David Hadju:

Recently reading Harper’s, I came across an advertisement for a mail-order audio course entitled Life Lessons of the Great Books. Over 36 lectures, it promises to teach “how great books…provide you with insights on how to conduct yourself in times of trouble, how to handle the joys and frustrations of love, how to appreciate the simple moments in life, and so much more.”

Great idea, I thought! In fact, I’ve decided to start my own line of courses, mining the works of all forms of literature for lessons that can be directly applied to solve everyday problems.

Biting sarcasm ensues.

I’ve never read a self-help book, but I’m open to the idea that the style can be done intelligently, without necessarily sacrificing nuance to lowest-common-denominator expedience. I can’t help but note, though, that the literary cognoscenti seem to have a much harsher view:

The idea of reading Jane Austen to learn lessons about life is totally repugnant to me. Equally repugnant are memoirs about lessons learned from reading her. I read Jane Austen for pleasure, for the instant delight of, say, the opening of Persuasion: “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one…”

The poised irony of this character sketch, the rhythm of the sentence with its paradoxical tone – Jane Austen’s style – makes me laugh out loud. Vladimir Nabokov, in his 1950s Cornell lecture on Mansfield Park (published in Lectures on Literature, 1980) ends by reflecting upon Jane Austen’s style, and particularly what he calls “the epigrammatic intonation, a certain terse rhythm in the witty expression of a slightly paradoxical thought. The tone of voice is terse and tender, dry and yet musical, pithy but limpid and light.”

That style is what gives endless pleasure to readers of her novels, not the “life lessons” touted by Brownstein and Deresiewicz. Austen’s style is what is lacking in film or TV adaptations of her novels, however faithful they are to the dialogue and the plot. So in the 2008 BBC version of Persuasion, Sir Walter is portrayed as a vain snob, just as Jane Austen declares him to be, but not as foolishly comic, which her irony renders him. Underpinning the style is her command of language, the acuity of her observations, her finely nuanced moral sensibility and her natural wit.

All six of her novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry. To find “lessons” in them is to lose sight of them as comedies of manners, in which bad behaviour keeps breaking out.

Gulp. If I were a braver man, one that didn’t fear having his head removed in a snarling flash of teeth, I might meekly raise my hand at this point and venture a query: Couldn’t the reader possibly do… both? Is it really an either/or dichotomy? Might it not even be conceivable that readers who initially approach The Great Works with the base aim of pilfering some self-centered lessons might find themselves captivated by the exposure to a different perspective and sticking around for genuine learning? (I’ve suggested as much before.) Kitson says without elaborating that she reads for “pleasure”, which I take to mean pleasure in the artistry, but why is that inherently superior to the more mundane pleasure of self-improvement? What about those of us who fail to be impressed overmuch by Austen’s rhythm and tone even after having it called to our attention? Are we possessed of a ghastly deficiency, or have we simply frittered away the evenings in dissolute tomfoolery when we should have been attending to Nabokov’s Cornell lecture?

Sometimes I suspect that this is all just a lingering inheritance from the good old days of aristocracy, and the real affront here is the artlessness of naked ambition, the gauche grasping after personal advancement, the sweat that accompanies striving. You’re supposed to act as if you were born knowing this sort of thing, you peon. Now get back to sweeping my chimney.

Which also reminds me of something from Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason:

Middlebrow culture, which began in organized fashion with the early nineteenth century lyceum movement – when no one thought of culture in terms of “brows” – and extended through the fat years of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1950s and early 1960s, was at heart a culture of aspiration. Its aim was not so much to vanquish the culture of the gutter, although that was part of the idea, as to offer a portal to something more elevated.

[…] We did indeed, as (Virginia) Woolf observed disgustedly, have “pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters” on our walls; my mother’s taste ran to Van Gogh, Renoir, and Degas, I can still see the Degas ballerinas who adorned my bedroom walls, and it would not surprise me if that early exposure to middlebrow reproductions had something to do with a passion for art that did not emerge until my mid-twenties.

[…] The distinctive feature of American middlebrow culture was its embodiment of the old civic credo that anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself. Many uneducated lowbrows, particularly immigrants, cherished middlebrow values: the millions of sets of encyclopedias sold door to door from the twenties through the fifties were often purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing. Remnants of earnest middlebrow striving survive today among various immigrant groups, but the larger edifice of middlebrow culture, which once encompassed Americans of many social classes as well as ethnic and racial backgrounds, has collapsed. The disintegration and denigration of the middlebrow are closely linked to the political and class polarization that distinguishes the current wave of anti-intellectualism from the popular suspicion of highbrows and eggheads that has always, to a greater or lesser degree, been a part of the American psyche. What has been lost is an alternative to mass popular culture, imbibed unconsciously and effortlessly through the audio and video portals that surround us all. What has been lost is the culture of effort.

[…] I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude and regret rather than condescension not because the Book-of-the-Month club brought works of genius into my life but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers were one of the many sources that encouraged me to seek a wider world. In our current infotainment culture, in which every consumer’s opinion is supposed to be as good as any critic’s, it is absurd to imagine that a large commercial entity would attempt to use an objective concept of greatness as a selling point for anything. That people should aspire to read and think about great books, or even aspire to being thought of as the sort of person who reads great books, is not a bad thing for a society.