A confession. I’m reading a book right now… no, wait… I’m listening to a book right now and I’m really enjoying it. It’s a Stephen King book.
Did you notice that? Did you count the strikes against me? It was two: two strikes right there on my learned literary-type card. One, I’m listening to a book, not reading a hard copy. Two, it’s a Stephen King book, which means commercial fiction. In other words, I’m trash, low-brow, common, everyday. And I’m loving it.
You might think I’m joking or playing this up, but I’m being earnest. I’ve mentioned before my many long years spent in elite institutions of higher learning (I’d say it was about 8: four in high school where I went to a fancy DC private school and 4ish in graduate school where I went to a fancy Ivy League). In both, we read and we read a lot. I don’t know if it was by design or just unintentional, but the feeling that I walked away with is that reading is rarely fun or accessible. In order for it to be important and worth your time, it must not fall into a category of “entertaining” or “commercial.”
I studied nonfiction in graduate school and I remember once hearing a fiction student saying, “Well, somebody has to write commercial fiction? Might as well be one of us.” The impression I got was that the pressure to be “literary” in fiction was strong too. To tell another truth, I’m not even sure what literary really means, but I’m stuck with the lasting feeling that it means something that I will never really be able to “do.” Look, even here, this post is almost as bad as “commercial”: it’s confessional.
I recall different instructions, or rather, perhaps, subtexts in these literary classes. Worthy writing (and reading) is timeless and therefore we must not write about current events or popular culture. An audiobook is never a replacement for actual reading. In order to be “successful” we must find our one voice and stick with it. Experimenting is bad. Deviating from what works is bad.
Here’re some of the things that I’m enjoying about the Stephen King book I am currently read — er — listening to. The performance by the reader is excellent. (And I can listen whilst cooking dinner or something else so I don’t have to sacrifice valuable and limited time when I can only be doing one thing.) It’s plot driven. He sets it up beautiful: I have to find out what happens next. It’s about a hired gun (Billy Summers) for some sort of crime organization on his last job. He was a sharp shooter in the marines. These are all topics that I know very little about. Does Stephen King know more than me? Did he do a bunch of research? I don’t know for sure. There are sections where I’m sure he must have spoke to marines and others to get a sense of how certain things work. But as I’m listening, am I thinking about whether this is well researched and true? No, not really. I’m not using it as a reference guide. I’m using it for entertainment. He’s done such a great job at creating these characters — and especially Billy Summers — that I feel genuinely invested in finding out what has happened and what will happen to him. And, honestly, right now, it feels pretty good to be invested in someone’s story, even if it is fiction.
More to the point. I’m really and truly and simply enjoying it. And enjoying stories for stories’ sake is not something that we (or at least I) have ever learned to do in school. I’m becoming unschooled. And it feels pretty good.