There's one good point lurking in Christina Nehring"s otherwise incoherent essay, "Books Make You a Boring Person," in the June 27 New York Times Book Review: simply reading a book, any book, does not confer any special glory on the reader so moved, is not itself necessarily a better way to spend time than watching tv or lolling around on the street corner. Reading good books, however, books conveying knowledge or providing an engaged experience that cannot be duplicated in other ways, is an invaluable activity--even if reverse snobs writing for the New York Times think it's boring.
But Nehring doesn't seem to comprehend this basic distinction. And, after making her initially valid point, she immediately veers off into a supposedly illustrative reference to a film called Stone Reader (I haven't seen it), which, according to Nehring, is about the "fetishization" of books. The participants in the film, according to the dialogue Nehring herself quotes, have actually read the books they "fondle," so it's hard to know why Nehring thinks their "raves about the joy of reading" amount to a fetish. Furthermore, what exactly would the two people quoted want to say about the "contents" of The Old Man and the Sea? Does she want a book report? A disquisition on fishing? Wouldn't they look silly if they suddenly broke out into an academic lecture on Hemingway's symbolic naturalism? It's a movie. Try as I might, I can't see how a documentary about a "search for a lost novelist" (Nehring's summary of the plot) has anything to do with the actual writing and reading of books. How many readers go around making documentaries about their favorite books in the first place?
"It is not because something comes between two covers that it is inherently superior to what passes on a screen or arrives on the airwaves," Nehring tells us. But her jeremiad is not about the dangers of fondling books; it's about the limitations of going on to read them. If she means the physical artifact of the book has no special value, I agree with her. What is valuable about a book, what academics generally refer to as "the text," is not specific to its printing in any particular edition. However, this is not what Nehring is saying. She appears to say--it's a little hard to keep it straight--that precisely the written text itself is "inherently" no different than these visual media in what it does or how it affects an audience. This is simply wrong. No movie version of The Old Man and the Sea, no matter how "faithful" to the source, will ever substitute for reading the novel. Film creates its own kind of artistic effects, and by this measure is not inherently inferior to fiction, but it cannot provide the same depth of experience, the same layered immersion in detail and nuance, as a novel. Similarly, no television documentary or "special report" will ever rival serious history, biography, or any other kind of well-presented nonfiction in communicating information in a way that adds up to knowledge. Ken Burns's film was great, but if I really want to know about the Civil War, I'm still going to go first to James McPherson or Bruce Catton.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about Nehring's essay, at least to me, is her attempted use of Ralph Waldo Emerson to help make the case against reading. "Books are for a scholar's idle times," she quotes him as saying, implying that in his use of the word "idle" Emerson meant to denigrate those periods of reflection in which we are not engaged in "activity," something Nehring suggests is more likely to bring us real knowledge. The statement is from "The American Scholar," but Nehring doesn't quote what follows on from it in the rest of the paragraph: "When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men's transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must--when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining--we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. The Arabian proverb says, 'A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful.'" These are not the words of someone who could ever maintain that "books make you a boring person." Reading in "idle times" is a continuation of our "reading" during the rest of the day. Emerson doesn't want a simplistic division of life into active and idle periods: our daylight activities must be "idle" as well, else we become simple drudges; reading requires "work," else it becomes mere trifling. As much as Emerson wants us to be "self-reliant," he would not have accepted a definition of the concept that so artificially separated "our own judgments" (Nehring's words) from our experience of "the best books," as Emerson says further in "The American Scholar": "They impress us with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads."
And when Emerson writes that "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given; forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books" he is attempting to subvert the practice of appealing to authorities, whether the authority of divines, of the ancients, or of modern scientists and philosophers, on religious and intellectual questions, reminding his own readers that these figures were once themselves only readers trying to find their way. They were not oracles speaking wisdom that simply appeared fully-formed, ready to be pronounced. Emerson did not want the young men of his day to refrain from reading. He wanted them to read for themselves.
I can't help but suspect that Nehring's essay is meant to be an implicit defense of the new policy toward books at the New York Times Book Review itself, previously characterized by new editor Sam Tanenhaus as an attempt to foster "debate," to use the Book Review as a continuation of the news and editorial pages of the newspaper. In this approach, as exemplified by Christina Nehring, books are good as "invitations to fight," as opportunities "to argue with them" but apparently not to read. Certainly nothing Nehring says in her essay has any application to fiction or poetry. Despite her call for discussion of rather than simple enthusiasm for a novel such as The Old Man and the Sea, her focus is almost entirely on the "ideas" contained in books, defined in the most simplistic of terms as something books present as on a tray, the savor of which we then judge according to our own intellectual/gustatory tastes. (Tastes derived from where?) Nothing like the attitude Nehring advocates we take toward nonfiction (itself tellingly equated with "books") could be seriously adopted in our reading of literature, since it is precisely the kind of immediate immersion such works invite that Nehring seems to find so alarming. If "Books Make You a Boring Person" can be read as a kind of advance warning, expect that in the New York Times Book Review under its new overseers not only will fiction that doesn't obviously provide "food for thought" be ignored, but the very idea that serious people might want to read such fiction will be considered literally incredible, "too extraordinary and improbable to be believed" (Merriam-Webster). These readers will be declared boring indeed.