Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reading for breadth or depth

In the last eight months, among other things I've read Demons, The Idiot, The Adolescent, and re-read Notes from the Underground, all by Dostoevsky. Of my "choice" reading, approximately 2,000 pages was devoted to just one writer. I intend to re-read The Brothers Karamamozov and Crime and Punishment sometime in the next few years, too.

If I had chosen, I probably could have read between five and 10 contemporary novels by five to 10 different novelists. I would not have experienced one writer with such depth, but I would have exposed myself to several writers, and learned something of several different writers' work.

What's better? Is it good that I'm so immersed in Dostoevsky's work, or am I better off taking short swims in several writers' work? Let's shift the metaphor: do I want to find a plot of land and dig down to see what's there, or am I better off wandering about the desert just scraping at the surface of different plots of land?

Of course as readers we do both. But there are many, many critically acclaimed and discussed contemporary writers of which I have little to no familiarity. I sometimes feel ignorant of the discussion of contemporary literature (though not entirely).

And there's also an argument for choosing older literature over contemporary literature. It has stood the proverbial "test of time:" it's the stuff that many have agreed is good, and thus to devote yourself to it is to devote yourself to art. To know contemporary literature and discourse about it, may be to know a fashionable trend that will later be dismissed from the canon. If experiencing literature is a spiritual quest (as I believe it is), I don't want to waste my time tinkering with the stuff that's not going to feed my soul--I want the good stuff, the prose, poetry, and drama that is going to reach to my spiritual being.

This also gets at another issue of experiencing one writer. I started reading Dostoevsky with The Brothers Karamazov; if I had known that I'd wish to go further with him, I would have started with Notes from the Underground and read his novels chronologically to The Brothers Karamazov. Now, admittedly, I was assigned The Brothers Karamazov in grad school, and that affected my own chronology. But if we're going to experience a writer, we'll often choose his or her best (or most popular, or most famous, or whatever) work. Sometimes this is by choice: if we're going to expose ourselves to a particular writer, we often wish to start with the best, not knowing we'll get to anything else. Sometimes it isn't by choice: when teachers assign a writer, they'll often choose his or her best (or most popular, or most famous, or whatever) work to expose students to. That makes sense. So as readers, we often start with a writer's best work (even if it's a work he or she progressed to), then scatter around to read the rest (if we want). We don't necessarily progress with the writer's ideas or style (combined, his or her "art").

We can take this all to cliche: is it better to know a lot about a little or a little about a lot? Again, of course we try to do both: having a specialty does not require ignorance of everything outside one's specialty. But as readers, keenly aware of our time limitations, and keenly aware of our own mortality, we make choices. If you bring up a well-respected contemporary writer that I haven't read, I may have to listen (or read) silently, learning without contributing. But I don't regret immersing myself in Dostoevsky, one of those artists who is touching at my soul. For while a life of reading should bring much discourse about the stuff we're reading, a life of reading is also largely an inner life.

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