Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Kanye the Barbarian" or "Kanye West doesn't care about book people"

As he is apt to do, Kanye West raised quite the kerfuffle last week when he declared himself a “proud non-reader of books” (while promoting his own ludicrously slim book, no less). Kanye went on to say, “Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed… I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph.”

The outcry from the writerly community has been predictable, with a lot of righteous fulmination on our culture of ignorance and the unforgivable arrogance of Kanye West. Say what you will about Kanye. Personally, I think he’s an excellent producer and decent rapper who’s adopted a manufactured messiah complex as a means of keeping his name in the headlines (The line about not wanting a book’s autograph is just too over-the-top not to be performance art), but I get why so many people have come to hate him.

I won’t go so far as to say Kanye has a point here. I don’t think he’s even trying to make a point, beyond proving that he can generate controversy by making controversial statements. But he does open the door for what I think is a long overdue conversation. Simply put, I think readers have a tendency to overvalue what they do.

Don’t get me wrong – I love reading, I love writing and I love books. In fact, I freely admit to being a literary snob. But I’m snobbish about what I read; my problem is with people who are snobbish about the very act of reading. There seems to be a prevailing idea that being a regular reader affords one a certain superiority over less bookish types. Even though I usually love any opportunity to indulge a false sense of superiority, I’m afraid I can’t completely agree.

My favorite bookstore in the world, Maple Street Book Shop in New Orleans, sells a popular bumper sticker emblazoned with the slogan “Fight the Stupids.” Much as I love the shop, I really dislike the implication that people who don’t read a lot are stupid. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for not reading much, from learning disabilities to time constraints to a basic lack of interest. Just as I know many exceptional writers who can’t spell to save their lives, I know plenty of well-rounded, intelligent people who seldom crack a book. It’s a matter of personal preference and learning style, and it’s nobody’s place to think himself better or worse because of it.

I think that strain of snobbery has hurt the institution of reading as much as any video game system or prime time reality show. The idea that books are only for nerds and eggheads was born out of centuries-old class struggles that carry on to this day. It’s perfectly natural for readers to have a defensive reaction when someone bashes books, but that shouldn’t manifest itself in disdain for those who don’t know David Foster Wallace from David Alan Grier. It’s something of a tyranny of the minority: a relatively small population of voracious readers has long convinced the world that those who don’t care for books are illiterate morons, and that’s too bad. In my experience, heaping shame on people for what they’re not is one of the least effective methods of changing their opinions.

Of course, I don’t believe that not reading is anything to be proud of. If I thought Kanye was doing anything but playing a role, I’d agree that he deserves chastisement for that part of his statement. But think of it another way – if Kanye had called himself a “proud non-watcher of television,” would it have generated the same kind of backlash? I strongly doubt it. In fact, he’d probably have been heralded as a positive influence by the “Kill your television” contingent.

I’ve never understood the knee-jerk “books good, TV bad” mindset. I’ve had intense, life-enriching experiences while enthralled by books, TV shows, movies, albums, paintings, graffiti tags, what-have-you. I’ve also been repulsed and scarred by all of the above. It’s all art, and none of it is inherently better or worse than the rest. Scrolling through any given New York Times best-seller list will reveal a slew of books that I’d consider far less life-enriching than most of what I watch on TV.

Would the “television rots your mind” set really try to tell me that my brain cells would be better served by reading Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (#4 in paperback nonfiction this week) or Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (#1 in hardcover advice) than by engaging the brilliant screenwriting of shows like The Wire or The Venture Bros? And even beyond disposable volumes like Max’s and Harvey’s, there’s some truth to Kanye’s statement: plenty of roundly acclaimed authors really do be so wordy and self-absorbed (I’m looking at you, John Irving). Television at its best is just as valid and worthwhile as any literary format, but somehow bashing TV is seen as meritorious, while dismissing books approaches heresy.

At the bottom of it all, I’m sort of glad to see that comments like Kanye’s can still spark such a vehement response. I’m a great supporter of the written word, and it’s nice to see that so many people still defend literature with such gusto. That gives me hope for the days when my own books finally see print. At the same time, I think we could all stand to chill out and take stuff like this a tad less seriously. The world already looks at the literati as a bunch of uptight blowhards. Looking down our noses at non-readers and whipping up tempests in every passing teacup does little to combat that image.

But don't get me started on Kanye's off-hand dismissal of Twitter. Them's fightin' words!

- Ira Brooker

1 comment:

  1. I forgot to mention that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" and the rest of that righteous rant won Kanye lifetime favor in my eyes. Seriously, maybe my favorite television moment of the decade.