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Does anyone want to be "well-read?"
www.rogerebert.com ^ | 04/16/11 | Roger Ebert

Posted on 04/21/2011 2:43:04 PM PDT by Borges

"Death disports with writers more cruelly than with the rest of humankind," Cynthia Ozick wrote in a recent issue of The New Republic.

"The grave can hardly make more mute those who were voiceless when alive--dust to dust, muteness to muteness. But the silence that dogs the established writer's noisy obituary, with its boisterous shock and busy regret, is more profound than any other.

"Oblivion comes more cuttingly to the writer whose presence has been felt, argued over, championed, disparaged--the writer who is seen to be what Lionel Trilling calls a Figure. Lionel Trilling? "Consider: who at this hour (apart from some professorial specialist currying his "field") is reading Mary McCarthy, James T. Farrell, John Berryman, Allan Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson, Anne Sexton, Alice Adams, Robert Lowell, Grace Paley, Owen Barfield, Stanley Elkin, Robert Penn Warren, Norman Mailer, Leslie Fiedler, R.P. Blackmur, Paul Goodman, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman, John Crowe Ransom, Stephen Spender, Daniel Fuchs, Hugh Kenner, Seymour Krim, J.F. Powers, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Rahv, Jack Richardson, John Auerbach, Harvey Swados--or Trilling himself?"

I read through this list with dismay. I have read all but two of those writers, love some, and met five. Yet I know with a sinking feeling that Ozick asks the correct question. Who at this hour is reading them? Paul Goodman, whose books so deeply influenced and formed me? Edmund Wilson, a role model? James Farrell, whose naturalistic Studs Lonigan evoked a decade of Chicago life? Mailer, who boasted he had beaten all of his contemporaries?

How many of them have you read? Some, I suspect, but they belong to your past. Most of you will have read Ginsberg's "Howl," but how much more of his poetry? I have his collected poems on my shelf, but don't care to take them down. Whitman's poems, on the other hand, are at the side of my chair and I read one every morning. I have every one of Edmund Wilson's books, in the sublimely uniform Farrar Strauss & Giroux editions. Who cites him? Susan Sontag? Remembered for defining Camp.

The occasion for Ozick's sad litany was her review of the letters of Saul Bellow, the one figure among all those contemporaries she believes is still read and will endure. For the same magazine many years ago, James Atlas wrote an argument that the search for the Great American Novel can end, because Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is that book.

Yes, Saul Bellow is still read, and I am still reading him, and I confess I have no plans to return to any of the other authors on her list in whatever time I have remaining. I have, however, recently started reading The Ambassadors by Henry James for the third time. Soon I plan my third journey through Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, another author I believe will endure.

I have always read for pleasure. I once thought I might be a professor of English, and made it through one year of PhD study at the University of Chicago before recognizing that film criticism had captured me full time. I was not congenitally a good student, but I was influenced by my teachers as role models. In graduate school at Illinois I had one of the great Shakespeare scholars, G. Blakemore Evans, general editor of the Riverside Shakespeare. I'd read Julius Caesar and Macbeth in high school, and then not another word until I entered his classroom. It was clear Evans knew Shakespeare and loved him. Visiting his office, so filled with musty volumes, I was captured by the romance of his occupation, started reading Shakespeare with a passion and never stopped--always using my worn-out Riverside edition, although I have three or four others.

I've written before about the mentor of my undergraduate years, Daniel Curley, he of the corduroy pants, Sears boots and rucksack. In English 101 he assigned us Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, James, Forster, Cather, Wharton, Joyce, Hemingway. I still read all of them. In 1960, he told us, 'What will last of Hemingway's work are the short stories and The Sun Also Rises.' Half a century later, I would say he was correct.

My first exposure to Henry James was the short story "The Real Thing." I thought no one had ever written sentences so obdurate and baffling. They had the fluency of a crossword puzzle. By the time I arrived at The Ambassadors, I was beginning to catch on. His sentences are a labyrinth of diffident but precise observation. In their construction is the creation of character; in their reluctance to boldly state something, we feel the reality of what goes unsaid.

Having read Great Expectations under some duress in high school, I went through seven years of college without ever encountering Dickens again. It was in about 1980 that I signed up for the Folio edition of Dickens, picked up Nicholas Nickleby, and was hooked. No one is more compulsively readable. But I had to come to that myself. Oddly, I started sooner on Trollope. "He is such a consolation," Curley told me one day in a London pub. "During the London Blitz, Trollope enjoyed an enormous popularity." Where should I start? I asked. "Oh, with the Barsetshire novels, I should say."

