Here I am this evening at my richly appointed writing desk sitting in the Earl of Grantham’s study and library in Downton Abbey reading David Hume. My copy is a very old edition, eighteenth-century typography where the letter s looks like the letter f. And this older copy made me think about how outdated Hume is. Or—well, maybe he’s not so out of date as I thought in my fantasy about the library in Downton Abbey. Back to my senses, I look down at my well-worn Penguin paperback.
I’ll actually talk about Hume later. But look around in our media and what do you see about taste? My goodness, everywhere you look it seems everybody is desperately concerned about having proper taste. We don’t dare be caught in the bad taste trap except when we can display our good taste credentials.
Ok, yes, I went with my wife, Jeanine, this summer to see the latest Melissa McCarthy movie. Confession time. (Somebody’s reading this and saying Hey, that was a good movie. Well.) But that’s ok, because we also went to see The Second Best Marigold Hotel. And that’s a movie in good taste, right? Does that make up for my bad taste earlier?
Watch all the corny reality shows on TV (tsk, tsk, oh such bad taste) and what seems to be the overriding concern really in all of them—being exposed for bad taste, or snubbing those who sit back and condemn bad taste.
Is there really such a thing as taste anymore? Do you have it?
Are you dressed in an acceptably tasteful style when it really matters? Would you dare be caught eating out at an Applebee’s, an Olive Garden, or at any chain restaurant? What if, not only were you caught in some superficial chain restaurant but you were caught with a great big platter of Southern-style chicken fried steak in front of you? Oh the shame of it all.
Dress Barn or Macy’s? Penny’s or Brooks Brothers? Home Depot or Restoration Hardware? Of course, we’ll always have our car radio button of NPR saved. But nobody’s looking, so why not punch the country music button? Just don’t get caught.
Another disclaimer: The descriptions above usually have me coming down on the wrong side of taste. (I love Applebee’s.)
Yes, taste matters greatly today in virtually everything. (Which sports team to you watch? The Detroit Red Wings or Manchester United?) ‘Don’t believe me? Make a list of everything you do that relates in any way to “culture.” There’s nearly always a good taste/ bad taste choice, right. We have to be very careful, right? So—sigh.
I was in the library of my dreams the other night, just luxuriating in the smooth floor-to-ceiling mahogany shelves with the order and symmetry of the books. There was a small desk intended for light correspondence and a green glass shade banker’s lamp. A ladder hung from the shelves and scooted along on a railing from one side to the other. This is the life, I sighed. This is heaven. I ran my fingers along the dark red wood, feeling the high polish.
Here is what a person of sophisticated taste lives like, I thought. I want to be a person of sophisticated taste. But in my hand I held an old cheap paperback Western, Max Brand’s Singing Guns, with its garish cover. Uh oh. What doesn’t belong in this sanctuary of taste?
I pushed the tacky Western aside and looked about for something concerning taste in literature. Then I remembered. I looked down the row and found what I was looking for. There they were. David Hume’s collected works.
As I start this blog on The Literary Life, I would like over the next several weeks to consider with you some of the really big questions that simply must be dealt with for anyone for whom great literature matters.
Let’s start with one of the biggest issues of all: TASTE. Particularly, of course, taste for good literature and art. So:
What is taste?
Who has taste? I mean today, in 2015?
Is there such a thing, really as taste anymore? Any distinction between good taste and bad taste?
DO YOU HAVE TASTE?
Ouch! Let’s get personal here. Do you really have good taste?!
(A bit of a disclaimer here: I’d die if anyone ever saw the playlist on my IPod. Professionally, I’ve spent quite a bit of my career as a literary scholar studying and writing about one of the lowest forms of popular literature—paperback Westerns and horrid Western movies. So, I’m not exactly in a position to be a snob when it comes to taste.)
Nevertheless, it does seem to me that the questions of taste, what it is and what’s good taste versus bad taste are pretty important for leading a literary life.