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Henry Miller: more on reading influences and touching again on the reading crisis

One can almost never go wrong with a New Directions Book. We’ve a stack on the shelves, including, among our favorites, Williams Carlos Williams’s “Selected Poems,” (NDP131); Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind (NDB74); Pound’s “Selected Poems,” (NDP66); Djuna Barnes’s “Nightwood,” (NDP98); Borges’s “Labyrinths,” (NDP186);  Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust,” (NDP125).

One NDB we haven’t look at in some time but that came to mind when thinking of reading influences is Henry Miller’s “The Books in My Life,” (NDP280). The subject isn’t books though as much as it is Henry Miller, which is fine with us. He makes this clear early in his preface: “The purpose of this book…is to round out the story of my life. It deals with books as vital experience. It is not a critical study nor does it contain a program for self-education” (pg. 11).

In other words, a book about books for the common reader? Well, maybe, but Miller leads with a double challenge: “One of the results of this self-examination…is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man – yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully” (pg. 11).

Henry Miller is a talker, a conversationalist, so easy reading, but this book is dated and full of obscure references with signs we may not understand pointing down back roads that look like dead ends. There are funny passages, including, we thought, the very title of Appendix III, a long list of “Friends who supplied me with books,” and we were suddenly reminded that a friend gave us our copy, years ago, with the comment, “It’s notable for how bad it is.”

Our friend had marked this passage, on page 29, characteristically surprising coming from Henry Miller: “The writer is, of course, the best of all readers, for in writing, or “creating,” as it is called, he is but reading and transcribing the great message of creation which the Creator in his goodness has made manifest to him.” Miller may be the least of common writers, if there is such a thing as a common writer, but he’s a perfect match for Woolf’s common reader. He sways back and forth, moving forward in much the same way that Woolf suggests in her definition of a common reader, without regard for anything other than what seems to suit his own needs.

Reading influences

“He judged on one question: influences. -Who’re your influences?” He is Jimmy Rabbitte, protagonist of Roddy Doyle’s first published book, the first novel in what would become his Barrytown Trilogy, “The Commitments.”

He’s put an ad in the paper, Jimmy has: “Jimmy spent twenty minutes looking at his ad in Hot Press the next Thursday. He touched the print. (-J. Rabbitte.) He grinned” (p. 20). It’s 1987, or earlier; no tellin’ what Jimmy’d done with a blog had he one – Doyle initially self-published “The Commitments.”

“When I’m writing I just think there’s only the page and me and nobody else” (Roddy Doyle, interview in Salon, Oct, 1999).

So there’s no reader, not an audience yet, looking over his shoulder. But sure the music’s on, and all the books you’ve ever read stacked clumsily all around, falling off the bookshelves you’ve built by hand in your mind, and there’s all these voices you’ve heard over the years, rattling around in your head, echoing off the walls, a confusion of some sort, like a ruckus going on outside, only it’s inside, and not only that but the sound’s stuck, stuck like a needle in a vinyl groove going round and round but not getting anywhere, not advancing toward some sort of completion, rest, respite, pause.

So, who are your influences? But it’s a question to ask yourself. And it’s a question that matters, and must be resolved.     


Words are sounds, first; then what do we do to them, to the sounds? Jung thought grief gave human voice to sound. This is the meaning of Norman O. Brown’s “The fall is into language” (Love’s Body, p. 256), though it seems equally plausible that joy, close friend to grief, might also be capable of producing a word or two. Dostoevsky contributes to the modern discussion in “Notes from Underground” with his often quoted “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.” If so, the first words uttered by conscious man must have been sounds of pain: Ouch! If you prefer cartoons, a caveman accidentally rolling the stone wheel across his big toe. Joyce spelled it:

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!)

(Finnegans Wake, p. 3).

Norman O. Brown: “How to be silent. In a dialectical view: silence and speech, these two, are one. Apollonius of Tyana said silence also is a logos. And words do not spoil the silence for those who have ears to hear what is left unsaid” (p. 256). Listen to Ella Fitzgerald scat singing. Instruments reproduce the human voice, first (another reason Cage objected to jazz – and worked with sounds apart from voice). Louis Armstrong thought his trumpet an extension of his voice, and he sings as he plays. What we do to words is similar to what Cage thought we do to sounds in making music (anthropomorphizing sounds we hear in nature). Words give conscious order to sound, allowing for the reproduction of sounds with fidelity, creating self-consciousness through language.