That's how I've done my reading: Haphazardly, by inclination. I consider myself well read, but there has been no plan. Reading Cynthia Ozick's article brought me up short: I realized I knew almost every writer she was referring to, and I realized they were no longer read. In deciding to begin this piece with the list of all the names in its second paragraph, I realized I would probably alienate many readers. I decided that was all right. This would only be of interest to those who knew a name or two.

All right, then. Bellow has lasted and may continue to last. Setting aside living writers, who is still read? I speak of considerable writers, not potboilers. Dickens, George Eliot, Austen and Trollope, and then some people get to Mrs. Gaskell. Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy. Kafka. Balzac, Flaubert, Stendhal and Hugo. Poe. Mark Twain. James and Wharton. The big four Americans of the first half-century, Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald. The smaller Americans, Chandler, Steinbeck, Hammett. John O'Hara? Not so much. Sinclair Lewis? Not at all. Nabokov. From Britain, Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, Greene, Forster. Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, Virginia Woolf, Orwell, Wodehouse. From France, Georges Simenon endures and Camus hangs on. From South America, Borges and Marquez.

I do not mean to make a list. Many names and entire nations are missing. You will find those writers you enjoy, and value them. I have been in a little discussion recently about how readable Beckett's plays are. Every month or so someone pops up who has discovered Willa Cather and fallen under her vision. There are certain books that are milestones in my reading. I've been going through the 12 volumes of Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time again. Later this year I will again pick up Paul Scott's The Raj Trilogy. On my shelf The Cairo Trilogy by Mahfouz is waiting.

There is no pattern. My only goal is to enjoy reading. I learn that he average American teenager spends 17 minutes a weekend in voluntary reading. Surely that statistic is wrong. Do they mean reading of "serious" novels? I would certainly count science fiction, graphic novels, vampires, Harry Potter, newspapers, magazines, blogs--anything. Just to read for yourself for pleasure is the point. Dickens will come later, Henry James perhaps never.

At the end of the day, some authors will endure and most, including some very good ones, will not. Why do I think reading is important? It is such an effective medium between mind and mind. We think largely in words. A medium made only of words doesn't impose the barrier of any other medium. It is naked and unprotected communication. That's how you get pregnant. May you always be so.


TOPICS: Books/Literature
KEYWORDS: authors; books; reading; rogerebert
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1 posted on 04/21/2011 2:43:06 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

Lionel Trilling?

Lionel Train?


2 posted on 04/21/2011 2:48:35 PM PDT by BenLurkin (This post is not a statement of fact. It is merely a personal opinion -- or humor -- or both)
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To: BenLurkin

What do you mean?


3 posted on 04/21/2011 2:53:23 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

Lionel Train was the character played by Truman Capote in “Murder By Death”.


4 posted on 04/21/2011 2:56:16 PM PDT by BenLurkin (This post is not a statement of fact. It is merely a personal opinion -- or humor -- or both)
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To: Borges
Ebert makes the occasional great point.
5 posted on 04/21/2011 2:58:31 PM PDT by iowamark
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To: Borges

Roger Ebert: Killing with Bore-dum


6 posted on 04/21/2011 2:58:56 PM PDT by GeronL (The Right to Life came before the Right to Happiness)
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To: Borges
I loathe Ebert, but he has a point. Although there's a guy named Updike who sold pretty well in the last 40-years. For whatever reason, he doesn't make Ebert's list.

The other point that I would make is that while we have seen a decline in the consumption of "great literature", we have also seen an incredible uptick in the consumption of non-fiction books. He's not accounting for that, perhaps intentionally.

Still, Twilight and Harry Potter are to reading what Taco Bell is to eating. It may be plentifully sold, but that doesn't mean it's not crap.

7 posted on 04/21/2011 3:00:12 PM PDT by OldDeckHand
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To: Borges

He lost me at “disports.”

Actually he lost me with his assumption that everyone had read Ginsburg’s “Howl.” I tried. Ick. No thanks.


8 posted on 04/21/2011 3:00:27 PM PDT by VoiceOfBruck (Smile! You weren't aborted!)
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To: Borges
There is plenty of good stuff out there. There are many reasons why people don't read.

