The Stone Reader

****The apostrophe button on my computer is broken.  Dont judge****

On Friday night, in a fit of drunken passion, my friend Tim ran to the video store to rent a copy of a documentary called The Stone Reader for me.  He had recommended it a while ago, but the fact that I owe money to every video store in town had prevented me from renting it.  On Saturday morning, I watched it and I am very glad that I did.

I am not going to get into the details of the documentary, but I would recommend it to everyone, avid readers in particular.  It is obvious that the film maker has a deep passion for books; many of the people he interviews do as well.  One interviewee, in particular, caught my eye.  The man is probably in his eighties.  His teeth are similar to those of the Pogues lead singer.  I am pretty sure he has suffered a stroke since his face is quite palsied.  It is obvious that the man is brilliant.

His name is Leslie A. Fiedler.  His most famous work, a work of literary criticism, is called Love and Death in the American Novel. I had never heard of it, but was quick to add it to my Christmas wish list.  The bonus DVD of the documentary features a 50 minute long interview with Fiedler on a show from the seventies called Firing Line.  The first thing that struck me about this earlier interview is how expressive Fiedlers face once was.    As he speaks, his face takes on innumerable,  imposible shapes .  It is incredible to watch a facial contortionist at work.

Even more striking than Fiedlers face, however, are the words he speaks during the interview.  His mission, at the time, was to break down the distinction between High Literature and Popular Literature.  I must admit that the scholar in me was affronted by his quest.  I mean, come on, are we really going to put works like The Davinci Code on par with classics such as East of Eden?  This seemed to be what Fiedler was suggesting, at first, but as he continued, I realized that his argument wasnt quite that simplistic.

William Buckley, the host of Firing Line, forced the issue, asking Fiedler what books he would recommend to a student of literature who is just starting out.  Fiedler smiled knowingly and replied: all of them.  Thank God for this man.  As a student of literature, myself, I have seen dozens of self-righteous motherfuckers who cling to the canon like evangelicals cling to the Apostolic letters.  These folk turn up their noses at any book that gains an audience broader than, say, the elite few who bask in Eliots references to obscure Greek texts.  This is not to say that T.S. Eliot is not valuable.  It is to say that books like Look Homeward, Angel or Lady Chatterleys Lover are (and I realize that these are hardly widely read texts.  I have my own bias).

So how do we gauge a books worth?  Fiedler cites Tolstoi as saying that what makes a book good, is its ability to bring people together.  It is a good start, I think.  Fiedler sees through the trends that take the academy by storm.  While the irony of Eliot was once popular, and sentimentalism poo pooed, that position has since changed and Eliot isnt read nearly as much; historically, the academy is quite fickle.

Fiedler also brings up the idea of mythos.  He talks about how certain books gain immortality, not from form or any technical superiority, but simply because they represent many of the archetypes that all can identify with (I am tempted to qualify that, but will leave it alone).  This is incredibly encouraging to me, since my own library contains books that have, up until this point, at least, been ignored by the academy and have, by extension, slipped into relative obscurity.  Further, the book that I am working on plays with the mythos: resurrecting and embracing themes from a Biblical tradition, in particular.

I think that, basically, people write to tell stories.  Story telling is a huge part of what makes us human and it should be encouraged as much as possible.  I hope that the Academy can adjust accordingly.

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2 Responses to The Stone Reader

  1. tara says:

    This sounds like a great documentary and I’m definitely going to seek it out. Thank you! I’m pretty sure I don’t owe pic-a-flic money right now (perhaps for the first time in years).

    I am an English Ph.D. student so I’ve definitely done my turn as a book snob. But it’s clear that, as you say, “the academy is quite fickle.” They even encourage us grad students to work on authors that aren’t canonical in order to carve out our own special academic niche. The canon is always a-changin’. I fully agree that the divide between High and Popular Literatures is tenuous or illusory at best and elitist propaganda at worst. But I also think that view is changing, even in academia, with the rise of Cultural Studies.

    I do love Eliot, but there are books I hold dear that most academics would still turn their noses up at. Lately, given that I have to read all the time, I find that I sometimes just want to put down all the high modernist stuff and the theory and just read a book that I enjoy or that speaks to me.

    That said, I doubt ‘The DaVinci Code’ will be remembered as a timeless masterpiece. Not only because it was sensationalist (after all, sensationalist Victorian novels made an academic comeback), but because it was poorly written and lacking the depth of character or meaning that would keep people coming back to it. Even now, I wonder how many people read ‘The DaVinci Code’ more than once.

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