"The fundamental demand to be made of any bookstore is that its collection take a shape that is informative in and of itself; it must have a distinct identity, so that readers can tell easily what fits and what doesn't. A distinct identity attracts attention, and orients the person who is searching. This is the secret of the magnetic appeal of certain assemblages: noise becomes music; scattered stars acquire an outline, names, and even legends, and become recognizable constellations that guide navigation."
-Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books
Zaid is talking about books, bookstores, collections, and publishers, as befits the subject of his book, but really he is talking about categorization, about the process of discovery, and of synthesis.
Somehow, that particular sentence (the one in bold) pulled a whole train of thought through some station where it had been held up now for some time. Because I have long been interested in synthesis, in why we arrange things at all, and in why doing so is so much more pleasing than simply letting these abstruse bits lie where they fall.
This is an aesthetic train, as most seem to be in the switching house that is my brain. This is why I can't really understand stories, novels, poems, etc. that don't have a binding principle that is, at some level, appreciable. If I can't see what is holding the thing together (dense as I can be, I would like to think that I am also willing to take the time to overcome my occasional stupidity and at least try to apply some unifying force to what is assembled in front of me, even if ultimately that force is just the fact that it is my brain that is doing that unifying), then I am just not willing to put in the time to "enjoy" it.
And I see a fair amount of such writing out there: chaotic or undisciplined, often "on purpose," but frequently just a result of sloppiness. I have been and will be guilty of same.
Growing up listening to punk music, and the experience of being a punk musician, I knew with a certainty beyond suspicion that I was not turning away from this writing simply because such writing might be confused with its "unrealized," "amateur" cousins: I mean, I never for a moment would advance that argument. It isn't the style that I object to. But I couldn't really say what it was that I did object to.
Now, I think that I do know what it is-- those works are unorganized, chaotic or stochastic, whichever you prefer-- and I also think I know why that train of thought was put on the rails. Because what these works share with "the work of amateurs" is precisely the fact that they are unorganized. Here I was feeling guilt over being somehow hierarchical, but that wasn't it at all.
Case in point: Philip K. Dick is a terrible writer by many, many measures. So is H. P. Lovecraft. But what they have over their legions of followers is a sense of organization, of careful consideration of the elements of their stories that is decidedly lacking in their imitators. In fact, when it is fully at work, it should be inimitable. I mean, no one really writes like Dick or Lovecraft. That's the whole point, isn't it? And I enjoy reading them. I enjoy reading Poe for the same reason, even though it seems like every literary critic outside of France and parts of Eastern Europe seems to think that the guy was really, really embarrassingly awful.(1)
And the whole point of this post is that we read to discover something that didn't exist before we read. Whenever a new idea pops into our head, whenever a fact gets lodged in there by whatever means; whenever some unseen correspondence clicks a new, physical connection is forged in the brain. I mean that literally: a part of your brain that was inactive gets activated, and, for however long you use that minuscule part of your brain, it lives, more blood is sent there, and your body is subtly altered to accommodate that idea. Your body changes.
If, on the other hand, you read something, your brain is activated, but whatever it is that you are reading fails to excite you, then your body has wasted energy on creating that new pathway in your brain. Your body has been forced to accommodate this new pathway, but a different pathway must be followed from now on, because this one, the one just created, will be closed off and fall inactive because the idea has failed to excite you.
What Zaid is saying is that the constellation of ideas represented (in his case) by a bookstore with an ideal (that is, ideal for a particular customer) collection of books is exciting because it not only creates the pathway, but also manages to keep the brain pumping thoughts through that pathway, filtering things through that new connector.
When you read a book that you only "enjoy," you soon forget precisely why you "enjoyed" it. Why did I enjoy that book? Well, it was good to read-- I mean, reading it was enjoyable. A tautology, I know, but that's why it doesn't stick in the mind. Nothing has really changed as a result because your brain was busy trying to pave over that new track you laid down while you read it.
But if the book has some organizing principle that is appreciable-- nevermind if it takes more than one reading-- then the mind isn't able to pave over those tracks. Some new train has already been shuttling down them. Maybe further lengths of track have managed to connect this new one to older ones, well-serviced lines that you use everyday, so that, every once in a while, you find yourself held up this new train of thought even without consciously thinking of it, merely because you couldn't fail to run into it in your everyday life, the trip from here to there. Zaid calls this "identity," and that seems a good way to think of it-- a name, a track: "The Green Line" (coming soon to Portland, which is why my own brain turns to it)-- and now, as a result, a constellation waiting to be explored. But that constellation would never have caught the eye if it hadn't been for the fact that we want to see a constellation. We don't want to see a chaos. We wouldn't know what to do with it.
(1) I think that the French (and other speakers of foreign tongues) like Poe so much because his stories frequently require a sort of intermediary step-- on the level of understanding his language, the plot, they are frequently underwhelming. But try to imagine translating his stories while you're reading them, and all of the sudden many more, and much more interesting, images and themes come to the surface. He wants his imagery to be a sharpened stick, and he jabs it in the eye of the reader, but this only works if the reader thinks of the story as more than just one event following another. You could think of them as just a plot, but then they are pretty easily dismissed. If, however, you also follow the imagery, Poe might be telling you a dirty joke, for example, in addition to writing about someone disintegrating. Which is itself a little play on words. Boxes in boxes. Borges loved him, and you can see why. The guy had a real head for games.