Thursday, December 08, 2011

The pseudo-scholar and the pigeon hole

I'm re-reading E M Forster's Aspects of the Novel and thought I'd share some words from the Introductory lecture which seem apposite to our times. The 'pseudo-scholar', he says
...classes books before he has understood or read them; that is his first crime. Classification by chronology. Books written before 1847, books written after it, books written before or after 1848. The novel in the reign of Queen Anne, the pre-novel, the ur-novel, the novel of the future. Classification by subject matter - sillier still. The literature of Inns, beginning with Tom Jones; the literature of the Women's Movement, beginning with Shirley; the literature of Desert Islands, from Robinson Crusoe to The Blue Lagoon; the literature of Rogues - dreariest of all, though the Open Road runs it pretty close; the literature of Sussex ... improper books ... novels relating to industrialism, aviation, chiropody, the weather...
It strikes me that this is the chief way that books are viewed and received now in our culture: it's how they are marketed, it's how they are frequently written about on the web or, in particular, in newspapers. It's how stories are often published in anthologies, and filtered in competitions, ie thematically. A novel or a story is seen through the walls of some pigeon hole or other, and no one looks at it - really reads it - for what it is in itself or on its own terms. As Forster goes on to say, this is
moving round books instead of through them... Books have to be read; it is the only way of discovering what they contain. ...reading is the only method of assimilation... The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of the author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency.
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