Noblesse oblique

A recent article in New York Magazine, starkly titled “The End,” declared the demise of book publishing as we have known it. So too Al Silverman, in The Time of Their Lives, gives us the history of what he regards as the golden age of American publishing. What followed is not the platinum age. Are books to disappear, like typewriters, Edsels, and Dukakis buttons?

There are two things everyone boarding a flight puts through the security scanner, a computer and the book he is reading. Everywhere I go, people are reading. “Yes, but what are they reading?” The indicated answer is, Schlock. By and large, people are reading what is called popular fiction, thrillers, romances, fantasy. Oh my.

Some years ago, Dwight McDonald distinguished Hi-cult, Mid-cult and Mass-cult. The books aimed at these different levels are essentially different. The patron of Mass-cult books would be unlikely to enjoy Gravity’s Rainbow, say, or Ulysses. One of the marks of modernity has been the writing of books which deliberately turn away the ordinary reader. Their difficulty meant to protect them from the unwashed. I am not making this up. Read Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses or John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. Many modern writers despise ordinary people, even, maybe particularly, writers who emerged from the underclass, e.g. D. H. Lawrence. Haven’t there always been works written for the very intelligent? Dante? Even Chaucer? But both men were writing for the readers of their time, all of them.

What have come to be called classics were popular works in their day. The Homeric epics were sung before and after they were written, and the illiterate have ears. Books from long ago have difficulties because of the time lapse; if we are unaware of the allusions and background assumptions, our enjoyment will be less. Thus fiction becomes an object of study and research. Impassable trenches are dug between the text and one who just wants to read, Years ago, as a visitor at Cornell, I was given an office in Rockefeller, which houses a Foucault pendulum and the English faculty. On one door, there was a sign: Theory, just say no! There was a species of civil war going on.

In An Essay in Criticism, C. S. Lewis, aware that the works he taught were considered literature in a way that excluded much of what he and everyone else enjoyed reading, asked, What is literature? His initial rule of thumb was: anything we read again. His suggestion was that, far from dividing readers into classes, literature, in an ample sense, forms a spectrum that fades right down to those books read on airplanes, few of which will be re-read.

Lewis is not of course saying that all fiction is equal. He enumerates the elements of imaginative literature and the way in which they are diversely present along the spectrum. Plot of course is the spine of fiction, but there is also character, language, setting and, most importantly, a sense conveyed of what the actions of the characters mean.

When we first read Hamlet, we are entertained, and more, but perhaps not much. As we go back to it over the years, it delivers up more and more. The classic is a work that can be enjoyed on many levels; it is not aimed at an elite. Nor need we be disdainful of the Kleenex class of fiction, one use and out. It delivers a one-time enjoyment even though it does not stretch the mind or imagination.

Well this is a vast subject. My point is best conveyed by considering the book, the Bible. It speaks immediately to everyone yet it has been pondered and interpreted for centuries. Imagine trying to locate it in one of McDonald’s layers. Theology is another thing. Boethius and others couched the mysteries of the faith in works difficult of access, in order to protect them from the derision of infidels. That is not at all what the Bible does, and I am not knocking theology which, after all, rides piggyback on Scripture.

At my age, much of my reading is re-reading, a return to the tried and true, not merely to relive past pleasure but to find new delights. Great Expectations seems almost new again when re-read, despite familiarity with the story. Every day, throughout the day, religious and others are reading the psalms, over and over, year by year. The Liturgy of the Hours is as inexhaustible as Scripture, which it largely is.

The computer? iPod? Kindle Books? Even were these to replace bound printed pages, which I doubt, the content would be conveyed. Like the advent of the typewriter and movies, this will affect written style, but our appetite for imaginatively presented human acts will remain as long as we are human.


Ralph McInerny (1929-2010) was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.