Is it Worth Reading?

So, on my post talking about my experience reading “The Divine Comedy”, frequent commenter malcolmthecynic expressed amusement with that being my summary of the book, and also noted in response to my comment that given what I was trying to do there’s not much more I can say about it, replied with this:

“The Divine Comedy” is almost universally considered by everyone throughout history to be one of the Great works of fiction, an absolute masterpiece and a work of high art. Given that, if I personally don’t find it enjoyable, I consider it more likely to be a defect in my taste rather than a flaw in the work per se.

Does this mean there’s no point in having a discussion about it? Absolutely not. There is a ton of excellent analysis one could give on “The Divine Comedy”, but whether or not it’s good is, I think, more or less a decided point.

So let me make this long post in response to this, and while malcolmthecynic seems to get the distinction, let me start from the idea that saying that a work is “good” and even one of the great works of fiction isn’t as clear cut as it might seem, because we have to ask “good for what?”.  As we know, this question isn’t actually all that clear of one when it comes to fiction and/or art because the issue comes up in a bunch of contexts and causes lots of issues.  For example, English teachers select all sorts of “good” works for their high school or university courses, which often leaves many of their students denying that their works were, in fact, actually “good” (for me, the big one I remember disliking is “The Stone Angel”, although I also wasn’t a big fan of “The Handmaid’s Tale”).  And we can see in music that someone might insist that classical music is “good” and insist that people who don’t like it or prefer rock or country over it are philistines with poor taste, while people who prefer rock of country might claim that the only reason the previous people don’t consider rock and country music to be “good” is because those people are pretentious snobs.  So as we turn to discussions of taste as expressed above, the exact problem we have is that we argue over what things are really “good” and what that means to the taste or lack thereof of the people who like or dislike certain things.

So to suss all of this out (and, yes, these sorts of discussions have been had by many people for a long, long time) I think it useful to return to malcolmthecynic’s original note, expanded on in his later comment:

Similarly, I don’t think Dracula works very well as a full narrative; but I’m not sure saying so is particularly useful. “Dracula” has a story is so engrained within our collective cultural consciousness that it might be more useful to say “What is it about this story that is capturing people, even if it doesn’t capture me?”.  Certainly it does not have the reputation of “The Divine Comedy” but the question of “Is it worth reading?” is, like the former, kind of already answered. Of course it is; it’s one of the most influential novels ever written.

And then we have to ask “Is it worth reading for what purpose?”.  Because obviously if we’re talking about reading it to capture its artistic elements or to note the influence it had on other works, then indeed the question is already answered.  They are so noted and so influential that it is indeed worth reading it — or watching it, or whatever — to read the work that had that influence.  “Dracula”, of course, is the book that pretty much invented the modern vampire, even if Stoker’s other works weren’t as “classic”.  “The Divine Comedy” pretty much invented the modern notion of what Hell and Purgatory are like.  In addition, those works also spawned a lot of works inspired by the idea that then brought the idea to different contexts, just as “It’s a Wonderful Life” did.  Those works are certainly worth reading, then, if you’ve read the derived works to see what the original works did and what the later works kept and expanded on or dropped, even if you end up deciding that the later works did things better, as I argued that “The Divine Comedy” focuses too much on specific people that Dante and his audience would know while later works tended to focus on more universal, at least, Western figures that almost everyone would know, or as I again argued that the original movie spent too long setting up the world and not enough time showing how the world would have changed without him and why that world wasn’t a good one, whereas later works rightly, in my opinion, made that part the big focus.  So as artistic works and influential works, they are certainly worth reading, and if someone likes the works that were derived for them they probably should read them just to see where the ideas come from, even if they might end up not really liking them because the newer works seem to have refined the model so much and copied everything that they no longer seem original or, as I noted, seem to be eclipsed by the evolution of the works that followed them (the “Seinfeld is Unfunny” idea).

