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One man’s readability is another man’s literary merit

January 3rd, 2012 · No Comments · Writing

We are rapidly closing in on 20 years since I set foot in a college classroom. Time has blurred most of my classes together. One of the rare ones that stands out to me is an upper-level English literature class I took the first semester of my junior year. I signed up for an ambitious six courses that fall. To make life a little easier, I sought out the professor for my lit class midsummer and got the reading list ahead of time so I could get a head start on things.

There were six books on the syllabus. For some reason the only one I recall for sure is Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. There might have been a Thomas Hardy in there, and I know I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula around then, though I have good memories of that one so it might have been a different class.

My enthusiasm for the course faded almost as soon as the school year began. If I wasn’t the only non-English major there, I was at least in a tiny minority. These were hard-core lit nerds, bent on deconstructing every paragraph. I didn’t even know what “deconstruction” was. Hell, I still don’t. To most of the other students apparently it involved boiling the story down to its core, which was inevitably about sex and/or masturbation. I generally felt they were reading a little too much into things.

We had to write short papers once or twice a week. About a month into the class I broke out some clever and wrote one about books getting date raped. It was my way of parodying the bulk of the class and their penchant for driving a little too hard to find sex within the covers of our reading list. My teacher found it offensive, which I found ironic given she had no problems with the tenor of most of the discussions in class.

That wound up being the final straw for me in that class. Though the drop-add deadline for the semester had passed, I wanted out in the worst way. I pleaded my case to the dean of the department, citing my course overload and how it had worn me down to the point I’d been sick most of the term. He made me beg a little more than was necessary, but eventually signed the form and I was gone. An hour later I was across the street in a bar called Bullwrinkles, celebrating over beer and sandwiches with a good friend. (Who should walk by outside but the very same dean, who most fortunately did not stop in for lunch. Certainly one of the more memorable “oh shit, is there a back way out of here” moments in my life.)

Though I read mostly new releases these days, my bookshelf is still choked with classics. If I spent a little time combing through I could probably even piece together the syllabus from that class. I’ll bet all six books are still with me. And I’ll bet even now if I re-read them, I wouldn’t feel the need to dig quite as deep as my old classmates. Yes, I’m sure they were all layered with several levels of meaning. Most of the classics are, which is one reason they’re still read. But I’ll confess here that I don’t generally want to work hard enough to root it all out. (Certainly not hard enough to invent sexual interpretations of every other line; I’ll leave that to poetry fans, who are even more infamous for this.)

I read mainly for pleasure and to learn things. I get through 30-40 books a year, and honestly if something is all that tough to get through, I’ll set it aside and get on with my life. I can’t be bothered battling Salmon Rushdie. Even William Faulkner is a bit much. I may yet get through The Sound and the Fury, which has been gathering dust on my shelf for years, but if I don’t I won’t think any less of myself.

Of everything I read last year, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding stood out to me a head above the others. I slotted it No. 1 on the Best of 2011 list I wrote for Baseball America and classed it among the best baseball novels I’ve ever read. I thought Harbach was a master craftsman, peppering his sentences with unique and colorful similes. Almost literally, I stopped on nearly every page and thought, ‘wow, I wish I could write like that.’ When I hit a weak spot in my own writing now, I force myself to rework it, striving to cobble together a sentence or two that might be almost half worthy of Harbach.

The book was a huge hit, so I wasn’t the only one drawn in. Critics seem to have almost universally loved it. I read a number of reviews and still, four months after its original publication date, find myself reading articles about it. Today I ran across a column on Publishers Weekly written by news editor Gabe Habash, who thought The Art of Fielding was a great book, even though he placed it on the low end of the literary spectrum, as compared to more strenuous reads like Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis, two authors I’ll admit right now I’ve never read.

Habash writes: “And ‘work’ seems to be distinctly what Harbach is avoiding in AoF, and that could be construed as a slight against it. But even though it makes no claims for high literary merit, I found myself more involved in the book than all but one other book I read this year.”

He cites a couple of “clunkers” in The Art of Fielding, but notes they weren’t enough to keep him from liking it, and even finding it a “really, really great book.”

I think that demonstrates right there why so many people enjoyed The Art of Fielding. Habash is coming at it from the other end of the spectrum, or at least much closer to the other end than I would ever stand. He found flaws where I found brilliance, and we both loved it. Its accessibility to me wasn’t something to be overcome, but something to be celebrated. I like my books best when they’re not playing hard to get.

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