This morning, my friend L sent me this excerpt from David Shields’ new book How Literature Saved My Life, andI read it with a lot of eagerness. First, I was intrigued by the idea as presented by one of my favorite writers – I wanted to see what he had to say about why we write and what it means for us to seek an audience. But secondly, and perhaps most importantly today, I was craving the intellectual challenge that I know a Shields piece can require.
I miss academia sometimes. Not the meetings and certainly not the grading, but the rigor of a community that requires high level intellectual thinking, at least in moments. Of course, this respect for intellectualism often ignores the other elements of a human life – emotion, fatigue, preference – but there is something to be said for really engaging with another person’s thoughts and struggling to fold them in with your own.
I miss that rigor a great deal.
Perhaps part of the reason is that so much of what I engage with is what I find on social media – 10-second blurbs that I can skim past – or blog posts which (as we have all been guided) don’t read more than 500 words because “we” have decided that no one will read a piece longer than that.
While part of me completely understands the need to capture readers quickly online, and while some of me loves the fast-paced ability to be in touch with almost everyone I know instantaneously, a really large part of me that lives above my shoulders wants more. I want to be in rigorous conversations about the “why” behind things.
I need to go deeper with my thoughts, to push beyond what I can fit in 140 characters. I need to read books that challenge my mind and my ideas. I need that mental rigor to keep me healthy and sane.
Yet, I fear this need because our mainstream culture does not often involve this intensity of thought, and sometimes, we abhor it. We criticize our president because he’s an intellectual; we choose books that break down practices that could be captured in a simple sentence into 15 even easier steps; we skip past articles that are longer than a page. I wonder if I will find a readership if I write more complexly.
Even as I write that though, I realize that I am doing what so many do – underestimating people. I am assuming that my readers won’t want to try, and that’s unfair. It’s also perpetuating the cycle of willful ignorance that is so rampant in our culture. It’s giving in to the “lowest common denominator” of content because I believe that’s the only way to get readers. Shame on me.
So, today, I will acknowledge that Shield’s reference to Nicholson Baker makes me want to dive into this work with both hands over my hand. I will acknowledge that I am so tired of reading pop psychology about self-improvement and marketing. I will own that I have – not intentionally but still in a very real way – contributed to this way of being in the world every time I think more about “readers” and “visitors” than about the quality of what I think and write about what I think.
No more dumbing myself down, and no more catering to the ignorance that we say is the reality of popular American culture. I need better than that, and I expect we all do. I adore Mikhail Bakhtin . . . and I also love the Puppy Bowl. There’s room in my world for both.
Do you ever find yourself simplifying what you write to get readers? Do you find yourself feeling intellectually lazy, as I do?