On reading, books and horses

4 June 2010 | Articles, Non-fiction

Ladylike: woman riding sidesaddle (Journal des Dames, 1799)

Horses, women, cars, men and reading: Teemu Manninen takes a look at the changes that illogical  history makes

I have a friend who is an avid reader and who also talks about the books he reads. But being a staunch conservative when it comes to reading habits, I just cannot consider him a true friend of literature. The reason: he only reads non-fiction books. To me, ‘being a reader’ means reading fiction and poetry.

But increasingly it seems that real literature is becoming more and more marginal, whereas non-fiction (self-help, history, travel guides, popular science, popular economics, cookbooks) is what sells and keeps the industry afloat. The recent Finnish ‘essay-boom’ is an example of this development, with young writers like Antti Nylén or Timo Hännikäinen gaining recognition as important contemporary authors solely through their work as essayists; Hännikäinen has also written poetry, but Nylén is strictly a non-fiction writer.

What is remarkable to me is that only twenty or thirty years ago such a thing would not have been possible: essayists were not ‘true’ authors. That honor was reserved, mostly, for novelists (and perhaps some poets). Nowadays it’s not even the lowest common denominator, membership of the Finnish Writers’ Union, which makes you an author. Now every biographer and cookbook-writer can claim that name for themselves, and it seems perfectly natural to everyone.

How and why do people’s reading habits change? The American writer and essayist Edgar Allan Poe once complained that ‘long poems’ were a flat contradiction in terms, since readers could not sustain for very long the excitement which true poetry demands. ‘After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags – fails – a revulsion ensues – and then the poem is, in effect and in fact, no longer such.’ Poe’s essay stands in the middle of a sea-change in our conceptions of what poetry and prose properly are. Before Poe, lyrics (short poems) were only a minor part of poetry, with the epic narrative poem regarded as the most accomplished and revered form; after Poe, lyrics – the short, intense lyrical moment – are what poetry is: ‘an elevating excitement of the Soul’.

I’ve always thought Poe’s idea was at the same time incredibly daft and remarkably ingenious. At first glance it seems crazy that poetry should be judged by the fickle attention spans of readers; if that were true, advertisers would be the best poets in the business. But the real question raised by Poe’s essay is not whether short or long poems are better. What he does is turn our presuppositions about art on their heads: the success of art is not dependent on the qualities of the work of art, but on our own personal experience of it. Before Poe, this was not the case.

Of course, he was not the only one advocating this kind of idea. But Poe was the first to connect the reader’s pleasure with the reader’s needs as a consumer of literature: literature is a commodity which must meet the demands of readers, and these demands are based on pleasure and entertainment. In the history of literature, this idea has provoked a change that is immense, and we are still in the middle of it. The changing status of non-fiction is only the most recent phase.

What we learn from this is that the nature of things is not fixed. History changes everything. There was a time when no decent lady would ride a horse, or let her daughters near one, because riding astride a horse was considered unbecoming for women. And although some women of status, even before the invention of the modern sidesaddle in the 1830s, did ride horses, horseback riding was more usually a sport for men: in war and at work soldiers, knights, cowboys, fox-hunting aristocrats and couriers rode horses. Women rode in carriages, far away from the brute animals. But after the invention of the sidesaddle things started to change drastically, and riding became the hobby of women as well – and today, at least in Finland, horseback riding is something that is mostly associated with teenage girls: no ice-hockey-playing, sausage-eating, weight-lifting man will ever go near a horse, because horses are for horse-crazy girls, not men.

Surely the invention of the sidesaddle is not the only reason why riding has become a girl’s sport. Another reason might be connected with the way in which developments in technology effect cultural norms. When there were no cars, controlling the wild nature of a horse was a masculine job; when cars were invented, the ‘power’ of the horse was transferred to the engines of these new vehicles, which then became a man’s job to handle. Women were left with the obsolete form of locomotion which, stripped of its utility and power, became a luxury hobby first for upper-class and later for middle-class girls.

What do horses and cars have to do with changes in reading habits? Well, for one, the fact is that fewer and less men seem to read, and literature is becoming more and more awomen’s hobby. Is the same thing happening to literature as to horses? Surely not, you say: that is completely illogical. It must be a coincidence.

But history is illogical. Most people, it seems, believe that the things of this world have a fixed nature, and that any and all developments in things like society and the material world happen somehow ‘logically’: that things follow their nature, an order of things, such as up-down, down-up; hunger-nourishment; growing up organically like a plant from seed to flower; growing old; or whatever process our brains and biology and experience of the world has taught us to expect, such as the sun rising every day or the idea that all swans and all lambs are white.

Sometimes politics, markets, technological innovations, reading habits and social customs such as marriage and who rides the horse change in ways which seem illogical or counter-intuitive to those who believe in the fixed nature of things. Suddenly a black swan sails across the familiar pond. Gay marriage challenges the nature of wedlock. Hard work does not pay. The evolution of life on earth, or the creation of technological innovations, or the growth of markets, is found not to be steady growth after all, but a series of reactions to catastrophes, short bursts of creativity followed by long periods of stasis – ‘punctuated equilibrium, as the evolutionary theorist Steven Jay Gould was fond of saying.

We cannot see these relationships and the causal structures which control the world, because they are outside our brain’s capacity, and contemplating their irrational nature causes us physical pain. We mostly find ourselves reacting to stimuli, or going the way of least resistance, trusting routine: human decision-making comes after the fact, no matter how well we believe we can predict the future. We live in a nice little fiction of safe roads and gentle horses. This is why the recent hubbub about ebooks changing our reading habits, something I’ve tried to contribute to, is just that: a fiction. Publishers and the industry are terrified of change and seek to control it by any means necessary, mostly by inventing fictions of economic catastrophe, of evil pirates preying on poor authors. On the positive side, consultants, journalists and essayists, like me, find an exciting subject to speculate on (I admit I’m doing this mostly for the fun of it), and gadget fans have new gadgets to fondle.

Ebooks, and ebook reading devices, won’t change anything in our reading habits, if we view them from the perspective of Poe’s theory. To wax a little cynical, books are not art but a pleasurable commodity for consumers with short attention spans. The growing volatility of the literary market, the intensity with fashions change, is testimony to this, but the change which has made our present book culture possible has already happened, long ago. In any case, most reading is already done online; there is already more text in the internet than in all the literature of the world.

What ebooks might change, apart from the economic model of publishing, is our understanding of literature: we might come to understand that literature is not bound to books. Electronic reading proves that literature can be produced, accessed and used in more ways than one – and by changing the technology of reading, ebooks might just be able to make men read again, because using gadgets and mastering technology is what men are supposed to enjoy. After all, ebooks make things easier and faster: like riding cars instead of horses.

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