I think government schools do a wretched job of teaching a love of books. Do the kids read the book for class? Or does the teacher show the movie? And what kind of variety is demonstrated? Doesn't everyone read "To Kill a Mockingbird"? "Catcher in the Rye"? Wouldn't it be great if you ran into someone at camp who had never heard of those books? You could introduce them! And what if your new friend was shocked that you hadn't heard of "My Antonia"? They could open a new world for you! But nooooo ... often the conversation is (at best) "Did you read 'To Kill a Mockingbord'?" "Naaaaaaah. I was supposed to. I just watched the movie instead." "Yeah, me too."

If kids learned Latin, if kids memorized real poetry (and, No, Alice Walker isn't a real poet) then they might learn to love language.

For most kids, literature is what you find on Facebook, and culture is what you find on Youtube.

9 posted on 04/21/2011 3:01:34 PM PDT by ClearCase_guy
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To: Borges
I am often tempted to read serious work, but halfway through Ozick's thicket of overdone florid prose, I lay down and breathed deeply until the urge to finish it passed over.
10 posted on 04/21/2011 3:01:59 PM PDT by hinckley buzzard
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To: BenLurkin

Lionel Trilling was a Colombia classmate and friend of Whittaker Chambers. Lionel and Diana Trilling were leading 20th century New York literary figures.


11 posted on 04/21/2011 3:05:47 PM PDT by iowamark
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To: Borges

People should read what they enjoy, not what the pointy-head academics consider necessary to become “well-read”.


12 posted on 04/21/2011 3:06:15 PM PDT by Retired Greyhound
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To: OldDeckHand

Harry Potter is quite enjoyable reading. I would argue that it is not crap.


13 posted on 04/21/2011 3:07:24 PM PDT by Retired Greyhound
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To: Retired Greyhound

You don’t think imbibing the best of Western Culture is important? What


14 posted on 04/21/2011 3:09:40 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

Not if I have to go to Ebert’s web page first.


15 posted on 04/21/2011 3:11:31 PM PDT by Radix ("..Democrats are holding a meeting today to decide whether to overturn the results of the election.")
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To: Radix

You don’t. The whole article is here.


16 posted on 04/21/2011 3:13:55 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges
"Like many intellectuals, he was incapable of saying a simple thing in a simple way."

~ Marcel Proust ~

17 posted on 04/21/2011 3:14:24 PM PDT by Joe 6-pack (Que me amat, amet et canem meum)
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To: Borges
My first exposure to Henry James was the short story "The Real Thing." I thought no one had ever written sentences so obdurate and baffling.

Indeed.

Extraordinary syntax from an extraordinary writer.

His work will survive the ages.

18 posted on 04/21/2011 3:15:00 PM PDT by Flycatcher (God speaks to us, through the supernal lightness of birds, in a special type of poetry.)
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To: Retired Greyhound
"Harry Potter is quite enjoyable reading. I would argue that it is not crap."

I'll meet you half way - Potter perhaps doesn't dip into the murky literary ether that is the Twilight saga. But, it's not what I would call "great literature" either. Is it entertaining? My kids, all of whom read the books, promise me that it was. However, Is Rowling this generation's Cervantes? I'm thinking no.

19 posted on 04/21/2011 3:15:56 PM PDT by OldDeckHand
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To: Borges

Do I have to read Alice Adams, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Lillian Hellman? No thanks, I’d rather read Witold Gombrowicz and Alvaro Mutis.


20 posted on 04/21/2011 3:16:23 PM PDT by Revolting cat! (Let us prey!)
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To: Borges

I read for my pleasure, not to impress other people. Some of what I read winds up on the literati’s list of what people “should” read, most of it doesn’t, I don’t care one way or the other. Most folks who throw around quotes are just douches trying to impress people, I learned long ago that anybody that feels an internal need to impress the people around them isn’t impressive, so as soon as somebody throws a literati quote out I know to ignore them.


21 posted on 04/21/2011 3:19:13 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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To: discostu

Taste has to be developed. If one doesn’t like Henry James or James Joyce the fault is not with them but with the reader. The obligation is on you to get to their level of sensibility.


22 posted on 04/21/2011 3:24:07 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

I have personally found some of the “best” writers to be shallow and dull.

I think literature should be read for enjoyment and historical reference.

For me, writers are merely talented humans. There works are their art. I don’t look to them for the meaning of life.

If I am looking for true meaning, I go to God.


23 posted on 04/21/2011 3:24:18 PM PDT by Retired Greyhound
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To: Retired Greyhound

Like who?


