N is for Not Much! (Plus Thoughts on Readership, History, and Individual Choice)

I assumed that "X" would provide me with the fewest authors. I never anticipated that my "N" list would be so short!

Nabokov, Vladimir: I have never read Lolita though I did read a fascinating book about it.

Norton, Andre: Andre Norton is a fantasy writer that I desperately, desperately wanted to love as I teen. There were just so many of her books in the library! Fall in love with one: a whole world awaits.

Alas, I tried--then tried again--and again. Unfortunately, Norton's books don't grab me. However--

Norton is an excellent example of the ultimate failure of literary criticism: liking has little to do with judging. 

Far too many times, critics insist, "If I don't like something personally, it must be because it is no good." Reasoning from the personal to the general is a survival mechanism. It is also unreliable.

Yet we humans remain perfect little Victorians, insisting that today, right now, in us, is the objective best of times and worst of times; in the latter case, we become subject, as Eugene states, to "the near-universal idea, especially beloved on the academic left, that there existed a point in [the past] when All Was Good"
The fascinating mural from Criminal Minds that contains
overlapping elements of a single person's life.

One Summer by Bill Bryson captures the reality: dig into history at any one point in time--1927, 1803, 321 B.C.E.--and thousand of events begin to crowd themselves onto the stage of one's brain. Prohibition, Babe Ruth, Mount Rushmore, Herbert Hoover, Mississippi Floods, President Coleridge, Lindbergh, Al Capone. Murder cases. Political rallies. Political backstabbing. Boxers. Random people sitting on flagpoles. Model A Fords. Eventually, there's too much. Even Bill Bryson can't handle it all.

Did I mention Mount Rushmore?

Humans (not just historians) smooth it all out, highlight the important stuff, slide names into biographies, and move on. How else could we cope with life's complications? (It is unfortunate that the result of this necessary leveling is a belief that "life really was like that.")

Back to literary criticism:

Likewise, although a case can be made for a book being "good" or "bad" (and I am advocate of making the case)--the unreliable habits of readers indicate how little that literary criticism matters in people's personal lives. On Amazon, beloved popular series almost all have 4/5 stars (A-). That doesn't mean readers will find the series in a bookstore. And on IMDB, over time, everything eventually rates a "B" (with a few outliers on either side), no matter how popular (or personally beloved).

One of my favorite books growing up.
The book has 14 other fans on Amazon.
It is also out of print.
There are plenty of books that I love that other people happen to love too. There are also plenty of books that I love without any expectation that they will be beloved by anyone else. Along the same lines, Andre Norton isn't my cup of tea. If you follow the above link, you will find that she is plenty of other people's. Good for her!

As far as literary enjoyment is concerned, "taste" rather than "good" or "bad" seems to determine not what lasts (gets streamlined) but what matters in everyday life. In one of his tomes,
Stephen Pinker argues that evolutionary psychology (examining the rise and fall of civilizations from a macro point of view) explains a great deal and would appear to wipe out the need for free will. But he argues (I am paraphrasing), isn't it better for us in our day to day lives to behave as if free-will exists?

I would add--because, after all, that's what going to happen anyway. 

In the day to day, people make choices--career choices, marriage choices, housing choices, pet choices, reading choices, viewing choices--that belong to them alone. Hence everything--from literature to civilizations--remains messy. Until enough time has passed--the rough edges get smoothed out, and the important events (or books) rise to the surface: the macro appears.

But thinking that we know the macro while we are living in the micro--that's where the little Victorian in all of us insists on taking a nosedive into the void.

Better to make the best choices you can, live by the moral code you've selected, and read what you want. The macro will take care of itself. 

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