Monday, February 21, 2011

Secrets of a Mind-Gamer

If you have a spare 15-20 minutes, I thought this NY Times Magazine article, Secrets of a Mind-Gamer by Joshua Feder, about enhancing memory capacity was fascinating.

Of particular interest to comic fans, was this quote from the article:

"In his essay “First Steps Toward a History of Reading,” Robert Darnton describes a switch from “intensive” to “extensive” reading that occurred as printed books began to proliferate. Until relatively recently, people read “intensively,” Darnton says. “They had only a few books — the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two — and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.” Today we read books “extensively,” often without sustained focus, and with rare exceptions we read each book only once. We value quantity of reading over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture."

This, to me, is a perfect description of the conundrum facing the modern comic book geek, particularly those of us motivated to share our thoughts online. What resonated with me in particular is the "extensive" vs. "intensive" comparison. For years, I struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of new releases, rushing review after review to the web in order to be among the first opinion-leaders about which books were worth reading.

However, over the last few years, I have shifted to what Feder would describe as an "intensive" reading of the first volume of Love & Rockets. I have read the series probably a dozen times, and done considerable research as well. It's been a profoundly satisfying endeavor, but very time-consuming as well. I feel like I've gained a much deeper appreciation of the series than almost anyone I've come across (with the exception, perhaps, of Todd Hignite and Charles Hatfield), but as a result, I've also fallen way behind in the treadmill of new releases and online discourse.

But I wonder if the overwhelming amount of "extensive" reading is at the heart of what's underlying the periodic outcry that there's very little quality writing about comics anymore. As Feder implies, by trying rush through new works in order to hit the critical window, much of the quality of criticism has suffered. What we have now are loads of opinion-based criticism, where people with strong narrative voices simply blog about their reactions to whatever they happen to read. This is fine for a certain cursory level of analysis, but it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of more scholarly, academic, informed readings (of course, I'm thinking of the works which merit such reading, like Theo Ellsworth's Capacity, to cite just one example; obviously the latest issue of Blackest Night would not qualify).

I guess it's just the old trade-off of quantity vs. quality, and of course, it's important to remember that blogging is ultimately more an act of self-definition than a scholarly endeavor, but I think the people who often complain that there is not enough good writing about comics are ultimately reacting to this inevitable shift from "intensive" to "extensive" as the industry has expanded. It's food for thought, anyway.


Rob Clough said...

It's a fine line, Marc. I've envied your "close reading" project as I've ground out reviews. My solution is to try to leave myself out of my reviews as much as possible, focusing instead on the work itself. How was it structured? What were its themes? What were its allusions? How did the page work as a unit? Did various artistic techniques enhance or detract from the work?

There are also times when I'll pick up on a particular theme and run with it, like that article I did on Market Day & mental illness.

Then you'll find that some books don't merit an extensive read. It's also hard to do with some minicomics; here, it's all about the immediate impressions they make. Still, I like the idea that I get to talk about books and comics that are off the beaten path.

Marc Sobel said...

Hey Rob. Great to hear from you. I agree with your comment about trying to keep yourself out of reviews. I do the same thing. To me, it gives the column a more professional style, and honestly, I don't see why anyone would or should care about where I got the book, who turned me on to it, what my friends told me over dinner last night about it, etc. But, then that style works for other people, so who am I to judge?

I also don't agree when people say that there aren't any good writers about comics. I think there are several. The problem is that there are just more works coming out at a faster pace than most critics can keep up with. That was the point I was highlighting with that quote. The time and effort it takes to really delve into a work (assuming it actually merits such scrutiny) means sacrificing "keeping up." Most bloggers seem to prioritize the "keeping up" though, and I understand that. I struggle with this myself. I think it's partly derived from the completist mentality of collecting, but also just wanting to be a part of the current discussion. I actually admire your ability to not only keep up, but your stamina to review so frequently and so often.