Not all short nonfiction writing can be considered an opinion piece. They are often written to support a particular argument. This is what we all need to know. For example, what you are reading is an essay. It’s not an op/ed, chapter, or blog post. The French translation will not be necessary. I simply want to say that I love essay forms because they allow me to observe someone think deeply and out loud. The sign of enjoyment in reading is the ability to find partial answers for the question that I have about every person I meet: What’s it like inside your brain? Reading essays is a socially acceptable outlet to my incorrigible curiosity.
Essays that are worthy of this name, i.e. they are distinct from journals, diaries, op-eds and other forms with lower expectations about depth, have a certain quality Virginia Woolf described as “to life and life alone.” It is not enough to have finished it just because you’ve read it. Friendship is over because it is time for them to part. Life changes and adds. Sven Birkerts, the author of “The Gutenberg Elegies,” describes a similar quality in Woolf’s writings: “A Room of One’s Own”‘s ideas, he says, are “in fact, few and quite obvious — at most from our historical perspective.” The thinking, the appearance of animate thought is striking. “
I like the phrase “the existence of animate thought upon the page” so much that I’m going pretend to have seen him calling Virginia Woolf fundamental.
” Even things in a bookcase can change if they’re alive. We find ourselves wanting them back; we find them changed,” Woolf writes. Because Joan Didion is no longer with us, I have spent much of the past week reading her book. Yet, she is still there on the page, alive and vibrant, much different from the last time we met. Woolf, too. This is why I consider every writer I have ever loved immortal. Joan Didion is as alive to me today as she was when I last saw her. While there are many people who have the right to mourn her, I also offer my condolences to them. However, I am one lucky million whose relationship with Didion has remained essentially unchanged over the long-term.
I used to understand that, I believe. (“Who’s we?” The careful reader should always follow a sentence like this to ask the question. It is a question you can always ask, as with most questions. You could also quietly search for answers in other parts of the text. Reading!) Reading! The author will not be dead until that author has passed away. Every published piece of writing can be considered the beginning of a conversation, or worse, a workshop, by some readers who feel entitled to their own response. What was that supposed to mean? This is supposed to be funny. Did you even consider X? What made you not do it the way you would? I’m writing an essay on your book for my high school class — do you have 15 minutes for an interview about the key themes?
They tweet the things they like, they email them, reply in comments, blog about them, and they snitch-tag their author. It is not obvious that the author, by writing and publishing a piece, has communicated what they meant and handed the responsibility of thinking about it to the reader. The reader of today will not accept that the baton has been passed. The author must clarify any confusion. If the author offends, he must atone. A simple disagreement can trigger cognitive dissonance. This is where the brain of the reader tries to reconcile beliefs that are not actually in conflict.
A thought like “Joan Didion, a master prose stylist who brilliantly thought about feminism,” cannot be taken seriously. Did she have a great career, or was it sometimes wrong? Do I love her writing or dislike it sometimes? I don’t know which one, dammit. Zero-sum authorial worthiness.
I am an old lady screaming at a cloud. This is what I know. You want a head trip, try being in your 40s, writing an essay about how nobody knows how to read anymore, and picking up “The Gutenberg Elegies,” written by a man in his 40s about how people don’t know how to read anymore — only to realize the college students who inspired his lament were (presumably, still are) exactly your age.
” “What emerged was this,” Birkerts from my cohort writes after a disastrous class where they declined to engage seriously in a Henry James short story.
” They were not readers, except for a few. This is a partial list. “
On the other hand, it’s possible assigning a Henry James story in which an older, upper-class, 19th-century man reflects on the fate of his dead friend’s butler was not the best move to engage a bunch of middle-class American teenagers 100 years later.
I just read the story in question, “Brooksmith,” for the first time, and I certainly can see its appeal as a teaching text. While the narrator thinks he is telling us the sad story of a butler who has been “spoiled” by frequent interactions of visitors from a higher social class, he unwittingly tells us a story about himself: A man who praises himself for beingfriending a servant but does not lift a finger to aid his friend, who is becoming increasingly desperate. It’s dry and delicious to laugh at the satire of a wealthy twit.
But I say that as someone who’s nearly 47 and has read a lot more 19th-century fiction than I had 30 years ago. As a college freshman in 1992, I would have been just like Birkerts’s students, complaining, “I couldn’t get into it” and therefore didn’t get it. So many little things I didn’t know yet — what a “salon” for fancy 1890s English people would even look like; the meaning of “parterre” and “casaque”; why it might be perceived as humiliating for a former butler to run a shop or wait tables in a restaurant — would have been stumbling blocks that made the reading far more difficult. The payoff was in this instance “Ho ho, this man is awful and doesn’t even know it!” Brooksmith’s struggle would have been worth it.