So, then, while these classics are clearly worth reading from a historical or artistic perspective, we can still ask “Are they worth reading just for fun?”.  For me, given that reading is my main and one consistent hobby, are they books that I could pick up and just read for however long it took me to get through it, without worrying about comparing it to the works that came later or noting its artistic aspects?  Now, malcolmthecynic above said that if he didn’t like one of these works it would be more likely that it would reflect a flaw in him and his tastes than a flaw in the work, but is that really true?  And can we do better than that, analyzing why a particular person or even people in general might not like that work even though it’s a classic?

The thing is, for the classics it’s not a safe bet that they would be enjoyed by most people in the modern audience.  For one thing, they might not have been enjoyable even in their own time.  I haven’t read them, but from what I’ve heard James Joyce’s works are artistically interesting but the stream of consciousness he applies in the works make it a fairly difficult read.  From music, John Cage’s 4’33” has artistic merit (although some might disagree) but few people are going to want to sit down and listen to a CD recording of it to just enjoy its musicality.  So just because it’s artistically a classic doesn’t mean that even in its time it was ever something to just enjoy, and so we can clearly differentiate between artistic merit and entertainment value.

And then we have to look at things that were indeed entertaining and fun in their day but aren’t really fun or entertaining today.  For example, we can clearly see that in his time Shakespeare was entertaining and the themes he used are still relevant and appealing today, but we could easily see that a modern audience reading or watching his plays might have difficulty with the language and struggle to enjoy it unless the language is updated.  We can also see this with comedy, where we could have great works of comedy that were clearly artistically classic examples of comedy that aren’t funny today because they rely too much on people and events from the time to provide the humour, and while those jokes were therefore funny in the day people today simply can’t relate to them.  This, as noted, was also my criticism of “The Divine Comedy”, where it relies too much on talking to people that had meaning to his original audience but that don’t really have any relevance to people today.  There’s also the case of “Seinfeld is Unfunny” above, where later works have copied and evolved the tropes that the work originally established so that when we look back at the original work the elements seem themselves derivative or, even worse, primitive compared to what came later (this was a criticism I made of some of the old Universal movies by noting places where modern works seem to have indeed evolved the art to have smoother transitions and less abrupt endings).

And then we start getting into more cases that are more personal than societal/universal.  Classic works, for example, might contain themes that make them uncomfortable to at least some people in a modern audience, such as, say, unironic or uncritical racism or sexism.  If someone is studying them for their artistic value, they should be able to get past that to understand the real artistic qualities that turned them into classics, but it would be difficult to say that someone who just wanted to read the work for fun just has bad taste if such things bother them.  There’s also an issue over whether some elements of the work are things that might turn some people off the work.  We can all obviously understand that if someone doesn’t like mysteries they probably shouldn’t pick up Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie as works to read for fun, but we don’t need to have issues that are that universal that could cause a problem.  For example, “The Thing” is clearly at least currently considered to be a classic horror movie, and while I can see that it is and that it also created a genre and influenced later works, the flaws that I found in the movie — that it raised questions that to me it never answered and shifted tone too often between suspense and action/gore — are ones that it seems valid to consider flaws (although some might disagree) but are also things that happen to bother me personally far more than they might bother other people, as I noted in my comments on it.  But if someone else would be bothered in the same way, it’s worth them finding out about it from my comments, and it’s certainly valid for me to note those elements that, in fact, make the works not ones that I enjoyed while defending myself against charges that I simply have poor taste.

And it’s the latter sort of analysis that these posts have always been about, in line with what Shamus Young has done, as he commented at one point something along the lines of “It’s useful to look at why we enjoy things (or don’t, as the case may be”.  Enjoyment isn’t completely disconnected from artistic merit, because quite often the very things that give something artistic merit also make it entertaining or fun.  But something doesn’t need to be artistic to be fun.  It would do a great disservice to something like, say, “Gilligan’s Island” to judge it as something that people with poor taste enjoy simply because it doesn’t have a lot of purely artistic elements to it.  It was created for entertainment and not specifically as a work of art, so it isn’t fair to judge it for a lack of something it never tried to have.  By the same token, it’s not reasonable to insist that a more artistic work must also be entertaining or else that’s a flaw in the person consuming it.  Surely works that aim at being entertaining have the inside track in being entertaining over works that are aimed at being more artistic.  Returning to the example of Shakespeare, his works were, in general, aimed at being both, and our analysis of his works includes the things he added to appeal to the “common” person, to the upper class, and the things that he included out of a sense of promoting his art.  Given that, even in Shakespeare we can assess each element separately and discuss whether the entertaining parts still hold up today (I think they do and think that the artistic elements add to it, but that’s not always going to be the case).