24 posted on 04/21/2011 3:26:05 PM PDT by Borges
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To: OldDeckHand

Just because something is “crap” doesn’t mean it’s not fun. Not all of life is about the superior, some of it is just about the enjoyable. I can read a Harry Potter book in under 18 hours, it’s not a bad way to kill a day when I don’t feel like sinking my teeth into Dune. Some days you eat fillet mignon, some days you eat popcorn, because some days are good for popcorn.


25 posted on 04/21/2011 3:26:43 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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To: discostu

(Pssst. Dune isn’t great literature either.)


26 posted on 04/21/2011 3:27:27 PM PDT by Borges
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To: derllak
Do you know someone who is well red?

;-)

27 posted on 04/21/2011 3:27:55 PM PDT by Lakeshark (Thank a member of the US armed forces for their sacrifice)
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To: Revolting cat!

I’d never heard of Alice Adams before this article.


28 posted on 04/21/2011 3:28:31 PM PDT by Borges
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To: OldDeckHand

Rowling is not the best writer, she may be this generations Cervantes, considering how limited this generation is.

What makes literature great? Is it how well it is written, how timeless the story is, how well a particular generation regards it?

I think the Potter books will be last. I don’t think she will replace Tolstoy or Dickens in terms of how future generations regard literature, but she has made a mark.

Twilight, however, really does suck.


29 posted on 04/21/2011 3:29:16 PM PDT by Retired Greyhound
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To: Retired Greyhound

The generation that grew up reading her will keep that stuff alive at least as long as they live. I don’t know if their kids will like it much though.


30 posted on 04/21/2011 3:30:24 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

But who says it’s the “best” of Western Culture? If you don’t like something you don’t like it, there’s no reason to suffer through it just because the literati say it’s “the best”. Even if it is the best that doesn’t mean you’ll like it. A friend of mine’s mom makes the best liver pate in the city, or so folks who like liver pate say, I tried it once, tasted like liver pate, for my pallet that’s not a compliment, I think liver pate is gross. The literati worship “Howl”, to me it’s just more beat poetry, which again doesn’t agree with my pallet, so while it very well might be “the best” that doesn’t mean I should read it.


31 posted on 04/21/2011 3:31:48 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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To: Borges
Does anyone want to be "well-read?"

I'm reminded of Twain's quote on classic books:

I don't believe any of you have ever read PARADISE LOST, and you don't want to. That's something that you just want to take on trust. It's a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic -- something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

32 posted on 04/21/2011 3:33:53 PM PDT by KarlInOhio (Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! Tea Party extremism is a badge of honor.)
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To: Borges

Taste doesn’t have to be anything. People like what they like and anybody that thinks there’s a problem with somebody else’s taste is quite simply wrong and should mind their own business. James Joyce was a drunk whose writing is crap, and Henry Jame is dull. I have no obligation to suffer through books that bore me. If you like them fine, but that doesn’t make you right and me wrong, that makes you someone that likes those books and me someone that doesn’t.


33 posted on 04/21/2011 3:34:52 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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To: KarlInOhio

Yup, I love that Twain quote.


34 posted on 04/21/2011 3:35:03 PM PDT by Retired Greyhound
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To: discostu
James Joyce was a drunk whose writing is crap, and Henry Jame is dull.

LOL
35 posted on 04/21/2011 3:35:58 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

Guess that explains why it’s enjoyable. I wasn’t actually putting it forth as great literature, I listed it as something to read that takes more effort than Harry Potter because it has a much denser plot and language. Still enjoyable reads, but not something I can crank through in 18 hours.


36 posted on 04/21/2011 3:36:51 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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To: KarlInOhio

I’ve never met anyone who dislikes Paradise Lost.


37 posted on 04/21/2011 3:37:04 PM PDT by Borges
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To: discostu
The literati worship “Howl”,

I like it too.

Works great to kindle a campfire...

38 posted on 04/21/2011 3:37:37 PM PDT by Flycatcher (God speaks to us, through the supernal lightness of birds, in a special type of poetry.)
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To: discostu

Well a scientist can write fiction that might be complex but that wouldn’t make it literature. Thomas Pynchon is literature.


39 posted on 04/21/2011 3:38:28 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

The literati’s need to push the drunken ramblings of Joyce as literature is all the proof any sane person will ever need that the literati are idiots that just want to torture people. If you really must worship drunken ramblings just go to a bar, it’ll be more fun.


