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Not Knowing Everything, And Not Knowing What We Don’t Know

A photograph of the His Dark Materials trilogy

Going back to the Hunger Games example, if you didn’t know that “Panem” came from the Latin phrase “Panem et Circenses” which means “Bread and Circuses,” would you look it up?

This fact was included in a very thoughtful article on BookRiot about cultural literacy. We can’t know everything and we don’t know what we don’t know. This is possibly my biggest fear when reading, and particularly when reading knowing I’ll be reviewing the book, which is about 90% of the time.

The thought that we can’t know everything matches well with my previous post on reading the reference material first. (On that note I should say I chose to start The Female Quixote without looking at the Cervantes. So far, so good – knowing the basics of the earlier text, at 10% read, is all that’s needed.) Unless you have an inordinately large amount of time, and even if you do, knowing everything that is included or referred to by a book is an impossible undertaking. You’d have to find out what you needed to know. You’d need to figure this out for a potential few or several hundred pages worth of text. And you’d need to do this for the referenced books too. I’m starting to get a dizzy as I did as a child when someone told me that heaven is forever and ever (and ever and ever…)

So, we don’t know what we don’t know – my biggest literary fear has got me on occasion; it happens less the older I get and thus the more I realise it’s good to be cautious. When it comes to not getting something in contemporary literary fiction, for example (I think contemporary literary fiction is the least likely place for it) it’s not too bad – you can generally get away with saying ‘I didn’t get this book’, even if you don’t tell others. But for a lot of books it’s very difficult to get around and it can make you feel silly for not knowing. Looking silly isn’t so bad, but making a mistake in, say, a review, can be awful, or at least feel so. At least in the example mentioned in the article, it’s not such a problem. Knowing about Panem might give you a chuckle, a hint of the author’s thoughts very early on, but otherwise it won’t effect your reading too much.

Consider Shakespeare for a moment. When he wrote, he used Greek allusions as if they were pop culture references. And half of the actual pop culture references we still don’t get in Shakespeare’s plays unless we’re scholars of the time period. These are things that go over our heads. They are also things that don’t negate from our reading pleasure and understanding today.

Some books, and other media, if we consider Shakespeare, are written for certain audiences – you can’t expect to understand a book that is on a subject you don’t know about unless it’s a textbook and a beginner’s one at that. This, for me, is where this subject blends into the one about including pop culture in books – the way books will be outdated soon if an author uses things like social media, for example; a person in the future might know or be able to find out what it is but that distinct recognition, relation to it, won’t be there. The reader will, by no fault of their own, lack a particular sort of empathy that might impede their reading of the book. (This is why I’ve not read many books that rely on digital media to tell their story.)

It is in many ways a scary subject – far from the be all, end all, but in context it can make you think twice, and once you’ve discovered one missing link, you’ll spend the rest of the book wondering what else you’re missing.

Do you have this fear? How do you deal with it?

Working Through Inexperience, Getting To The Other Side

A photograph of Hever Castle's lake. A few row boats sit on the water.

I believe that experience is important, and that more life experience, reading experience, and writing experience are going to make you a better writer. Oddly, though, writers don’t talk a lot about this kind of progress. I’ve heard lots of writers say that “you can’t teach writing” — i.e., you’ve either got it or you don’t. This seems to be based on an assumption that writing ability is something static and unchanging, like a gene. Some writers, perhaps, don’t want to admit that writing can be taught (which is to say, that writing can be learned), because admitting that you can get better at writing means admitting there was a time when you weren’t a great writer. — Electric Literature: What Should I Do If I’m Ashamed Of My Published Work?

Something that occurred to me recently is that I’ve been comparing and contrasting books in my reviews and other posts as I wanted to when I first started blogging. I remember reading other blogs and wishing I could write with the knowledge those bloggers did, recognising the gap between my literary experience and theirs. This made me think of the thought I had about my reviews back then, that knowing experience is the key; my reviews were necessarily rudimentary and I thought I should really wait some time before writing.

It’s a fair thought to have and in a small way I stand by it – my first reviews weren’t very good and there’s a definite change over time that’s not linked to conscious decision. I reckon most bloggers feel similarly; but if I hadn’t reviewed back then, whilst I might have gained the reading experience over time, the putting into words would’ve taken a lot longer. The ‘doing’ aspect of progressing is just as important as the learning and mental improvement.

