You are what you read… yes?

Ok kids, putting on my Sarah the Scholar Hat for this post, but to help keep things upbeat:

This past week, I wrote an essay and presented it to my colleagues in the core course of our program (radically entitled “Public Texts”). Despite the trauma of the writing process, I actually rather enjoyed thinking about my topic. For the assignment I was meant to compare Bourdieu’s “The Field of Cultural Production” with Janice Radway’s analysis of one of the first ever (we’re talking 1920s) Book-of-the-Month Club’s basis for book recommendations. Bear with me folks: despite my brain’s refusal to understand the majority of Bourdieu’s writing (to comfort myself over this, I started calling him “BORED-EW“), I did walk away from his stuff with a renewed awareness of how there is a hierarchy of “Literature,” and whether you like it or not your cultural “capital” (i.e. how well do you understand Art? How much DEPTH do you have?) is partly determined by the books that you read.

Essentially these articles (how much Bourdieu and Radway agree with their subject matter is another issue entirely) communicate the following key idea: you are what you read. If you are one of the privileged few with access to understanding and appreciating literary works of art, then you’re at the top of the literary food chain and can be snooty to everyone else beneath you. If you’re the type of person who thinks James Joyce is a self-indulgent lunatic who makes no sense, there there, don’t worry your pretty little head about it and go comfort yourself with some bestsellers. I’ve heard vampires stories are popular these days, try one of those, and leave the good stuff to us snoots.

My problem with this kind of thinking is that while I DO have the training to tackle someone like Joyce, the thing is I’d much rather go flipping through my beloved childhood collection of Captain Underpants stories. I’m the kind of person that’s drawn to a story that I can relate to, but also that’s told in a unique way that changes SOMETHING about how I think/read/think about what I read (one of those “I know a good story when I read it” deals, of course all of which is contingent on the “I” in that statement). My bookshelf is a ramshackle collection of texts from all over the literary map, so what kind of a reader does that make me? Is there a better kind of reader? Is there a better kind of book? Does it even matter?

I suppose the answer to this question depends on how you define “literature” itself. Personally, as much as I enjoy anything by Nick Hornby or Helen Fielding, I can’t call either a better writer than Charles Dickens or Cormac McCarthy or Sylvia Plath, etc., etc.. But that’s the thing: it’s a different form of writing, and to me each form is equally valuable. So while yes, Austen is most definitely the better “writer,” Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code still occupies the same shelf space as Pride and Prejudice. In the end, I think a book’s literary status doesn’t matter as much as what it can do for its reader. As much as it pains me to hear people claiming that the Twilight books are the “BEST THING EVAAAAAAAAA”….

This both bewilders and frightens me.

…at least they’re reading. What do you guys think?

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog

2 Responses to “You are what you read… yes?”

  1. I am a total fan of Bourdieu; in fact,I tend to worship at certain theory altars and his is one of em’. Bourdieu’s research on taste and distinction as social facts rather than natural “gifts” is work of profound social justice, plain and simple. It’s not that books make you who you are but that your class, cultural affiliations and other social strata shape you into a certain identity. From stem to stern, you are your habitus, which throws into question the whole idea of “upward mobility.” It’s exactly this kind of thing that Joyce wanted to explode. Ulysses is designed to counter every aspect of realism – one of the most pervasive aesthetic forms that has tended to re-entrench inequity. Sylvia Beach, as one of his primary editors, saw reading Ulysses as an act of emancipation from norms of reading, writing, living….of course, now only a specialized club claim that they can read Ulysses, and that club is mainly academic: a class of people who claim a certain cultural capital and, in turn, market themselves on the cultural marketplace. Bourdieu was out to expose class as a way of keeping people in their “assigned” social strata, which allows for one class to sit at the apex and claim privilege, wealth, etc…He saw literature as one of the ways that economic, cultural and social disparity can remain a “norm” rather than as aberration.

    Bourdieu rules.

    Thanks for this post: I love getting it on with Bourdieu.

  2. I think this is an excellent topic. Some consideration should be given to why a person reads as well as what they read (in my opinion). To say that a reader is somehow ‘above’ all other readers simply because they read and understand classical literature is not something I can subscribe to. I’m sure there are many English Lit students out there who understand Joyce and enjoy him, but when taking off on vacation will pick up a Nicholas Sparks book and leave Joyce on the shelf. I think we should look at WHY we read what we read and (exactly what you said) what it does for the reader. If you get pleasure from a book, then why should it be considered inferior to another? If a book changes your perception on the world around you, if it makes you laugh or cry what difference does it make who wrote it? Too, if you read a classic and simply have an opinion (whether positive or negative), doesn’t that mean it did what it was supposed to?
    Great post! Sorry the essay killed you on the inside but at least it’s done now!

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