Lit with Lindsay: Let’s talk about books, baby

lindsaychoi

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I am:

  1. In Wheeler Hall, looking at the English department postings tacked on the wall — flyers crammed into every free space, stapled over each other like a mosaic or a pinata skin. They advertise colloquiums, conferences, poetry readings and lectures, and the friendly images on the posters are somewhat belied by the literary jargon covering them.
  1. Reading a book of experimental poetry that I could only find on Amazon, for which I painfully shelled out nearly $20 — on my budget, a couple of days worth of food.
  1. Swapping zines with a friend at Memorial Glade on our way to a movie theater. We’re going to see “Divergent,” and the zines are slipped unread into our purses, where they’ll stay until tomorrow morning.
  1. In all of these cases, flushed with excitement from thinking about, reading or writing literature — but at the same time, thinking, God, no wonder books are dying out.

As an English major, I’ve done my fair share of moaning, wailing and teeth-gnashing about the collapse of the market for books — but to be fair, it’s not exactly a mystery why it’s happened.

The most obvious explanation is that books are expensive, and compared to phones or tablets, they’re cumbersome and heavy. Also, they take work to enjoy. In other words, they’re not very good “modern” products, and their difficulty to consume makes them less appealing.

Movies, television and music are more convenient and generally, they’re more immediately gratifying. Arguably, in terms of pure entertainment value, watching “The Hunger Games” is a hell of a lot more fun than reading the book, and takes probably half the time.

But more importantly — besides the drawbacks of books as consumable products — they suffer from an issue of exclusivity in nonpopular literature. Though books marketed for the popular mainstream, such as “The Fault in Our Stars” or “Fifty Shades of Gray,” are made accessible, affordable and open for public discussion, other types of literature — such as the books we often read in classrooms — don’t enjoy the same exposure. These books are hard to enjoy because they’re made fairly inaccessible, and because the discussions about them are often so specialized; they exclude people who don’t have a deep interest in studying literature and the means to pursue that kind of education.

So there’s clearly something fishy going on, because ideas of exclusiveness and literature just don’t mix. After all, if literature is meant to be about people — to talk about some part of the “human condition” — how can it justify being exclusive? In order for literature to be, it has to be populist, and if we let literature be relegated to academia and warped into an exclusive, elitist field, then it loses its human grounding and becomes irrelevant.

I don’t want to be misunderstood — I don’t think that authors should necessarily have to cater to general audiences, and literary academics definitely should not stop having scholarly discussions. But I do think that a larger part of literature needs to be brought into the public sphere. And that’s my goal in writing this column.

Because in order to keep literature from fading from the public eye, literature needs to be talked about in a public space. We need to engage with all types of books, shake off our boredom and rinse out the bad taste left in our mouths from the book reports of yesteryear.

Let’s talk about literature, here, in a public space, as a public forum. Let’s make discussing literature less specialized and more inclusive, and let’s try to open the act of reading from a private activity to a public one.

This column will try to start a conversation on books — the books that don’t sell and the books that do. On novels, short stories, comic books, philosophy books, poetry books, art books and hundreds of other books read by serious literary scholars that never reach the mainstream — all of which deserve to be talked about.

Lindsay Choi writes Thursday’s new column on literature. Contact her at [email protected].