The Literary Life



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This morning I am writing from my favorite coffee shop—Mezamiz Deux Coffee House. I love coffee and in my life as a scholar I heartily accepted the motto that scholars are machines for turning coffee into ideas. Now I’ve got to adapt that saying for readers as well. Oh well, let’s begin.

Why is it that great literature means so much for our lives? Of course, we could all easily tell about our favorite authors or our favorite books. But, more generally, can we isolate some of the reasons great literature, as a whole, matters so much to us?

Such questions as this, the really big questions of great literature, I want to keep exploring in A Literary Life. After all, such questions and their answers distinguish a life of literature from, say, a life of sports, or even a life of television watching.

Thus, again, matters of Taste that we are looking at recently.

We look all around us and we see an endless variety of tastes in our culture for literature and entertainment media. So much so that the most common responses to questions of taste, and of what makes something great literature anyway, are that all tastes are acceptable today and that distinctions between great literature and popular literature—or between what we once called high culture and low culture—are no longer relevant. Why do such attitudes prevail? Have they always prevailed or is our age distinct?

Our friend David Hume, the Enlightenment philosopher known for claiming, “There is no disputing of tastes,” acknowledges in Of the Standard of Taste that even in his day most people felt their individual tastes to be equal to everybody’s taste: “The great variety of Taste. . . which prevails in the world” is obvious to all.

Why is there such variety? Hume claims it is because most people “of confined knowledge” share the prejudices of their limited circle and their limited knowledge.

So what is the source of the idea that all tastes are equally valid? Is it perhaps that most people’s acquaintance with literature—good or bad—is limited?

How does this idea work? Someone you know reads widely and voraciously. He or she spends a fortune on books from Barnes & Noble. Yet their total reading experience is limited to the same kind of literature. Maybe, all they ever read are paperback westerns. Does Hume have a point? What are some implications?

He makes the contrast with “those who can enlarge their view to contemplate distant nations and remote ages” whose tastes are far broader than those who are limited.

Now, Hume does warn against arrogance and self-conceit—or in contemporary terms, against the dreaded elitism. Even the most highly educated—at least insofar as their reading is concerned—display a great variety of taste among themselves.

All this sounds pretty much like pitting the common readers against effete literary snobs. And it probably is. But, Hume says the great variety of taste among the best readers, if you will, is really not so diverse. It is “greater in reality than experience.” The vast disparity among tastes exists among those with limited experience. Not so much among those with a wide range of experience as readers.

Are these observations of David Hume from the eighteenth century still relevant for our postmodern twenty-first century? Does the great variety of taste extend to all levels of literary readership? Is it true that the tendency to claim all kinds of literary tastes equally valid comes primarily from very limited views of literature and the world around us?

Leave comments. Re-blog this post and talk about these things as you lead a literary life.

Paul Varner



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