The Literary Life



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When I woke up from my nap last night after watching the news, Wheel of Fortune was playing. I frantically grabbed for the remote to turn the TV off. But I couldn’t find the remote. Oh my goodness. The Wheel kept playing on and on.

When I finally turned the show off, I went into my study panting for breath. I nearly lost anything about myself that could be called sophistication or taste. I grabbed my smoking jacket and dropped into my reading chair with my thick volume from David Hume’s works. Something has got to change.

Are you a person with taste? Specifically, do you possess appropriate literary taste? Hmm. That’s a pretty personal question and I know that nearly all of you will say that of course you have whatever kind of taste you want, thank you. (And I am asking this question of myself as well.)

It seems there’s always some sort of question like this: “What if, yeah, yeah, I know I’m supposed to like novels by people like Ernest Hemingway or Toni Morrison. But I just grind my teeth trying to get through them.”

Ok, ok, don’t click out of this blog just yet. I’ve got to confess that I always found trying to get through Moby Dick to be quite a slog. I did it once, actually. And it took me years before I could read Hemingway, but I did finally start reading him. So, don’t dismiss me here. Instead, let’s see about this idea of taste, good literary taste.

Is it simply enough that we know what we like whether or not we know what’s good?

Let’s get philosophical. The great English thinker David Hume (1711-1776) wrote what I’m sure he intended to be the definitive study of taste: Of the Standard of Taste. Hume is famous for, among many things, his view that “there is no disputing of tastes.” Ok, so it’s with Hume that we usually go for the common attitude that taste is definite, measurable, accountable, and that only a few possess taste.

He says, “ It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment and condemning another.”

Don’t you love this? Don’t you want to be one of the people who know, who can with authority approve of one work of literature and condemn to smithereens another? I always wanted to be the guy who gave a two thumbs up to movies and two or three thumbs down to others. Alas.

Or try this idea out by our friend Hume (pronounced hmm, I think):

“Among a thousand different opinions which different men may entertain of the same subject, there is one, and but one, that is just and true; and the difficulty is to fix and ascertain it.”

I know that the temptation is just to dismiss all talk of good taste such as this from Hume, and just say something like “Everybody’s taste is different” or one person’s taste is just as good as another’s.”

But what if David Hume was right? What if there was really one standard of taste for us today in 2015? What if good taste was indisputable? What would that be like?

Why not try it out? Judge by Hume’s credo everything about you? Trust yourself.

Let me hear your comments. Follow this blog and reblog to your connections.

Paul Varner



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