Fact: The other day I reviewed The Poetry Lesson by Andrei Codrescu. Concern: Am I intelligent enough to have done this?
I’m going to hedge a bet (and whilst I’m at it take the liberty of a tangent) that the basic answer here is yes. I only say that because a customer came in to buy a copy right after – though whether this has anything to do with intellect is questionable and she was actually more outraged than jubilant or complimentary because our stock hadn’t arrived from the States and so we didn’t have any in store and therefor her spur of the moment birthday present plans dashed she chided me for not reviewing a book we had stock of. She’s right too you know. I can see her point, well aside from her last minute buying which is her only fault (and hers alone), she did have a right to be outraged. I’d led her on. It’s the first time I think I’ve done that to a woman and the outcome was not a pretty sight. Though let me defend myself (weakly, maybe) thusly: I’d waaay prefer to review a book I loved than one we had in stock. Sure, it’s not outrageous to expect me to synthesis the two, but when you have 2 reviews to do a week and quality control to consider and all the reading time and rejected books (cause they weren’t worth mentioning to a listening audience); well, then you get The Poetry Lesson. A great book & one you maybe wouldn’t have otherwise known about, but you have to sit tight and wait for it.
That’s not the end of it. I mean, I’ll try and get better – try to get ahead of myself, or catch up to myself, something like that, something that means if you like what I say you can buy what I read. But in the meantime let’s be nice to each other and presume we’re trying our best, okay?
Now where was I?
Right, now that I’ve explored my ineptitude at finding a book to review that’s both good and in stock at Unity Books we can move on to this: do you have to be smart to read a smart book?
I fear the answer is too straightforward and I’m wasting your time. One could just say, and I’m tempted too: No, because a smart book makes you smarter and therefor you sort of need to be a little less smart than it is when you begin reading.
And this is a truth. One of the greatest. It’s something I always think and rarely say (cause it seems to imply stupidity towards the person it’s aimed at) ‘reading is the best way to get smarter.’ This sentiment is shared by many, even by Neil LaBute who’s play Reasons to be Pretty I recently saw and in which one of the stupider characters dismisses his well read counterpart’s clearly more developed sense of reasoning because it came from out of reading: You think you’re so much better than everyone else because you read books. That sort of thing.
Now we’ve come a long way since Bill Hicks joked about inbred rednecks scoffing at unearthing ‘a reader’ but the anger and fear that the well-read induce is pretty common. It’s a well used trope that people who read think they’re superior. I’m sure this must come from some resonance of truth, some dick way back when who read a lot and bragged about it, but mainly it comes from a fear of the unknown and the imbalanced. It’s about the economy of intelligence; whoever has more has the power. Which has always struck me as strange because, unlike earning good money, it’s pretty easy to read a good book, they’re all over the place, they’re even free at libraries for anyone to read. So why is this such a chasm between people? The illiterate excluded of course.
It’s undeniable that becoming brighter from reading is a glorious thing; a gift, a wonderful democratic alchemy that liberals go on and on about like it’s an elixir. However, in defense of the less-well-read everywhere, I can’t ignore the stage fright one gets when dealing with material that knows so much more than you do, stuff that’s so complex it’s hard to figure out where it begins let alone how to enter it. What kind of book that is would be different for everyone, but I experienced a flash of that sensation when reading The Poetry Lesson. It’s not intentionally elitist as it’s angled at all sorts of levels like a drunk firing off rounds, but it still reveals a huge, wide, unfettered intellect and it’s clearly looking for like minds to share the in jokes about Trotsky and epitograms. Written about the first 3 hours of an Introduction to a Creative Writing Course, Codrescu puts himself into the pages, all his wit and sleaze and cheer all there both on and between the lines. His fictional version of himself teaches through anecdote and fantasy, through exercise and madness.
He is actually the ideal teacher; someone who lets you know he knows but without making knowing redundant. He’s totally off in his own world, one full of lust, encounters with exiled poets, famous dead people and giant defunct silos used as a catafalque. What I’m trying to say is that this book works on many levels but its starting level is relatively high. It’s not in any way exclusive but it wants for a reader who cares to think, expand and explore. And I rather think that’s the point of it all – to get better. What other medium gives us such direction in this as books?
One of the fictional assignments for this poetry class is to write their own epitaph every day. A good thing to keep in mind; our eventual unavoidable death. Considering we are all going to die we shouldn’t be afraid to tackle subject matter that requires one hand on the cover whilst the other types catafalque into google. Bukowski’s epitaph is DON’T TRY – typical. I think the better solution is a little less passive; Do try. And don’t worry about the results so much.
You’re already pretty smart if you’re brave enough to tackle interesting subject matter that stretches you further and asks you to navigate new terrain. Success at this can take time. I’m due to re read Codrescu a dozen more times before a 3rd of the value in it filters through, but I’m going to enjoy that, not criticise myself for however long that might take.