Here’s something recently dug out that might illustrate in a playful way:

JAZZSKIN was published in the fall 1973, issue 3, of silent quicksand, a magazine published by students of El Camino College.


“Music as discourse (jazz) doesn’t work,” John Cage said, in his “DIARY: HOW TO IMPROVE THE WORLD (YOU WILL ONLY MAKE MATTERS WORSE) 1965,” the first text in his collection “A Year From Monday.” “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use words” (p. 12). David Revill, in “The Roaring Silence,” his biography of Cage, discusses “the puzzling attitude he [Cage] develops toward jazz” (p. 9). “He [Cage] says simply, ‘I love sounds, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them’ (p. 121 – Revill’s source notes don’t indicate where he got this Cage quote, and in a quick skim of my Cage books I’m unable to find it).

I’ve always found Cage’s “…(jazz) doesn’t work” statement surprising, given how he integrates chance into his structures. Cage often sets up a rigorously defined structure only to let chance determine what comes next. For example, from his preface to “Diary:…” “I used twelve different type faces, letting chance operations determine which face would be used for which statement” (p. 3). Isn’t that jazz?

I think Cage’s classical training explains his attitude toward jazz. Classical players don’t improvise. Composers improvise, as Bach probably did, but the classical musician has to play the thing as written. Jazz’s frequent use of popular songs as sources for improvisation probably also annoyed Cage, since he was more interested in sound than sentiment.

Let’s substitute “words” for “sounds” in Cage’s statement that begins “I love sounds”: This gives us “I love words, and I actually like them more than what we’ve done to them.” And we might make the reverse substitution in the opening quote above, which would give us: “If you’re going to have a discussion, have it and use sounds.” Is it possible to enjoy words but not writing or reading? Cage appears to have preferred raw sounds to music that refines those sounds in an attempt to communicate something, even if that communication is an attempt to mimic nature.

But we are nature, and the guitar sounds like a train coming down the line, and the drummer’s brushes sound like salt water receding over smooth stones. All sounds carry some meaning. Besides, Cage’s “Diary” follows with “(Dialogue is another matter.)” What? Another matter (discussion, music, discourse?) wherein jazz does work?

The amateur spirit in writing

We do not have the New Yorker DVD library (though we do have in the basement a stack of paper copies we regularly prune for mold), but we do have E. B. White’s “Writings from the New Yorker, 1927-1976,” edited by Rebecca M. Dale (HarperPerennial paperback edition published 1991).

The “Talk of the Town” pieces these days only occasionally reach White’s wit or brevity. He often captures a moment of his own time while gazing into some distance, foretelling. A case in point, his May 11, 1929 piece, where he writes: “’Writing is not an occupation,’ writes Sherwood Anderson. ‘When it becomes an occupation a certain amateur spirit is gone out of it. Who wants to lose that?’ Nobody does, replies this semi-pro, sitting here straining at his typewriter.”

Yet today, as the reading crisis spreads its tangential wings to include newspapers pruning peripheral departments, some semi-pro and pro writers are forced back into an amateur spirit.

Where will they go? Continued White: “Nobody does, yet few writers have the courage to buy a country newspaper, or even to quit a city writing job for anything at all. What Mr. Anderson says is pretty true. Some of the best writings of writers, it seems to us, were done before they actually thought of themselves as engaged in producing literature.”

Or before, in other words, they thought of themselves as real writers at all. One blogs in the hopes the amateur spirit will prevail, painfully aware that blogging also makes it easier, as White later said, “for persons who are not artists and writers to continue the happy pretence” (May 21, 1938).

But it’s not only to gain even amateur status that we might entertain the doubtful purposes of writing – for self or for others; it’s because even though we know full well we’ll never play right field for the Dodgers, we still enjoy shagging balls in the back-yard; we will still ride a skateboard down the hill, though of course we are no Tony Hawk, as our spouse reminds us, shouting she’s not taking us to emergency when we fall; and though we could never follow “Da Bull” into the big waves, when we’re back in El Porto, we’ll always paddle out for a small one.