Because that’s the thing about improving over time – you want to try to be good at something from the start but you have to acknowledge that at the start especially, done is better than perfect and you will at some point look back and feel a bit embarrassed at your first attempts even if others say they were good; own worse critic and so on. I relate very much to those bloggers who delete their old posts even though I’d be reluctant to do that myself; no matter what the reason for being less happy with your old work, at some level there’s the knowledge that you do things much better nowadays and aren’t quite who you were then.

I’ve had a few interests in my life where more experience wouldn’t have an effect so I’m happy seeing the changes in reading and blogging, and due to this I’m more aware of smaller changes in newer interests, too.

What hobbies/academic choices/career-related-things have you worked through to get to that other side, where was your starting point, and how was the journey?

Reading With The Wrong Image In Mind

A photograph of a note pad with pens resting on it. The notepad is open and has a big question mark drawn on the page

Too often I’ve found I’m thinking of something visually different to what the author was intending me to think.

I wouldn’t call it a problem – except perhaps if you’re visualising a human when they are actually a dragon… which is unlikely to happen unless the character is called Eustace Scrubb. But it can be irritating and a minor issue. There have been occasions where I’ve had to actively rethink a person’s looks because they’re important to the plot and I haven’t added them into my picture.

This seems generally caused by a lack of description in the book; you only find out your picture is wrong when new information comes to light. The information tends to come at least half-way through the book when it really should have been in the first few pages. For all the bad aspects of Fifty Shades Of Grey, it can’t be said that E L James didn’t give the reader a good picture of Anna from the start, even if it was made easier by stereotyping and the prior existence of Bella Swan.

When new information comes to light I’m afraid I tend to acknowledge it and then default to the image I had created; I’ll rethink looks if needed but I often just set up a second version of the character so that the new one sort of tags along with the original. I also do it with locations, buildings, landscapes.

I don’t like to see the film before reading the book but if the book lacks description, visualising the choices made for the film helps a great deal.

There are times, I find, when I have a different picture regardless of how much description there – and while I’m hoping some of you will say you have had trouble with the lack of description aspect of this post, I’m absolutely counting on camaraderie for the following: where you have had a different experience of what the author is talking about or you just can’t get used to the idea of the author’s description of someone called Joe Bloggs when there is someone in your life called Joe Bloggs who looks completely different. (I remember Roald Dahl’s worship of aniseed in Boy and not at all understanding it. I remember reading a book about a girl called Elizabeth and finding it impossible not to see the girl who would spout untruths.)

The last point, there’s no getting away from; it will always happen. But the lack of description… it seems to be getting better on the whole in new books, but it’s still not quite there yet. I suppose it’s all too easy to have a visual in mind, get used to it, and forget that others would need more description for something they might think obvious. As I found earlier this week, it’s hard enough getting the spelling of a headline correct when it’s right in the middle of a poster.

When was the last time you had to correct the image in your head and were you able to correct it for the rest of the book?

Reading Without Regard For The Author

A photograph of six books: Rebecca, The Snow Child, Quiet, The Fault In Our Stars, The Great Gatsby, and Suite Francaise

I want to revisit this topic, updating my thoughts due to the added reading experience I’ve gained since I last wrote about it.

Nicolai Houm’s The Gradual Disappearance Of Jane Ashland, my recent read, says this on page 58:

It was even in line with the dominant theory at the time, which insisted that reading must be done without reference to the lived life of the author.

It’s a fascinating idea to think about because putting a book in its context seems so important, the relation of a book to their life can be critical to understanding it. General historical context is good to know, but so often it’s the author’s context that’s important.

What would Tender Is The Night be without context? I’d argue it’d still be a bad book, but context does redeems it somewhat. The use of mental health hospital, and alcoholism, wouldn’t be anywhere near as ‘good’ as it is in a literary sense if it wasn’t for that relation to Zelda Fitzgerald’s health and Scott Fitzgerald’s increasing dependence on alcohol. The author’s life, when set against the book, transforms it from a somewhat confusing look at fictional rich Americans in Paris to a semi-autobiographical novel.

