Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

anxieties of influence

Ezra Klein’s response to the current books-that-most-influenced-me meme is interesting: He says that in such conversations, “I always feel like a fraud.” Though he lists some books, he continues,

These books meant a lot to me, but they were much less influential in my thinking -- particularly in my current thinking -- than a variety of texts that carry consider less physical heft. Years spent reading the Washington Monthly, American Prospect and New Republic transformed me from someone interested in politics into someone interested in policy. So, too, did bloggers like, well, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum and Tyler Cowen. In fact, Cowen, Brad DeLong, Mark Thoma and a variety of other economics bloggers also get credit for familiarizing me with a type of basic economic analysis that's consistently present in my approach to new issues. . . .

Going forward, I wonder how common canons like mine will become. Twenty years ago, someone with my interests would've spent a lot more time reading books because blogs simply didn't exist yet. Magazines were around, but the advent of the Web led to daily content, so I've also spent more time reading those. But I can't deny it: So much as I love my favorite books, the biggest influences in my thinking have been the continuous intellectual relationships I've had with blogs, periodicals and other people. Books aren't even that close.

Klein is making an important distinction here: most of us can name the books that most influenced our intellectual development, but it can be a little harder to assess all of the forces that shaped us and figure out which ones are the most important.

To say that a magazine, or a set of magazines, or even a series of blogs are the chief instruments of your intellectual formation is not — or should not be — a shameful confession. A lot depends on the quality of your reading. If you read an intelligent and active blogger over the course of a year, say, you are likely to be reading more than a book’s worth of that person’s words; and while you won't be getting the benefit of tracing a single argument through lengthy development — something relatively few books offer anyway — if you are an attentive reader you will learn a great deal about how that person’s mind works, how that mind encounters and assesses the many provocations that any smart person faces in a year. That kind of reading can be a useful intellectual education . . . in some fields.

But not in all. In my field, literary studies, I would say that you could (theoretically) get an education in criticism by reading smart blogs, but you can only get an education in literature by reading literature. And that means learning to reckon not just with short works — lyric poems, essays, short stories — but with great big things: novels, plays, epics. In literature the book-length work is central and irreplaceable.

5 comments:

  • In which literature? And which periods? This hardly seems true of much pre-1750 literature: even if one might say that, at a certain point in history, "the codex is central and irreplaceable," one must still admit one's reckoning with an artifact variously compiled, perhaps variously illustrated, often much more "blog" than "book." --This may be even more the case for commonplace MSS and similar none-too-bookish collections.

  • All literature and all periods, I think. You may be misunderstanding my claim: I don't say "book" or "codex" — I'm not even necessarily thinking of anything written — and I don't say that the book-length work is the only thing that matters. But every culture that I know of attempts, from time to time, to gather its central cultural concerns into comprehensive texts, or poems, or plays, that take a good deal of time to unfold. Consider everything from the Epic of Gilgmesh and the Nyanga Epic of Mwindo and the Mahabarata to the DIvine Comedy to the Faerie Queene to . . . etc. etc.

  • At the risk of ruining the question even worse than Klein did (expanding "books" to "writing"), I'm a more voracious listener (to music) than a reader, and I read a lot. Others would be better qualified as watchers (of TV and movies, mostly). They are all entertainments of a sort, though it's arguable that writing is more influential than listening and watching is more influential than either. Watching has the greatest transformative effect, listening the most transcendent. Maybe that's why I prefer listening.

  • Michael Straight said...

    This is going to sound like a bad Deborah Tannen article, but I've noticed on several occasions a tendency for educated men, when telling their own story, to (over?)emphasize the role of books in shaping their thinking and neglect the role of people they knew (only to have their wives speak up to fill in the omission -- I've had that happen in conversation three times with three different couples!)

  • In response to the last two comments: this is what I was trying to get at in my comment just after the quote. To say that these books have influenced me more than other books is to make no statement about how influential books in general have been in my development, as compared to other influences.

    When I was seventeen, I read Faulkner for the first time. That was a life-changing experience for me in a number of ways. At the same time I discovered Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, which was also life-changing. But which was more important? And how did those experiences shape me? That's hard to explain. . . .

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