Whatever happens to the pros, this amateur writing spirit hopefully encouraged and evidenced in the best blogging, whether pretence or preface, may enable those who agree that writing is learned while writing, and in no other way, to find a subject, knowing that subjects often reveal themselves only once we’ve made the commitment marked by a few hundred words.

Hank Williams sings Huck Finn

“At the center of liberal education,” Northrop Frye gives us in “Ethical Criticism,” the second essay in “Anatomy of Criticism,” an attempt to create a science of literary theory, “something surely ought to get liberated” (p. 93). So what gets liberated?

“Poetry can only be made out of other poems; novels out of other novels,” Frye says. “Literature shapes itself, and is not shaped externally: the forms of literature can no more exist outside literature than the forms of sonata and fugue and rondo can exist outside music” (p. 97). The writer is not alone, after all. In fact, “the real difference between the original and the imitative poet is simply that the former is more profoundly imitative” (p. 97).

Not being alone means belonging to a community. Frye calls this “social aspect” of poetry archetype, by which he means “a typical or recurring image…which connects one poem with another and thereby helps to unify and integrate our literary experience. And as the archetype is the communicable symbol, archetypal criticism is primarily concerned with literature as a social fact and as a mode of communication. By the study of conventions and genres, it attempts to fit poems into the body of poetry as a whole” (p. 99).

We find a working example of Frye’s subject in “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a hit song by Hank Williams, written in 1949, and since covered by numerous musicians across the musical spectrum, the original lyrics often amplified, or augmented, (the great jazz guitarist Bill Frisell has recorded instrumental versions on “Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, and Paul Motian”; and “Ghost Town”).

But what has all this got to do with Huckleberry Finn? In chapter I of Mark Twain’s novel, we find Huck, worn out by the parlor room evening with the widow and Miss Watson, alone in his room, trying “to think of something cheerful, but it warn’t no use. I felt so lonesome I most wished I was dead. The stars was shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die, and the wind was trying to whisper something to me and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.” Hank removes Huck’s superstition and softens the tone, but the sentiment remains: “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill.”

So what’s so liberating? The knowledge that you are not alone, for one thing. We are encouraged by Borges, in his essay “Kafka and his Precursors,” to suggest both that Huck is a precursor to Hank, and that Hank changes our reading of Huck: “…the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; …not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. …The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” (Labyrinths, p. 201).

Virginia Woolf’s uncommon reader

Virginia Woolf was not a common reader, not a common woman, not a common person at all. Yet we like her description of a common reader, defining as it does the utility player-fan, driven by “common sense,” and “uncorrupted by literary prejudices,” and so “differs from the critic and the scholar,” in that “he reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” Thus free from the confines of convention, he approaches reading with “affection, laughter, and argument,” and if he is “hasty, inaccurate, and superficial,” that is because he moves on “without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure.”

Woolf was a common reader within her circle, her community, but her experience does not define a common reader nowadays.

The discussion brings us now to the downside of reading, the “Martin Eden” experience, the Jack London experience, the blue-collar kid who discovers reading, books, adventures of the vicarious. But he will never feel comfortable in a Bloomsbury circle, made up, after all, of a non-working class. So he tries to drop back into the group waiting for waves at 42nd Street, for he has read, not too much, but too well, as Bloom says of Hamlet’s thinking. Of course, our common reader is no Hamlet, no T. S. Eliot, nor was meant to be, an attendant, perhaps, waiting, as Beckett said, which brings us, “commodius vicus,” to the reading crisis:

     Is there a crisis if new readers are reading not so much as so well?

     Is there a reading crisis among common readers? 

     But who, nowadays or ever, is or was this common reader?

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925.

A common reader

Throughout his “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” Harold Bloom riffs on the falling from academic favor his aesthetic critical view. The riffs underscore his concerns for the deterioration of education. Yet he insists there’s still a common reader out there who cares: “Common readers, and thankfully we still possess them, rarely can read Dante; yet they can read and attend Shakespeare” (p. 3).

Who is this common reader? Is he the same reader Salinger dedicated “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters…” to: “…an amateur reader still left in the world – or anybody who just reads and runs…”?