In contrast, I enjoyed reading earlier works such as “The Scarlet Letter”, and “The Mill on the Floss,” my freshman year. Characters closer to me, who went through dramatic events, allowed for a simpler entry into unfamiliar diction, syntax, and carried over pages of Victorian digressions. Although I was not “uncomfortable with any deviations of straight plot,” I did appreciate some plotting here and there as a kind of handrail.
I had previously adopted a number of older rescue dogs before I decided to adopt my first puppy. I knew he was very new to the world, but I was still amazed at how much he could learn. Dogs don’t know that patting your legs means “Come here”, and patting the couch means, “Join us”. It is important to explain stairs. After completing graduate work in literature and having lived a few decades, it is easy to forget that college students who are attempting new texts are essentially the human version.
I entered college as a lifelong avid reader, encouraged by excellent teachers and librarians, and I still didn’t really know anything, because I’d only existed for 17 years. I spent a lot of time learning how to manage my body and behave culturally. Even now, as I write my essay about people not knowing how to read anymore. I am still reminiscing on three decades of rapid changes in the written word. Throw ’em an fuckin’ bone, Sven! They are just babies!
Birkerts can be regarded as a very intelligent person. In the next essay, he recalls his youth and acknowledges that he was an “interested, eager, but not overly precocious” reader. . . No Sontag is “knocking back nutritional classics while still at grade school” (hard the same), and that he only “gradually became interested in lives that were utterly unlike [his] his.” In “The Shadow Life of Reading,” he describes a “kind of sedimentary layer of insight and impressions” that each reader accumulates over time. This adds context and detail to every subsequent reading experience. Reading is, in essence, about decoding symbols in a way that makes them meaning to the reader. This can be ideally replicated, but not identically, to the original meanings of the codes. Someone just stepping into adulthood in 1992, like a puppy sussing out whether it’s safe to cross from rug to hardwood, could not be expected to decipher all the code Henry James laid down a century earlier.
This explains why humans have a long history of teaching literature. In other words, we teach our children how to read carefully and think deeply. People who love books read as much as they can, and then pass on that knowledge to those who don’t care. It was always so. We create a network of language lovers and nosy-parkers along the way that connects us all — you, me and Didion, Woolf and James — back to Gutenberg. Before Gutenberg, there were handwritten letters, stone tablets and oral tradition. Before that, there was the best-crafted series of grunts. All of which make death seem less frightening and less final.
The internet has created a global library without exits or supervisors.
Heather Havrilesky is a lover of her husband, you stupidskulls.
Last week, the humor writer and longtime advice columnist at The Cut published an essay, “Marriage Requires Amnesia” — an excerpt from her forthcoming book, “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage–” in the New York Times. The result was an uncontrollable Twitter battle among her readers over whether or not she should end their marriage. (Or whether her husband should be divorced from her because of her shocking display and dirty laundry. Havrilesky claimed that her husband is abusive and she would like to end their marriage. The New York Times Can you picture it? It is obvious that the end of a relationship is imminent.
The argument against: Oh my God. Irony exists. Hyperbole exists. Learn to read better.
Havrilesky loves her husband, Joe Biden won the election, COVID-19 is not just a cold, the omicron variant is bananas contagious, vaccines are safe and effective, climate change is real, the fascist threat we face is not coming from the left, Aristotle was not Belgian, the central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself,” etc. Some things that are portrayed as unclear on the internet may not be. Texts often contain evidence that some interpretations are more valid then others. .
Not that Havrilesky’s essay in its entirety is responsible for the outrage it generated. According to my knowledge, most of the people who complained didn’t get past the line “Do you hate your husband?” The piece’s subhead is “Oh for sure, yes, absolutely.”
Disclosure, before I go on: I’ve internet-known Heather since we both wrote for Salon, which I started doing in 2008. More relevant to this discussion, though, is that I was a fan of hers for years before that, going back to Suck.com and Rabbit Blog. The sedimentary layer of reading deposits in my head includes 20-plus years’ worth of Heather Havrilesky, which means I have certain expectations when I see her name.
The piece will be lengthy. It will be long, but it won’t lose me. It will be funny to me, even though I know not everyone will. The exaggerated self-incrimination is merely meant to mask the truth of her words, which are usually tender, wise and kind. Her confident voice will always contain a soft, anxiously beating heart. For example, a piece that starts with the author “hating her husband” will end with “In spite of all, he’s still mine favorite person.” “
The internet will then shout, “If your husband is a horrible person, get a divorce!” Because the internet is terrible at reading.
At Defector, Albert Burneko went long on how upsetting he found “this terrible, ridiculous piece of writing” (which he characterizes as a “blog,” despite its clearly being labeled as a book excerpt). The basis of his rant, as far as