Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why Read An Annoying Book?

I ask myself, why do I read, and continue to read, books that I don't really much care for? Books like Gravity's Rainbow, Atlas Shrugged, and Infinite Jest, for example. It's partly curiosity, I expect, rather like climbing up a difficult and brush obstructed trail to get to a mountain top or at least some sort of overlook. Maybe there will be something worthwhile at the end.

Such questions are tied up with the question of why we read at all. Saying, "for entertainment" is too simple. We humans, or a lot of us anyway, want to understand our environment and especially other people. The more alien a point of view is, the more challenging the effort to understand it. Something like twenty million copies of Atlas Shrugged have been sold, and a fair proportion of the readers have fallen under its spell. I had read a little of AR before I tackled AS, and enough about her to know I was extremely unlikely to be a fan. I did want to know what made the devotees tick, though, so let me say a word about what I concluded.

Resentment. Resentment of government, taxes and all those other irritations most of us take for granted, but more importantly, I think, resentment of people who see the world so differently from the fanboys/girls. A favorite charge thrown at Rand heroes by their despised relatives is that they lack "human feeling." Rand's characters most famous speeches are aimed at the philosophy of the Sermon on the Mount. I hesitate to call Rand's character's autistic, but they are singularly lacking in compassion. Her heroine casually murders a minor character for lacking decisiveness. They lack not only compassion but fail even to appreciate it's existence. Emotionally speaking, they are the blind in a world of the sighted.

This resentment is a central feature of her novels - at least the two I read - and might well be the inner reality of the zillions of Randophiles that pollute our national discourse.

Did I mention that Infinite Jest was the actual subject of this post? I don't claim to have diagnosed it yet.