I wasn't born an intellectual, and don't think of myself as one right now, though reading comments on the internet sometimes makes me reconsider that. But I bring it up because there was a time when I read without a program; I was just a young person learning by reading. But I didn't know it. I was a just a young person reading, as far as I knew.
But the reading I did mattered to me often in the same way as music did, though I am not a musician. I remember finding records that were hard to like, and in the end those records became ones that I loved and returned to often. I had to figure out what these people were doing, and it took time, and it brought a kind of pleasure different from the immediate pleasure of a pop song that gets in your head easily. An example is New Day Rising, by Husker Du. It was hard for me to find the melodies there, but I did. It was so different from the hair metal bands I'd loved a few years earlier. Now "Celebrated Summer," "The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill," and "I Apologize," are with me forever.
I read a lot then, and it was in print, about these bands, and Saskatoon had a legitimate independent commercial radio station. That didn't last long. But there were still the university radio shows and you could read their lists of records in the Sheaf, the student newspaper, and you could figure things out. But the beautiful thing was people wrote about these bands, too.
Right now it's a little hard to feel the same thing in literature. I cannot read Notes from Underground for the first time again. I can't get the collected poems of Charles Olson at the Saskatoon Public Library and read them on my own, alone, knowing nothing of this man's background or importance or affiliations. I can't discover him for myself. As a matter of fact it feels like it's impossible to discover anything anymore.
I try to recreate similar experiences for my students, telling them nothing of the book we are to read until they have gotten a substantial way into it. I am not sure if it works since some of this likely doesn't matter to the students, because the classes they take from me are requirements and not their real interests.
Yet I do believe the purpose of art is defamiliarization, a return to some theoretical unmediated perception of reality, so the first response to a difficult text should be feeling in the dark of some unknown room for edges and bits of solidity to be used as references. If you enter with a map in your head the probable outcome is your groping will confirm that map rather than discover a hidden room.
So I made a bit of a retreat from traditional channels of publishing to an internet-based voting contest over at Broken Pencil, the idea being to, I hoped, connect with some people who were at the at DIY stage of life and still finding meaning in literature without having it prescribed before their reading. I like that idea, and it takes me back to my days in Ottawa, when I was hanging out with people who thought what they did was important, and worked at it, and critiqued my work and the works of others with the honest goal of at least working out their own aesthetic. I hung out with people like Jim Larwill, Jeff Ross, Craig Carpenter, and others, and learned from all of them (Jim reinforced the idea that this was work, which for some reason was hard for me to believe because it was also play; Jeff challenged me to consider now and then a plot in my fiction; Craig taught me to be a bit more open to writers I didn't immediately embrace, which was valuable precisely because I didn't realize I was closed to some things).
Anyway, this contest seems like an odd way to do that, but I still think it's a tonne better than a Canada Reads contest where novels are voted in (like a few years back when you get shameless vote-grubbing from authors who could not take the time to acknowledge that, wait a minute, maybe asking other novelists to vote for my mediocre novel as an important Canadian novel 10 times a day via social media, is insulting), or even now, the predetermined champion, which was being hyped before it was published and contains such cliched writing that we should all be embarrassed . . . never mind that it's the typical historical novel aimed at letting us feel better than our ancestors because we are such better people now . . . why not read They Called Me Number One, by Bev Sellars, instead, and remember that the violent legacy of our country's founding is not safely in the past?
So now I am in this contest for which the last round was moderated by a one-named character who fancies himself hard, insulting widely any opposing opinions and presenting it as "truth." I guess I am old. He is what's called a troll, and old guys maybe assume sincerity where they should not, and are baited into responding. That part was fun, though. I think the more you poke those people the more they reveal themselves, and most of the silent people reading are reasonable, I hope.
But prior to that, last week, I had a couple conversations with writers I admire, and it's encouraging; there is this shadow world that the mainstream media does not notice, and in this world real people read the work of challenging writers and share it. It matters more to them than more likes on an author's FB page, say. In this world people read a book by accident, or by wandering and following links in other works, etc. and are transformed by it, and share it, and there are prose works, too, that have the kind of fugitive life that has traditionally been poetry's . . . and I suppose it's not all bad. Alice Munro and Lynn Coady are celebrated, and they are real artists, not book-club authors.