Degrees, titles, honors – they grant a certain level of legitimacy to the people who have them, but at the end of the day, we will seek the counsel of those whose opinions we trust and admire the most. One of my favorite readers is currently teaching middle school English at a Boston charter school. I’m going to call him Blitz. The beginning of this blogpost is anecdotal, just because.
I’m one of a few people who, throughout college, actively sought out friendships based on intellectual connection rather than hobbies, proximity, shared interests, whatever. Blitz and I were in a class in which we read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. We became friends after he took me to the supermarket, to help me recreate for our 23-person class the famed Banana Breakfast scene. (Thank you, English Department, for providing a slush fund for fun classroom activities – my professor literally handed me a $100 bill and told me to go crazy) Once you help someone make 23 banana milkshakes, the bonds don’t break easily.
As a ripe old junior English major to my anxious sophomore, Blitz somehow managed to take on the role of counselor in my life. (Which is sometimes kind of annoying, because he’s only a year older than me, and post-college, is no longer really in the same hierarchical position to advise me all the time.) When, in the library, I was bemoaning the absence of enough intellectual partners in my life, those with whom I could discuss literature, Blitz said to me, maybe a little nonchalant: “You know, I don’t really need to talk about literature anymore.” Indicating, basically, that he’d reached a certain point in his understanding of himself as a reader, a point at which which reading and books and art and meaning and all those Important Things were an obvious presence in his life, so he no longer had to air his interests aloud. None of it even had to be mentioned anymore. Like, if you’re a blond person, you don’t need to mention all the time that you are blond. You just are. I think the logic can be extended.
Where was I in my stage as a reader? At 19, I wasn’t where Blitz was — but I think, in the last few years, that I’ve gotten there. I’ve become distrustful of readers who congratulate themselves for reading, just as I’ve become irritated by the half-boastful complaints of “I didn’t get any sleep last night because of (work/study/whatever)!” This is not to say that a community of fellow readers is not important to me – it is highly important, but in my envisioning, my ideal community would be composed of other readers like me. And we would sit there, just knowing the importance of the words we were reading, without being self-aggrandizing and speaking incessantly of ourselves as readers.
Fanny Burney is probably right there with me, as The Witlings is clearly making fun of these annoying readers who read – rather quickly – just for the sake of talk (not conversation, just talk), rather than reflection. Some cringe-worthy moments from Act II, especially involving Lady Smatter, whose brilliant name rhymes with Chatter and evokes the superficiality of “smattering,” are:
I declare, if my pursuits were not made public I should not have any at all, for where can be the pleasure of reading books & studying authors if one is not to have the credit of talking of them?
O, I am among the critics. I love criticism passionately, though it is really laborious work, for it obliges one to read with a vast deal of attention. I declare I am sometimes so immensely fatigued with the toil of studying for faults & objections that I am ready to fling all my books behind the fire.
O lovely, charming, beauteous maid,— I wish this song was not so difficult to get by heart,— but I am always beginning one line for another. After all, study is a most fatiguing thing! O how little does the world suspect, when we are figuring in all the brilliancy of conversation, the private hardships, & secret labours of a belle esprit!
Manofwhitwit wrote in his corresponding blogpost that Burney’s father prevented the staging of The Witlings because the play would have been obviously offensive to the Bluestockings, one of the most conspicuous, female-dominated literary groups at the time. Maybe that is true. What I can’t figure out, then, is if Burney was also poking fun of herself, since she herself was so involved in the Bluestockings. (In that case: How reminiscent of our po-mo (sorry) generation today; all we can do is recognize and be aware of our faults and laugh at ourselves, without actually addressing our weaknesses.) Or was she truly bothered by the empty blabbermouthiness (yes) of such supposedly highbrow groups of comfortable ladies?
If she meant to take a stand, then could we perhaps believe that she may have wanted to stage the play? To get the message across?
I don’t want to be Lady Smatter. I don’t want to be that kind of reader. I don’t want to read just a line or two, here or there, about the Bluestockings, and then come to a conclusion about them. So all I have are questions and visceral impressions. And here I will mention that I am not quite sure what to make of Miss Carter, either.
Elizabeth Carter’s letters to Miss Talbot were lovely and entertaining, and they make me miss my closest friends. But see – Carter rarely goes a letter without mentioning what time she woke up to squeeze in some reading, how many hours she spent that day reading, how terrible she feels about her “utter neglect of [her] intellects” (331) if she takes a few weeks off. I can tell she is a woman whose entire being rests on her scholarship, on her identity as a thinker… and yet, I can’t help but wonder: is it necessary to talk of it all the time?
However, I will grant that she wrote these in supposedly private letters to her best friend, and not to the whole world. And we all know that talks with the Best Friend are sacred.