Sunday, February 19, 2012

On the devourability of books

In a recent review, I described a book as "devourable." In my world, this is a crucial and fundamental descriptor for texts. It is crucial because it is a key concept for understanding how I think people--and how I know I myself--value not only novels and stories, but also poetry, philosophy, journalism, opinion, and even scientific or technical writing. It is a key value of texts broadly defined. And it is fundamental because it cannot be broken down into smaller components.

In the introduction to a compilation of Kant's texts I used to own, the editor remarked that Kant's Critique of Judgment was originally to be called the "Critique of Taste." Ever since I read that line, that single phrase has defined my conception of judgment: that all judgments are akin to statements such as, "I like pepper on my scrambled eggs," or questions like, "How can you eat ketchup on your macaroni?" Although it is possible to say things, "the dill brings out the flavour of the salmon," or, "the taste of tomato is complementary to that of asparagus," and these things may in some sense be correct for some sample of people, any such judgment is ultimately only a matter of taste, and correct only insofar as it pertains entirely to the sample under consideration.

In my opinion, this situation is utterly analogous to the way we receive texts, and this is why I think of devourability as a fundamentally important characteristic driving how we perceive the quality of books. You know those books that you're dying to read every time you're not? That you see lying on the table and drop what you're doing to continue? That's power. It's like some tasty treat you can't resist. The fundamental question that precedes any literary criticism is, Does a book make you want to read it? That is, above and away, the single most powerful effect a book can have, because even before you critique a book--judging its texture, its sharpness, its aftertaste, &c.--you have to be incited to put it in your mouth--or rather, I suppose, your brain.

The apparent problem, of course, is that devourability--taste--doesn't have the analytical "thickness" or "weight" that would allow it to hold out against critique. I remember my boss telling me about his experience reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He said something like: "You're reading it, and you can't stop. But then when you stop, you're like... m'eh." It sounded almost like he was describing an addiction: when he ceased to read, it was like he'd gone through months of rehab. But once he was back on the streets... watch out, Stieg Larsson. The point is, he felt like he knew it was a bad book--that, if he looked at it objectively, he could decipher its flaws--and yet he couldn't resist its power--its devourability.

We can't break literary devourability down, in the same way that I can't build an argument for why scrambled eggs are better than over-easy. It's merely a matter of taste. And that's the problem with talking about devourability: even though it fundamentally structures how we react to culture and art-objects--even though our hunger for certain items is the single most important thing driving the way we interact with both low and high art--we can't include it in our critical analyses, because it has no critical content (despite it being, fundamentally, a critical criterion). We can (and frequently do) make vast attempts to describe why something is devourable, and we can usually offer really, really good reasons for why we consume the things we do. But we can also contradict those same reasons in any critical analysis--our mind working against our heart, as it were. And, conversely, we can contradict any analysis with a simple, "...but I like it."

From a pragmatic standpoint, we shouldn't avoid pieces of culture because they treat only our head or our gut; when we do that, we become pretentious snobs or dunderheads. Preferably--and most satisfactorily--we come across (or seek out/discover) art-objects that are both: food for thought, as well as food for the soul. This is, I propose, the object of the critic: to find, as it were, "good stories" that are also "good writing"--or "good books" that are also "good works."

And when one fails, at least you've still got the other.

-bn