite writer by some American literari, e.g. Mary Gaitskill. I only read one of his novels, Lolita, and didn't think much of it. I read it as a harsh, unperceptive satire of life in the U.S., in which he expressed, above all, a hatred for his life here. The characters were cartoonish to me, and he showed little or nothing of their inner workings. Literary culture has made it unseemly to extrapolate from a novel to an author's life, but I usually find the connection inescapable. Nabokov, a Russian aristocrat, hated having to work for a living and resented the crass people to whom he was beholden – this is transparent in Lolita. It could not be a coincidence that as soon as Lolita became a bestseller and Nabokov had some money he moved permanently to Switzerland. Perhaps Lolita was an escapist novel in which Nabokov took a childish revenge on those whom he perceived as his persecutors. However, we are force-fed the literary propaganda in which Nabokov somehow, in a burst of creativity, produced an important work of art ex nihilo. This is the naïveté that makes it difficult for me to take literary culture and its products seriously. Current research on human cognitive limitations sheds an unflattering light on this sort of literary mythology. Nabokov was a childish, self-centered author who pulled the wool over the eyes of his gullible American audience. Really, the book only sold because the subject was pedophilia, which was controversial at the time but was probably just a gimmick that Nabokov used to express his dissatisfaction.

Anyway, my complaint, which is familiar on this blog, is that I have a hard time finding things to read. Actually, I am looking forward to a detailed account of Rousseau's life, but that is better suited to winter reading, which is months away.

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