Then there are books that go that one step further, wherein you can’t really read them without author context. Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is billed as a novel about the death of a wife and mother, but Malmquist’s own experience is so intrinsic to what you take away from it that the book would lose some of its impact without knowledge of it.

I remember well my first blogging years, when I had little knowledge in which to set my reading. I used to rail against context – I had never got on with it as a concept for study. My reviews and reading experience were adequate but I am aware of the difference between then and now, and vastly prefer where I am currently. And I know I wouldn’t have written as much as I have without it.

Not referring to an author’s life does ensure a particular sort of objective reading. Some books may be better for it – those books that feature ideas and values in their characters which the author themselves does not ascribe to, can not be confused as items that match their thoughts. But non-referral doesn’t have longevity beyond this – at some point knowledge of contexts will seep through; even without actively reading about an author, in reading their books you tend to gain an idea for who they are.

I think I understand why no referencing has been preferred – it could be easier that way, less ‘messy’, more escapist – but it prevents a certain progression of thought and may wrongly influence opinion. There’s something isolating about it. Perhaps this is a case for re-reading – read once without context, read again with it.

But I personally think knowing about the author in terms of a book’s content is a good thing.

Where do you stand on literature and contexts?

On Classics, Average Older Books, And Contrasting Values

A photograph of three classic books: Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, and David Copperfield

I’ve been thinking about classics and, for want of a better descriptor, bog-standard older books, in terms of how they match up, and where the term ‘classic’ begins and ends.

When I first began to develop an interest in reading famous books, and for a fair length of time into my journey reading them, I used to call all older books classics. True, I was naïve back then and didn’t realise just how many older books the world had managed to retain, but mostly I saw historical books as being equal to each other, all full of value – albeit that I started to see it more as a perceived value once I’ve read my first dull book that everyone else seemed to like.

(On the note of needing a better descriptor – I’d like to see one. Does the fact there isn’t a proper descriptor for average older books a reason why so many of them are still put on a pedestal?)

A recent article on Lit Hub included this:

Classics are classics for good reason, and forgotten books are most often forgotten because they weren’t excellent.1

In many ways, never was a truer word spoken, but there are a lot of books that were forgotten and then remembered – forgotten because they didn’t seem relevant at that time; I believe Twelve Years A Slave would be in that category – a book that was relevant during abolition but perhaps not so much after slavery ended, until it was discovered again in the last few decades. (And that’s why I didn’t add ‘forgotten books’ to my bracketed paragraph – whilst the article says ‘most often forgotten because’ I reckon it’s a bit less than ‘most often’. There are many more reasons books are lost, and we likely won’t find out about all of those reasons.)

Having now read a few older books of that non-classic variety, particularly those in the ‘was very popular and a classic for a short period of time’ category, I find it interesting how we change; some books are forgotten because they have values we no longer, or had no longer, ascribe(d) to.

I’m thinking of Charlotte Turner Smith’s Emmeline, the book I’m currently struggling through, a book in which a man follows the unhappy main character everywhere she goes, having tantrums when anyone suggests he leaves her be. Turner Smith’s publishers and contemporary readers would doubtless be surprised to hear the book is now virtually unknown – it was incredibly successful in its day (which is a reason to read it – a book by a female author in the 1700s). It was considered excellent by most.

Mary Wollstonecraft did not like it much at all, however, and this is something else to consider – if a writer who is revered so much today for reasons that are completely opposite to the popular book’s qualities did not like it, it does stand to reason that it would be obscure now.

She “lamented […] that the false expectations these wild scenes excite, tend to debauch the mind, and throw an insipid kind of uniformity over the moderate and rational prospects of life, consequently adventures are sought for and created, when duties are neglected, and content despised.” 2

The Light In The Clearing I read a few years ago. I likened it to Great Expectations insofar as literary atmospheres go; it was a popular book by a very successful author. Nowadays it’s obscure, its topic and messages far surpassed in execution by others from the same period whose fame has only increased.

It’s both sad and understandable – as the world changes, books that used to be important may cease to be so. The good thing now is that we can at least save them, retain them digitally where they can be uncovered in the future whereas previously they might have been lost.

1 Our Obsession With Lost Books And How Often They Disappoint
2 Wikipedia’s page on Emmeline


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