You are what you _________

Lil Edie, from the Yale Collection of American Literature. Click for my source.

Someone I know once made the rather self-satisfied observation that s/he had no “guilty pleasures” in terms of reading material. Everything that this person read warranted a seal of literary merit, bestowed no doubt, by the echo chamber of a small number of American literati publishing their work and their criticism in select journals.

It’s hard to know where to start with this information. Some thoughts: I don’t have any guilty pleasures either; I am not ashamed of the books I enjoy reading. That said, what we absorb through pop culture does influence our own work, however indirectly, and a steady diet of garbage isn’t likely to nourish new ideas or inspire any self-exploration.

This line of thought is coming to me because it’s been a while since I read something that really opened up new lines of thinking for me and challenged me to reconsider my work or the world in some fundamental way. It’s not like I’m reading crap, but transcendent novels or essays aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. And of course the ones that do are completely subjective: witness my own fascination with Reality Hunger, for which so many people had so little patience (mind you, the book could have been shorter by half).

As always, I have a ginormous stack of things to read, including the oral history Edie, which I have gratefully borrowed from a friend; the Siskel and Ebert oral history; Edith Wharton’s book on the writing of fiction; Blonde (3/4 of the way through); a biography of Margaret Mead; and endless others.

Part of what’s making me think along these lines is my increasing annoyance with and disappointment in Nurture Shock, the Po Bronson book about counter-intuitive knowledge in child development, which I’m about halfway through. It’s just not as revelatory and interesting as I’d like, and he and his coauthor have the maddening habit of applying showy dialogue tags that make their sources sound like morons. It is interesting content, but it just doesn’t rise above standard reporting mixed with the occasional subjective piece of primary observation. (Also, working in academia has made me question academic sources—they are not all equal, and it’s far from a given that the methodologies and conclusions of any given professor has credibility within her discipline.)

Anyhoo, blah blah blibbity blah. I’m looking for inspiration and revelation in fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. Recommendations?


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