100 - On Popular Authors - Moral Letters for Modern Times
I have told you, Deuteros, to spend your spare time in reading to train your mind. That you should read widely and well, sampling many authors across time. That when you read, you should seek to make the lessons more than fleeting by taking them to yourself, for example by summarizing them in your own words. In time, you will be able to build your own new structures using the materials you have stored in your warehouse.
I may have left you with the impression that your leisure reading must be on weighty subjects by serious authors if you are to add value to your stores. No doubt you gain from studying the greats, because these will give you strong foundations to build upon, steel girders that can hold the weight of the tallest towers. But remember that the materials abundant in most buildings are more common stuff: walls and ceilings made of drywall, concrete blocks, and bricks and mortar.
No matter whether you expect to learn the most from the masters, it is worth considering why the less serious topics and more popular authors have such reach. Why do they sell books in such abundance, and how do they keep their readers eagerly clamoring for more? The academic dismisses these questions easily because they know that critical acclaim is no indication of correctness.
Indeed, the worst insult a certain type of scientist can levy on a colleague is that they are a mere popularizer of science, and not substantive in themselves. But I ask you, what is wrong with making something understandable to many? Writing on complex topics in a manner that only a few can decipher is no great feat and not uncommon. It is a far greater task and eventual accomplishment to take a complex topic and make it understandable to all.
For the moment, let us ensure we are not ourselves snobs, but ready to take wisdom wherever we find it. Is there wisdom to be found in the best-seller list, and if so, why? At this moment I expect you are calling to mind all the times I told you to avoid the self-help aisle like an active minefield. Though I gave you permission to sneak one or the other volume from these explosively dangerous shelves, am I now giving up my caution by opening the shopping cart to this year’s summer read?
I think it is a mistake to dismiss Stephen King as no more than “America’s schlockmeister,” even though he himself says he is resigned to this fate, or to say that J.K. Rowling is not serious because she writes of wizards and magic. Do we value less Elmore Leonard’s gift just because he wrote crime fiction? Michael Lewis writes no fiction at all, but do we relegate him to the top of the display of “popular titles” because he writes individual vignettes tied loosely together rather than weaving tightly wound grand tapestries?
What do all these authors have in common? Stephen King delves into our deepest fears. What he finds there is not pleasant, but can anyone deny that it is a true reflection of what lies hidden within humankind? J.K. Rowling spins daydreams, fantasy, and wish-fulfillment into epic tales shot through with darkness, suffering, and pain. This combination of the delightful with the spoiled, the pure with the soiled, is no less true than Stephen King’s visions.
Elmore Leonard had a gift for writing dialogue so true to life that you felt yourself a bystander in every scene. You feel less like you are reading an Elmore Leonard novel than living it alongside the characters. Michael Lewis’s gift is to see the uniqueness in each individual, and to let them speak in their own voice. By shining a spotlight on so many individual foibles and peccadillos, we have a chance to recognize ourselves in others.
The thread tying them all together is that they speak honestly and truly about the human condition and about our emotions: what we long for, what we fear, what makes us angry, sad, and happy. You would think that because we all feel these emotions, it would be a trivial matter for an author to describe them honestly without omission or exaggeration. And yet it is rare.
Do I take away some of your enjoyment when I tell you to take a lesson from your reading? I would say do not let me detract from such pleasant times, read and enjoy what you are reading. But if you would be a sincere student and not just idle away your hours without profit, then periodically stop and ask yourself why. Why did you enjoy that last chapter so much, and why did that other disturb you? What was it exactly that transported you effortlessly from your couch to another world? The answers to these questions will give you insights into the human condition, but even more so into your own condition.
Your own condition varies from day to day, though you may feel always like the same person. Has it ever happened that a book you loved suddenly turns odious and you find yourself loathe to pick it up, let alone finish it? Has the author turned treacherous, or is it you who has come into a different state of mind? Both are possible, and you will know the truth if you are mindful in your reading.
By using your reading as a mirror into your own thoughts, you train yourself to pay attention to your mind. This helps form the conditions for following the reason of your well-ordered mind in other things. In this way your reading for pleasure will be no less useful to you than your most dutiful studies. If the latter teaches us what we should do, the former can help guide us in how to do it.