07 December 2008

On being well read

"You read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost
And we note our place with bookmarkers
That measure what we've lost"
- from Dangling Conversation by Simon and Garfunkel
A close friend of mine recently lamented to me that her reading habits have created a great divide between herself and those surrounding her. As a great reader, she found that in general company her mind was too absorbed with the world of ideas and not enough with pop culture and fads so that she simply had problems relating to people. As she said it: "When I try to express what I'm interested in, it's just not cool".

At first I thought she was giving herself a backhanded compliment, but eventually decided she was in earnest. In fact she has probably made me much more conscious of the situation which in the past I couldn't care less about. No matter how raunchy or fascinating the topic, unless it is written by Kerouac or Nick Cave, it's not cool.

Autodidacticism seems to be the answer, however the dream of building on the canon of knowledge seems dead in the void of pop culture that is labelled as, like, so post-modern. Whatever happened to music like Joni Mitchell where one heard echoes of Sylvia Plath, in Van Morrison traces of James Joyce, and strains of Mark Twain ran through Randy Newman. The 60s period even produced its own pop answer to Eliot's "Waste Land" in Don McLean's symbol-laden, end-of-the-rock-era-lament "American Pie."

Today on college campuses, monolithic musical taste no longer prevails. Instead of alluding to literary pillars like Dickinson and Frost, the artier bands' favorite points of reference tend to be television shows, Dadaist movies and obscure pop tunes.

One of the things that attracted me to my friend in the first place was her love of reading widely and with deep contemplation. Seriously, is she so alone in our generation? For me reading broadly is a brilliant pastime. I love meeting people who can easily switch from discussion about socio-economics and Renaissance sexuality to chatter about celebrities and classic fashion.

Anyone, at any age or eminence, who considers their education to be finished at school is an idiot. I actually don't need to talk to everyone about books. I have a close friend who I only speak with on frivolities. Instead together we take great pleasure in discussing how things are, an almost hedonistic love of the world as it is, or was, or should be. And this is often perfectly wonderful.