Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Decline of Pleasure

As I type this, I'm in New York City for the Edgar awards tomorrow night ... so my title makes reference to a famous book by a wonderfully prescient and wise theater critic by the name of Walter Kerr, who was very much a New Yorker.

The Decline of Pleasure, though written in the '60s, is right on target with the 21st century, and gets to the heart of why other countries seem to embrace the idea of pleasure as a goal, while Americans remain suspicious of it.

It probably wouldn't surprise you that Kerr believed the puritanical underpinnings of the American psyche (you know, the whole violence=good, nudity=bad thing)--combined with a strongly philosophical embrace of Utilitarianism during the nineteenth and early 20th century-- rendered us incapable of truly savoring pleasure.

We either must find a use (usually related to money) for whatever we do--or we divert ourselves with silly, time-wasting activity (hey, anybody see that funny YouTube video with Shatner singing Total Eclipse of the Heart? ... but I digress).

This is one explanation of the relative popularity of non-fiction to fiction books ... the former are more easily labeled "utilitarian", and therefore worth buying and reading.

So ... to get back to the actual question -- I, too, confess that my reading habits are suffering from a decline of pleasure, and for utilitarian reasons, too. My time is no longer my own--I owe books to my publisher, articles to blogs, signings to bookstores. All "pure pleasure" activities have been severely truncated ... if not eliminated. No museum wandering, no spontaneous travel. Everything--including my reading--has been sort of swallowed up by the all-consuming obligation--and uber-pleasure, if you will--of writerly commitments.

I don't read fiction when I'm heads-down on finishing a book--I don't want that world to rub off on mine. So some of the year is eliminated already. And then there are books I need to read for responsibilities like Edgar judging, which I did last year ... books that I must make time for. My TBR pile focuses on friends' works, and novels to blurb go to the top--also with top priority scheduling. And, of course, all the myriad books, newspapers, articles and other bits and bobs I read as part of research.

Now, the good news is that this is all fun ... but those carefree days of wandering and wondering are gone. The idea of simply picking up a book and reading it without any other thought than that it might be enjoyable ... well, it just won't work.

I'm too busy with the uber-pleasure of being a writer and all that that entails.

But one of these days, I will take a vacation ... somewhere with a beach ... and a big stack of books I buy at an airport. And rediscover some of that old sense of pleasure ...

Someday! :)


Laura Benedict said...

Okay-that's the saddest blog title ever. :( But you're absolutely right--it's tough to mix business and pleasure.

I do my best to find pleasure in the books I'm reading for research--Fortunately, I've always liked to read all sorts of books. What I enjoy most now, though, is reading good books by my good writer friends. :)

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

We do break out in fits of pleasure-seeking from time to time, though it usually requires some kind of drug to help us break loose! Disco dancing and cigar smoking spring to mind ;)

Thanks to you and Walter, I'm hoping to do something just for the pleasure of it -- reading Chandler's notebooks.

or reading this blog! Always a pleasure, thank you all!!!!

Joshua Corin said...

I am a huge, huge fan of Walter Kerr. His observations about how 20th century playwriting had devolved into Ibsen v. Chekhov were so very astute.

And his wife Jean was a hell of a comic playwright, undeniably underrated because of her gender.

Terry Stonecrop said...

I think I'm going to cry, but first I'm going to find that video of Shatner singing Total Eclipse of the heart on YouTube...

Gabi said...


Kerr had a great point, and so does your blog, but maybe it's a chance to learn. Reset our personal or cultural psyche and sit down on a rainy Sunday with A.A. Milne. I plan to do so as soon as I...that's me paving the road to hell. Do better than me.

Shane Gericke said...

SO true that we deny ourselves pleasure for the sheer sake of it. Damn Puritans. I shall do my best to counteract those guys in funny hats and lace doilies, perhaps by liberating a glass or two of Spirits.

Or are the doily guys Pilgrims?

Josh, BTW, thanks for the reading list. I think I'll start with MOBY DICK. Sounds like fun.

PK the Bookeemonster said...

I used to want to write novels up into my 20s. I still get the urge every now and then. But having to give up most reading for pleasure has always stopped me. I love my reading too much.