Thus, it seems to be pretty reasonable for me to write posts talking about whether experiencing these classics was fun for me and whether I think they will be fun for other people to just experience for fun.  For the most part, I would expect classics to hold up, but again as noted sometimes they won’t and, more importantly, sometimes they’ll have aspects that might make them not hold up for some people, and those “some people” might include me.  For example, in reading Jane Austen I liked “Pride and Prejudice” but didn’t like “Emma”, even though Austen herself almost certainly liked the heroine in “Emma” better and so might have liked that work better.

So, even though in general I’m approaching it more casually than I probably should (which applies to everything on my blog, really) there’s certainly worth in someone who is mostly unbiased and who has never experienced those works sitting down and experiencing them to ask and answer the question “Are they fun?” and to go into at least some detail on why they are or aren’t and why they should or shouldn’t be, and what elements seem like they work from the perspective of fun and what elements seem like they don’t.  Again, we’d expect the great works that were entertaining in the past to remain so, but maybe they won’t.  And more importantly overall, we can see from the reaction of a lot of students in a lot of English classes that that experience has taught them that that most of these “good” classics aren’t fun and are discouraged from ever reading these books for fun.  “War and Peace”, for example, is a work that most people would never even consider reading for fun, and I myself fell into that trap, and yet I did read it for fun and enjoyed it.  It is definitely worth assessing these classics for the elements that made them classics, but for the ones I’ve done lately — including the first movie in “Casablanca” — it’s also worth looking past them as classics and assessing them as things that are just fun.  A lot of people feel intimidated by the classics, in part because of the idea that if they don’t like it they will be judged as being people who have poor taste.  But that might not be the case, as the works might never have been fun, or might have elements that mean that they are no longer fun.

I’m someone who doesn’t really care about what people think about my taste, and I’m also someone who has combined his entertainment with his blog posting to kill two birds with one stone.  I’m also someone who is now curious about whether these things hold up, and is interested in speculating about why they do and why they don’t, and is willing to look past their status as classics to assess whether I find them enjoyable.  So setting out whether or not I find these things enjoyable regardless of what anyone else thinks is the entire goal of my posts on books, movies, horror movies, TV shows and video games, and ultimately I’m choosing to treat the classics exactly the same way.  Yes, that means that I’ll be evaluating them on the metric of “fun” rather than on artistic merit, but it does seem beneficial to put this out there and note that, yes, “War and Peace” is indeed a pretty good book to read for fun no matter what other people might have heard about it and its difficulty, or that “Emma” isn’t all that great unless you happen to like its flawed heroine, or that “The Divine Comedy” may be a challenge because it focuses too much on people known to his audience and not to us, and so on and so forth.  These comments won’t make them any less classics, but should help people decide if those works are things that they might be able to pick up and read as entertainment rather than to be able to say that they’ve done it as some kind of intellectual achievement.  For me, picking these things up was never about checking off some kind of intellectual achievement, but was entirely about following along with malcolmthecynic’s comment and thinking “These are supposed to be some of the greatest works we’ve ever had.  I really should experience them and see if I like them”.  Yes, I was concerned that I wouldn’t like them — “War and Peace” and “Casablanca” were the first two works that made me think that I might well be able to enjoy these classics — just like most people who come face-to-face with them are, and if I can, just for an instant, yank them off their pedestal and get some people to think about whether they’d enjoy them or not I’d consider my job well done.

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