My book collection is about 95% nonfiction. There are many of what my husband calls “long-haired books” (a derogatory term taken from, I think, Foghorn Leghorn). He is amazed that I stay committed to reading volumes he considers school “textbooks”. I’m a fan of reality; I attempt to understand the world. So what? Thought and introspection is considered tedious in these days of our colossal array of cultural activities, rapid fire news and opinions, and a fast-paced, fit-it-all-in lifestyle including commitments to work, family and leisure. But engaging with a book is time I have to ponder and to learn, to sloooooooow doooooowwwwnnnnn.
I tried modern fiction. I don’t much like it. Every month Amazon Prime gives me a choice of a free download. I’ve gotten three, made it through two, and was unimpressed. They just didn’t grab me. My preference is for well-written nonfiction narratives and essays.
This one might be impressive, I thought, as I spied Mario Vargas Llosa’s Notes on the Death of Culture on my local library’s list of new arrivals. “Essays on Spectacle and Society” – only 240 pages. The Nobel laureate discusses the decline of intellectual life and his problem with global culture.
Notes turned out to be a moderately difficult book to digest. It took me over a week to read as I made my own notes (which I almost always do in order to remember what I read) and grappled with these ideas. This was one of those books that you don’t (or probably shouldn’t) sit back, absorb, and nod, but one where you pause, look away from the page, and think about whether you agree with his premise and why. There were some thought-provoking ideas in here. At times annoying for various reasons, I did not agree with everything. However, if I did just swallow the premises instead of confronting them, it would not have been nearly as engrossing or worthwhile. I ended up being curious about what he was going to complain about next and how I would react to it. (“That’s SO true!” “Wow, that’s just wrong!” “Hmm, that’s a compelling argument I’ve not heard before.” “That doesn’t sit well with me – why not?”)
I get it that not everyone is keen on reading challenging books. It feels too much like school or a job. Culture today is geared towards entertainment and escapism. There is certainly nothing wrong with light cultural products, we’ll all need some chill time (thus, I indulge in classic horror Saturday night movies, Downton Abbey and, most recently, The Royals *cringe*). I don’t hold back in saying modern fiction, much of television, typical movie fare, and especially Top 40 music, is derivative, banal and incredibly boring to the point of irritation. But Vargas Llosa’s premise is that the entertainment aspect of culture is only one thread. We’ll be an unhealthy society if we just consume high calorie junk food. We need some nutrition.
If products of culture would be valued just for our entertainment, we would have a dim-witted and apathetic society. We’d have passive consumers charmed by amusing advertising, instead of citizens participating in making the world better for each other. Let’s face it, we sort of do have too much of that now. 50 % of the population is below average intelligence (do the math) and just doesn’t care as intellectualism is not highly valued. We like our smart people to be funny, like Jon Stewart, or controversial, like Richard Dawkins. That is, they are, foremost, for our entertainment.
I agree with Vargas Llosa’s argument that a most important use of culture should be to encourage us to work, seek, ponder, struggle and grow.
Ask a kid to read a book these days and typically they contort and deliver some expletive outburst. Reading is WORK, not pleasure, for them (at least my kids). We’re all captives of the media. Video and imagery is the focus and they seem wired for that these days. A book takes an awful lot of concentration and effort. Even a “tl;dr” article will be passed over because it takes too much effort to hold several complicated thoughts in your head at once until you reach the conclusion of it all and hope you didn’t just waste 15 minutes of your life.
It’s much easier just to listen to people you like, celebrities or public figures, tell you what they think and then you can just adopt those opinions as your own. So simple! Take religion…
Vargas Llosa makes a strong argument for the criticality of secularism in a democracy. However, he also argues for the importance of private religion. Ok. I’m fine with that. Not everyone can be an atheist.
Obviously, many people reject mainstream religious teachings to pursue New Age, pagan, or paranormal beliefs as alternative “spirituality”. What’s curious to me, though, is that my atheist acquaintances pursue intellectual fulfillment via science, philosophy, literature, art, and they often seek out cultural activities of higher quality – those that require some knowledge and cultivation to enjoy. They are really fine with being challenged and listening to debates. Some of them even relish that kind of stuff.
Whereas religion has leaders that tell you what to think, those who aren’t involved in a religion seek out – I mean REALLY often SEEK – all opinions. A non-religious approach to confronting problems like poverty, war, human rights and welfare, and many various social ills is totally different than that of religious communities with their unbending rules, one special book, and frequent inability to compromise. There is no thought required. There is no reason to be knowledgeable or to expand thinking. It’s already all spelled out and, if something new comes along, you can follow what your leader says. They don’t want you reading these liberal-minded books and questioning dogma.
I may be wrong on this, but admitting I may be wrong is something religious people don’t tend to do with regards to these important social topics. You might say the same for certain political groups as well. I’m generalizing to make a point.
My point is, I believe that a person SHOULD engage with something difficult; that there is importance in challenging ourselves intellectually, at the very least. It’s an obvious point, but try making it to today’s youth or your friends who came over to watch football. How do you know that you hate ballet, Baroque, or biology if you’ve never learned a thing about it or experienced it from a knowledgeable source?
You are missing out on a HUGE swath of human endeavors and life’s richness if all you ever do is sit on your ass, texting emojis, and watching haul videos or The Voice. The pop culture stream is aimed toward the lowest common denominator, like a virus (hence, “viral”). Aim for something a bit higher, at least every now and then.