But we love hearing the great Bloom blowing like Lear against the storm, against the “institutional purveyor of literature… happily proclaiming its death” (p. xviii), who lives in “our self-defiled academies” (p. 3), promoting an “arbitrary and ideologically imposed contextualization… – those critics who value theory over the literature itself” (p. 9), Bloom hoping against hope that Shakespeare will survive “the current debasement of our teaching institutions” (p.17), hope based on the “common reader [who] continues to regard Shakespeare’s persons as being more natural than those of all other authors” (p. 52).

Who is this common reader, who has now read not only Shakespeare, but all other authors (excepting Dante), and can compare? Is Bloom’s common reader Bourdieu’s working class, given a cultural transfusion, turning into “petty bourgeois subscribing to the Bolshoi” (An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, p. 82)?

“Anything goes in the current scholarly criticism of Shakespeare” (Bloom, p. 78), but does the common reader also read current scholarly criticism? To whom is Bloom writing, “since deep reading is in decline, and Shakespeare… now vanishes from the schools…” (p. 715)? Indeed, in any case, “It is no longer possible for anyone to read everything of some interest and value that has been published on Shakespeare,” but we have Bloom, who does not “…mistake political and academic fashions for ideas” (p. 716).

And where did Harold Bloom ever run into a common reader? On the Yale campus? Never mind. A common reader still has a chance to meet Harold Bloom, and for that, we are grateful.

The Eloi and the Morlock

Reading Pierre Bourdieu last night, after looking thru ”The Time Machine” and “Fahrenheit 451″ yesterday.

“In the case of artists and writers, we find that the literary field is contained within the field of power where it occupies a dominated position. (In common and much less adequate parlance: artists and writers, or intellectuals more generally, are a ‘dominated fraction of the dominant class.’)” Bourdieu, Pierre. (1992). ”An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology” (p.104).

Wells ends ”The Time Machine” with a pessimistic vision of the future, more optimistic though than he probably considered: “And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers – shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle – to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man” (p. 141), for “The Eloi, like the Carlovingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility” (p. 89).

In “On Television,” we were struck by this Bourdieu thought: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness” (p. 21). Certainly not when you’ve got less than a minute to convey. Bradbury summarized in fiction the same power and effects of television that Bourdieu discusses in “On Television,” toward the end of Fahrenheit 451, in the scene where the police, unable to find the real Montag in the attention-span-time-requirement of the evening news, settle for an innocent, unknown citizen, and the television reports they’ve got Montag, while the real Montag is now uselessly free.

What will happen to books?

If everyone stops reading, what will happen to all of the books? Two suggestions come to mind, one from “The Time Machine,” by H. G. Wells (1895), the other from Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (1953).  

In the Palace of Green Porcelain, the Time Traveller wanders “… out of that gallery and into another and still larger one, which at the first glance reminded me of a military chapel hung with tattered flags. The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough” (chap. 8, p. 103).   

The first “Time Machine” movie (1960) contains two scenes worth mentioning that are not in the book. The talking rings scene was suggested by record albums, but, in a current reading, the rings are predictive of CD’s; the other scene is the crumbling book in the Time Traveller’s hands, and his sweeping of the books on a shelf into dust as his Eloi companion, Weena, looks on, with no comprehension. The Time Traveller returns home, tells his story, then returns to the future – in the movie, with three books (which books, we don’t know), but in the book, he’s seen preparing to leave, “a small camera under one arm and a knapsack under the other” (chap. 12, p. 137), but what’s in the knapsack, we don’t know.   

Ray Bradbury, in “Fahrenheit 451,” imagined a different, but similarly bleak, future for books, one in which books are illegal, and if found, are burned by special firemen – for everything else in this future society is fireproof. But at the end of the book, the fireman Montag, now a fugitive on the run, having betrayed with books and deserted the force, discovers a band of outlaws living outside the city: “We’re book burners, too. We read the books and burnt them, afraid they’d be found. Microfilming didn’t pay off; we were always traveling, we didn’t want to bury the film and come back later. Always the chance of discovery. Better to keep it in the old heads, where no one can see it or suspect it.”  

McLuhan, “The Medium is the Massage:” “’Authorship’ – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity – was practically unknown before the advent of print technology… the invention of printing did away with anonymity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public – a reading public… the idea of copywrite…was born…As new technologies come into play, people are less and less convinced of the importance of self-expression” (pp. 122-123).