40 posted on 04/21/2011 3:38:34 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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To: Borges

Again, I didn’t say it was literature. So stop erecting a strawman.


41 posted on 04/21/2011 3:39:22 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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To: discostu
Henry Jame is dull.

Yes, Henry Jame was dull.

But not Henry James.

42 posted on 04/21/2011 3:39:48 PM PDT by Flycatcher (God speaks to us, through the supernal lightness of birds, in a special type of poetry.)
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To: Borges

Steinbeck, for example. He sucks. His writing style is ok, but I don’t care for his material.

Thoreau (and the rest of the Transcendentalists, for that matter) - totally irrelevant, to me.

Clancy and Clive Cussler - brilliant writers, to me.


43 posted on 04/21/2011 3:39:54 PM PDT by Retired Greyhound
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To: discostu
It's not just literati, it's other writers. He's probably the most influential writer of the 20th century...Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Pynchon, Foster Wallace all inconcievable without him. And who cares if he was a drinker? That has no bearing on reading ‘The Dead’ which is very precisely crafted and bears no signs of carelessness.
44 posted on 04/21/2011 3:40:56 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Retired Greyhound

It’s not like Steinbeck is top tier to begin with. Walden is beautifully written and very funny. Thoreau’s fans don’t really have the sense of humor that he had. He did not glorify nature the way people think he did.


45 posted on 04/21/2011 3:42:29 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

When asked to describe which books I have read; my response is;

“Why read when I can write”.


46 posted on 04/21/2011 3:42:51 PM PDT by sodpoodle (Is it 2012 yet?)
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To: Borges
Who reads Roger Ebert?

I dropped off somewhere on the way down the article, around "My first exposure to Henry James was the short story 'The Real Thing' ..." which made me think Roger was quite full of himself.

After that it's just too much information about someone I try to remain blissfully unaware of:

Having read Great Expectations under some duress in high school, I went through seven years of college without ever encountering Dickens again. It was in about 1980 that I signed up for the Folio edition of Dickens, picked up Nicholas Nickleby, and was hooked. No one is more compulsively readable. But I had to come to that myself. Oddly, I started sooner on Trollope. "He is such a consolation," Curley told me one day in a London pub. "During the London Blitz, Trollope enjoyed an enormous popularity." Where should I start? I asked. "Oh, with the Barsetshire novels, I should say."

Blah, blah, blah, to the point of self-parody. I'd say "Die already, you pretentious name-dropper!" but given Roger's health problems that could be considered cruel.

Sure, if people still do read, their interest in writers drops off drastically when the writers die and aren't producing any longer. A few writers are picked up again and added to the canon, but no one is as dead as most recently dead writers.

Ebert's wrong though. Critics like Trilling, Wilson, and even Fiedler and Kazin are still read -- if only because people who are expected to know about dead poets and novelists can avoid reading them by looking up what dead critics have said about them. If you have to appear well read, you can get away without reading Mailer or Farrell or Elkin or whoever, if you can dig up what reviewers wrote about them in their own time.

If there is an afterlife it must be very painful to the shade of Alfred Kazin to go from being so talked about to being so obscure, but I'm not aware that Trilling has been forgotten yet. Even Edmund Wilson gets reviewed when new biographies and collections of his work come out. The periodicals he wrote for The New Yorker and The New Republic have an interest in keeping Wilson's name from falling into complete oblivion: they keep him (ever so slightly) alive, because he makes them look good.

47 posted on 04/21/2011 3:43:53 PM PDT by x
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To: ClearCase_guy

I haven’t read any of Ebert’s ‘authors’. I consider myself fortunate.


48 posted on 04/21/2011 3:45:03 PM PDT by BenKenobi (Don't expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong. - Silent Cal)
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To: BenKenobi

Never read Shakespeare, Dickents or Twain eh?


49 posted on 04/21/2011 3:46:18 PM PDT by Borges
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To: Borges

Of course most of them are in that group of writers only read by the literati. The problem isn’t that Joyce was a drinker, the problem is that he wrote drunk and wrote like drunks talk, rambling, incomprehensible and pointless. Oh yeah “The Dead” from Dubliners, featuring “An Encounter” a story about kids running into a pervert who jerks off in front of them, indeed high literature everyone should read that. Yeah, that was sarcasm.


50 posted on 04/21/2011 3:47:13 PM PDT by discostu (Come on Punky, get Funky)
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