Tuesday, July 28, 2009


(Part #1 in a series of columns on 'books//films//movies' that have like "changed lives", or something)

I'm really not sure if books can change lives. Predetestination, Determinism, Science, etc. And even if they can, it's kinda hard to find a perspective from which to judge whether an individual book has lived up to such lofty criteria. I really don't know if my life would have been any different without
Spot the Dog or Where's Wally?. On the other hand though, if any book could be said to have “changed my life”, then surely all books I have read could too, however insignificantly. But this makes the phrase “changed my life” seem trite and prosaic, almost meaningless. Setting aside these deconstructive semantics, of which Derrida would be proud (and maybe putting away the name dropping too) I think much easier and less fraught question can be asked: “What book do I remember best?”.

Probably The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol. But that doesn't really count, seeing on only finished it today. I lack the Kantian aesthetic distance required for proper judgment. So instead I will say George Orwell's 1984. Skipping from Predestination to precognition, I can see prospective readers groaning ironically (if that is possible) at this choice, usually the fanfare of pseudo-intellectual teenagers. We are back to the trite and prosaic apparently. But hear me out.

I think I first read 1984 when I was about ten. And like most ten year olds I didn't understand a fucking word of it and didn't finish it (went back to my pro-yo or something). All I knew was that it was (quote) greate literature (unquote) and that it ought to be read as part of a decent (quote) cultural education (unquote). I came back to it when I was about fifteen to find that, while the actual book had decayed considerably sitting on my parents book shelf, the content seemed to have miraculously improved. It was good. Seriously fucking good. It had everything any fifteen year old would want. Sex, Violence, Jewbashing, all the good stuff. Yet it also had something for the discerning reader. The historico-political references were cognitive reinforcement heroin to a kid raised on the History Channel. Most of all though, it had tragedy. Not weak-arse Romeo and Juliet type tragedy, but proper, gut wrenching, so-bleak-you-want-to-cry, tragedy. Pathos, I think Aristotle would say.And of such an all encompassing kind too. Things are not getting better, good does not triumph over evil, the entire future of the planet is simply a boot stomping on a human face. Eternally, just stomping. Or at least I thought at the time.

Looking back, with a little aesthetic distance of my own, I can certainly see the flaws. Like most of Orwell's writing, it is transparently didactic and an obvious expression of its author's politics. And as I recently found out, the concept, plot, themes and conclusion were a complete rip-off of an earlier work by Evgeny Zamyatin. The curious thing though, is that this didn't really matter then, and it still doesn't now. For better or for worse, 1984 meant something to me, and it still does. Not because it changed my life, but because it is so inextricably tied up with a time when it wasn't necessary to judge a book intellectually, or deconstructively, or in a Kantian manner, or in an Aristotelian manner, and it wasn't important to think about whether it was 'cliched' to like it or not, or even to find it necessary to put scare quotes around words to distance myself from them. It could just be enjoyed because it was so fucking good.

- B. Richardson


  1. “A time when it wasn't necessary to judge a book intellectually, or deconstructively, or in a Kantian manner, or in an Aristotelian manner”

    I know exactly what you mean. I hate the political/ intellectual/ philosophical/ sociological wankfests that are applied in currently literary criticism. Great, Truman Capote may have expressed a Foucauldian conceptualisation that the nature of criminality is a discourse produced by the modern prison industrial system in, In Cold Blood. And yeah, Gore Vidal may have in Myra Breckinridge, attacked the notions of heteronormativity thus displaying ‘a deconstruction of the performance of gender norms, repositioning them as a lesbian phallic (ie, queer) identity”. Thank you so much Judith Butler. However that misses the point. In Cold Blood was a fucking badass read; it was violent, funny and a true story. Myra Breckinridge was hilarious, in your face and sex filled. These are things that I, and most interesting people like (so fuck off Virginia Wolfe - boring bitch extraordinaire).

    I like Harold Bloom’s idea about the current way in which students are taught to read literature, which he dubs “the anxiety of influence”. Literature is no longer judged by how well a metaphor is crafted, or how engaging the plot is; its all about hurling other shit (intelligent shit though, so no offence to all the academics) at it and seeing what sticks. This needs to change, I mean you can have the most insightfully post-modern piece of prose ever written; but it reads as though every word is stabbing you in the eye. But yeah, whatever aye – I had a point some place I’m sure.

  2. I have never actually read any of Harold Bloom's stuff before, but sounds like he is pretty well on the money. While I can accept that certain elements of "theory" based criticism are quite valid (who would seriously doubt the New Historicist claim that all literature is a product of it's era, for instance)I am starting to doubt whether there is any real future in it as a productive practice, so incredibly relativistic and convoluted has it has begun to be.

    I agree, something really does have to give. Whether that means taking a step backward towards some simpler set of aesthetic standards (my quick wiki of Bloom suggests that he was down with romanticism so why not resurrect some of their principles) or a radical leap forward, perhaps to a more science based form of criticism, such as a few writers have attempted with evolutionary biology principles in mind. Either way, the merit of jargon ridden, hyper-referenced rhetoric, that seems so common, needs to be seriously questioned. If only to save me having a stroke before I'm 30.

  3. last two paragraphs of your post pretty much mirror my own thoughts and experience exactly