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non fiction and my own crushing ignorance

I prefer reading non-fiction over fiction. Non-fiction authors generally assume you don't know much about the subject, and that's why you're reading a book about it. Thus, they present their material in a way that is approachable, understandable, and not belittling.

Fiction authors, on the other hand, like to demonstrate how smart they are, and proceed to fill their works with arcane references to all kinds of weird crap that people who have to, like, work for a living have neither the time nor the opportunity to learn anything about.

Perhaps, however, I have it all wrong. Maybe all the people in New York who read books from the New York Times Best Seller List actually are sufficiently well educated and well rounded that they understand the little references, jokes, and allusions the authors make. Maybe, growing up in a small mill town in Oregon, and now living in a small former sugar cane town on Oahu, I just haven't had the opportunity to learn about or be exposed to the things I really should know about in order to be a functional member of society.

Apparently that pre-SAT score from some years ago, and the similarly impressive SAT score, both of which placed me in the top half of one percent in the nation, are in no way indicative of any sort of real awareness or understanding of important information. The Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism, which familiarized me with subjects as wide-ranging as the impact of Edward R. Murrow on broadcast reporting; the significance of juxtaposition of images in film editing; the thematic similarities between The Man Who Was Thursday and The Crying of Lot 49; and the difference between a caudal peduncle and an adipose fin, is insufficient to prepare me to read even the most basic mass-market pulp novel. Some experience with music, from being able to hack out "The Entertainer" on an old upright piano; having owned an Edison Cylinder phonograph with wax recordings of "Nigger Loves His Possum" and "Redwing," several thousand 78rpm records dating from 1900 through 1957, and of course 45's, LP's, and CD's including discs by Mono, Yma Sumac, Al Hirt, and The Sailor Scouts, not to mention an entire row on the shelf of classical works, in particular Rimsky-Korsakov; and being able to teach a fourth grade class to sing "My Darling Clementine" while studying about the 1849 California Gold Rush is all as nothing when it comes to understanding modern storytelling. When it comes to reading novels, I feel like such a pikey, and even though I am internationally conversant enough to know what a "pikey" is, not to mention the leg-before-wicket rule and Leyland Brothers' World. I just don't seem to know enough to understand the references casually bandied about by characters in novels; or, in the case of international references, even by magazine travel writers.

How, then, do I overcome my own staggering ignorance of all things germane (I have heard some esoteric tales of the mysterious St. Germaine, yes) to 21st-century literary life? Obviously not in college, as I have gone that route. Not through travel, broadening though it may be, for trips through China, Australia, England, Wales, Scotland, Canada, and much of the US have not provided me with the exposure and experience I seem to require. Life in the Sandwich Isles is of little help, altho' it has exposed me to a bit more information about Stevenson, Gaugan (the artist, not Gagnan, co-inventor of the aqualung), Duke Kahanamoku, and the curious fact that Philippino vampires bite victims on the toe, as do vampire bats, rather than on the neck. Apparently, however, in filling my mind with worthless, useless trivia, I have not devoted sufficient time to filling it with useful, valuable trivia which would allow me to understand sophisticated contemporary literature.

I have spoken with a number of people who do not seem to be aware that Moore's Farenheit: 9/11 is a reference to Bradbury's Farenheit: 451. Yet, on the whole, these people consider themselves pretty "hep" and "with it," and seem to have little trouble functioning in and enjoying the world of the contemporary novel.

I've tried to begin reading more lately, and have even begun a "reading log" to track the books I finish. In the past month or so I've completed six books, four non-fiction books and two fiction novels. One of the non-fiction books was a personal travelogue, written something like a novel, which I found pretentious and preachy, and which tried, like most novels, to overwhelm me with witty literary references. The two fiction novels I read tried, similarly, and successfully, to cut me down to size with a barrage of supercilious quips and quotations. I am reminded of some of the reasons I essentially gave up reading for the longest time. I just don't know enough to even "get it" most of the time. The more I read, the more I realize how much I don't know that, apparently, I should know!

Now, too, I am having serious doubts that I am pursuing the right career path. How can I have the audacity to believe that I can function as an educator when I lack even the basic knowledge necessary to understand and interpret a simple contemporary fiction novel? Not only do I not know what I need to know, I do not know how to acquire the knowledge that I need. Some teacher I would make.

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