Lately I’ve been trying to read a book called How Literature Plays with the Brain, by Paul Armstrong. I say “trying” because I found the first forty pages or so unrewarding. I kept going because I was so excited to read about connections between neuroscience and language, literature, and reading. Even then I almost gave up, and as previously discussed here, that takes some doing. Why, you wonder? Three words: academic writing conventions. I used to do academic writing and even then I didn’t have much patience for them. This book spends thirty-eight pages describing what it’s going to be talking about (I got so tired of reading “which/as I will discuss in chapter X”), why it’s important to talk about, why the author is uniquely qualified to talk about it, how everyone else has fallen short of really talking about it (so close, guys! too bad!), how the discipline has gone in the wrong direction lately, and on and on.
In fairness, the first chapter does also establish a few foundational ideas: that both harmony and dissonance are significant facets of aesthetic experience, that both are also crucial in brain function, and that phenomenology has much to contribute to a discussion of the intersection of aesthetic experience and the brain. (At least, I think that last one is important. It was repeated enough.) But really, that did not require thirty-eight pages. Some of the rest, I can concede, is necessary, or at least important enough that including it is understandable. Going on about it ad nauseum is not. For example:
What is the book going to be discussing? I would think that this is what the cover blurb and table of contents are for, but maybe you want to give a slightly more thorough overview. Okay, I guess.
Why is this important to discuss? Well, I’d think that if you’ve written an entire book about it, the reader should understand that by the end, but maybe you feel the need to establish your perspective on it from the very start.
Why is the author qualified to discuss this? Here, I’d think the author’s ideas, reasoning, and evidence would speak for themselves, but bona fides are important to some people. Then again, I also think that’s what an “about the author” page is for.
How has everyone else fallen short of really discussing this? Okay, now I am really starting to get annoyed. You do not need to make a special point of the fact that you’re the first person (that you know of) to approach a certain topic in order to demonstrate that the topic is important or that you’re qualified to discuss it.
Why and how has the discipline of literary studies gone in a direction the author disagrees with in recent years? Oh come on. This isn’t a soapbox and it isn’t your lawn. Quit yelling and shaking your cane.
I’ve said before that tearing things down isn’t really my prefered MO, and I feel a little bad. On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time I was this exasperated by a book. Frustrated, disappointed, even bored sometimes, sure, but I can’t remember ever thinking over and over again, shut up and get to the actual book.
Miraculously, he eventually did. The book is still dry, and dense like plutonium, but now I’m actually learning interesting things, exactly as I’d hoped for from the beginning. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.