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feeling stupid
singapore sunset
The Netherlands has been on my mind a fair bit the last week or so. I think it started when my sister posted a mid-90s eurodance track on her Facebook. That led me to happy hardcore and some YouTube documentaries about the gabber scene, which triggered nostalgia even though i swung more between the alternative and techno scenes at the time. Then a chat with burning_angel_ brought it up again - she's thinking of living in Amsterdam for a while. Then J and i started talking about perhaps going to visit once i have my new job and thus a greater income. I kept thinking back to those teenage years, which remain some of the best of my life. It was then that i first discovered electronic music and the internet, i started going out to clubs and raves, i was writing a lot of music, i still had a hope my life would turn out interesting. Even when i was depressed and hated everything it still felt novel and exciting. That's the best part of being a kid.

It keeps coming up. I've read a few blog posts lately about high school reading lists. As i've gotten older i've had a distinct sense that i'm missing out on some important cultural references people my age should know, and a lot of them come from books. Learning English in Holland we didn't have a lot of assigned reading - aside from poems and short stories, i only remember A Clockwork Orange. We did have to do book reports, but we were free to choose anything we liked. Of course i sought out all the science-fiction that the teacher would okay - War of the Worlds, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451... I was also allowed to read Jules Verne for some reason. As a result i largely missed out on the books that most native English speakers were forced to read. Names like Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck are just names i've heard referenced in movies - i have no idea what they actually wrote about. The closest i've come to reading American "literature" is On the Road, which i read independently as a tangent from a university music course. And fuck if i ever got near reading Shakespeare or Dickens or any ye olde English crap. I never used to care, but when conversations go completely over my head i do tend to feel a little illiterate.

I also feel dumb sometimes when i'm talking to people with a good vocabulary. I've been an avid reader my whole life, but that hasn't helped me pick up words with the same familiarity as kids who drilled lists in high school. In Holland my final English exam consisted of grammar, reading/comprehension and writing sections - not vocabulary. And presumably that was a less demanding test than what native English speakers would take anyway. I certainly doubt native English speakers watched Monty Python as a cultural component of English class, like we did. As an aside, in more puritanical countries they probably didn't watch A Clockwork Orange in class after reading it either. In any case, somehow my brain does not retain words from books, and i never trained on lists, and i feel dumb as a result.

University didn't help matters, because even though i had moved back to an English-speaking country at that point, i switched my arts degree over to IT very quickly. Half of the blogs i read these days reference philosophers and political scientists whose works i only know second-hand, or only through a cursory Wikipedia summary (which i also tend not to retain). I try to take solace in the fact that i at least have a personal interest in music and film, so i must not be completely ignorant, but that's not really true either. Did i mention i listened to Skinny Puppy for the first time the other day? I've known about how influential they were since i was a kid but i never deliberately sought them out because, well, fuck. There's too much other shit out there. Maybe one day i'll watch Citizen Kane, or Casablanca, or the fucking Godfather, too. My excuse has always been that there are other things out there that are simply more appealing to me, but does it make me a less interesting person when i don't know the standards?

The thing is, i wouldn't want to go back and replace all the books and music and movies of my youth with something else. What made me enjoy that time was being a part of the scenes i was in and indulging passionately in the pursuits that most appealed to me. So where do you fit algemene ontwikkeling (or "general knowledge") in your adult life? Should i spend the next year watching classics and reading literature and listening for education over pleasure and learning abstruse words and studying philosophy? All just so i can feel a little less dumb when i'm reading blogs? Ugh. Middle class problems. At least i'm not lying awake at night wanting to slash my wrists. Though i did have a great deal of trouble getting out of bed this morning. Don't tell anyone i'm still depressed underneath, it'd ruin the illusion.

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I've devoted a lot of time to cultural literacy. After high school, I read a ton of the books that other people had been forced to read. Many of them were good. You don't have to go overboard, but sometimes the classic are classic for good reason.

Ah, "cultural literacy" is a much better translation of algemene ontwikkeling than "general knowledge". Finishing high school in another language definitely crimped my vocabulary. At least i described it well enough someone could understand what i was talking about.

I have been thinking about doing a classics run on my Kindle for a while now. I keep wimping out by putting stuff like Raymond Chandler at the top of my list (it must be classic if it's pre-war, right?) but perhaps i should bite the bullet and read something serious.

I've never read any Raymond Chandler, but I bet it's amusing.

If you haven't already, read Kurt Vonnegut. It's 20th century, but still part of the canon and a good blend of science fiction, politics and mental illness. Slaughterhouse 5 is alternately required and banned in American schools and the most often referenced. I always liked Breakfast of Champions and Cats cradle.

That's synchronous. I went on a classics hunt the other day, and had less luck than i hoped - most aren't available on Kindle Canada. The few that are, are priced at almost $20, which i find appalling for books you could easily get second-hand anywhere in the country for a couple bucks. Amazon has been recommending me Vonnegut ever since i put his son's books on my wish list, and since his books are a much more reasonable $6 i decided to go with one of them. Breakfast of Champions looked the most interesting to me, but i got Slaughterhouse-Five since that's the one everyone talks about. I don't know if i really get it yet. It's kinda meandering and i wanted to punch him after reading the 27th "so it goes". And i can't get the last scene from this out of my head: http://laughingsquid.com/fuck-me-ray-bradbury/ But i'm getting smarter by the page.

Wel, meandering is kind of the point of that one. Breakfast of Champions is a bit more linear. And I like him better than Ray Bradbury.

I'm gradually getting the hang of the style. I've read plenty of non-linear stuff before, but he also has lots of short sentences and micro-diversions. You should make a response video.

I believe this may serve you a great deal of living your own way -- not like others who follow book cliches, and their lifes are so much alike. Sad story.

That's an interesting perspective. I guess it also depends what you take out of it. I think a lot of people who are forced to read books in high school resent it and don't gain a lot from the experience. Perhaps going back to read those books as an adult would be a richer experience?

Edited at 2011-08-20 10:59 pm (UTC)

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