“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did… I wised up.”
-Phillip Roth, of American Pastoral (and over 50 other titles) fame, in an interview with Financial Times.
I don’t really know what to say about this. Every reader in my life who prefers non-fiction does so almost exclusively and happens to be incredibly learned. Not just smart, but academician-smart. And not a single one of them is an empty shell devoid of imagination or an inclination toward the figurative. What irks me about Roth’s comment isn’t that he doesn’t read fiction anymore, it’s that he doesn’t read fiction because he “wised up.” There are two things I know for certain about myself regarding old age, and I will be happy to check back in with you when the time comes: no matter how ugly and wrinkly and in need of a paper bag I get, I will never attempt to reverse the natural order of things. And I will never stop reading fiction as long as good fiction is being written. Clearly, wisdom is nowhere on my list of long-term plans, but I can’t help but wonder what he means by his comment. Is it that when you start to run out of time, reality (rather, the reality of what is happening in the real world in real time with real consequences,) becomes more important to consume? Or is it that at a certain point all fiction has to offer becomes recycled (because it’s only an endless procession of futile attempts at autopsy) and ceases to enrich you as it once could? What do you mean, Phillip Roth? Do I have to wait to wise up myself to understand what you mean?
In totally unrelated news, apparently 5% of those surveyed by the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll think that Harper Lee is a martial-arts expert. Here I go wondering again: To Kill a Mockingbird is, at the very least, one of the most widely-taught books in this country. At best, it’s one of the most well-known, most-alluded to, most well-regarded by readers and non-readers alike for, if nothing else, its social value. And it turns out even that can’t be taken for granted. 53% percent didn’t even recognize the name. These are people who know what 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair are. That’s something. Isn’t it? I think I’m more shocked by this than irked by Mr. Roth’s comment. If the name Harper Lee cannot be counted on as a living part of our collective knowledge, (not because of what the name means but simply because it was my very strong sense until this morning that “everybody knows Harper Lee”,) first of all, why is that and, secondly, what can be counted on? Is it because when we talk about Harper Lee we’re most often talking about literature? Is it because she was “relevant” a “long time ago”? If so, what is the span of time, these days, our memory can collectively contain? What is something today that everyone, let’s say, on the grid, can say for sure they share with everyone else? Besides Facebook. Or Google.