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1991: Jesse S. Crisler - "Out of the Best Books": A Taste for the Great, a Taste for the Marginal


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1991: Jesse S. Crisler - "Out of the Best Books": A Taste for the Great, a Taste for the Marginal

J Crisler

Jesse S. Crisler combined his specialties in Frank Norris, adolescent literature, and humor with student reactions derived from several years of introducing them to little known literary figures to develop the twenty-ninth McKay lecture in 1991. A faculty member in English at Brigham Young University-Hawaii since 1982, Crisler taught previously at Kansas State University and Coker College and was headmaster at two private academies in South Carolina. After graduating with a B.A. from Trinity University in 1969, he earned his Ph.D. at the University of South Carolina in 1973. A co-founder of the Frank Norris Society, Crisler co-edits Frank Norris Studies, co-authored Frank Norris: A Reference Guide (1974), and edited Norris's letters as Frank Norris: Collected Letters (1986). A National Endowment for the Humanities grant to participate in the Institute on Children's Literature at the University of Connecticut in 1983 ignited an interest in adolescent fiction, while presentations at various international conferences fueled an attraction to humor studies, which culminated in Ho'omake'aka: Laughter in Paradise, the Seventh International Conference on Humor, which he co-chaired at BYUH in 1989. Recently released as a campus bishop, Crisler has also served as a high councilor, high priest group leader, Young Men's president, and branch president. Married to a classmate at Trinity, he and Lou Ann, a special instructor in music at BYUH, have six living children--Lil, Loren, Linsey, Lane, Lance, and Lyman--and a deceased son, Lyon.


Before beginning, I would like to acknowledge for their friendship and support my wife, Lou Ann, my children, my niece, and my mother, who arrived Tuesday night. A few thank-yous are also in order to several people who have provided assistance in various ways. These include Professors Preston Larson, Dale Robertson, Lance Chase, Margaret Baker, Chris Crowe, Jim Walker, and Ed Jensen, as well as Glenn Kau and John Olszowka. I am especially appreciative of my secretary, Liu Toelupe, whose unfailing good cheer makes many things bearable. Finally, I am grateful to Lou Ann. A few weeks ago, while I was laboring to abbreviate the lecture to a reasonable size, she cheerfully sang out from the kitchen where she was baking Christmas goodies, "Is it getting tighter?" I answered, "Well, it's shorter," to which she commented, "A good lecture is like a good recipe: if you leave out any ingredients, you get an inedible product, but if you put in too many, you sound like a fruitcake." Keeping that in mind, I proceed.

Consider for a moment five recollections from an English teacher's past. Two decades ago, a young graduate student, under the inspired tutelage of Morse Peckham, a distinguished specialist in Victorian literature, enrolled in an independent study course on George Eliot, that master of trenchant, luxuriant, lapidary prose. Besides weekly meetings when they intensively reviewed the voluminous material regularly prepared by the student, Dr. Peckham also graciously extended an invitation to visit his home one evening for a session devoted to music from Eliot's period. Since Peckham had confined all previous classes to his back porch, the student eagerly awaited this unexpected opportunity to step inside his mentor's personal sanctum as an occasion for sharing the intellectual challenges inevitably generated by the eminent scholar's profound observations; that his wife's sphere of interest was music naturally only intensified his growing anticipation. The portentous evening ultimately arrived. A tentative knock on Peckham's ornately carved, vaguely Spanish door admitted them into a room teeming with rarities reflecting a lifetime of cultivated indulgence: Sèvres vases, Ming jade, Peruvian silver, Dresden figurines, even a delicate but sturdily functional Shaker chair. Peckham escorted the awestruck couple to a Federalist love seat covered in alternate swaths of cream and mauve chintz, facing Chippendale and Danish modern chairs across an Aubusson carpet. On one wall hung an intricately woven Flemish tapestry; vivid yellow damask drapes concealed another; lush paintings from various artistic periods partially covered a third wall, which also boasted a floor-to-ceiling oak bookcase laden with scores of the world's great books, bound in expensive Morocco; the room, finally, opened through heavy brocade portières and shimmering varicolored glass beads to the familiar back porch, now magically transformed into a romantic world of graceful Southern living by strategically placed Chinese lanterns and quietly hissing kerosene torches. A Pepperidge Farm ladyfinger in one hand and a crystal sherbet of iced ginger ale in the other, the callow student lapsed into contented ecstasy, as he rapturously listened to Peckham's musical selections. As even good things must, this wondrous night ended, and the pair departed from what the impressionable graduate student realized had been a richly fulfilling soirée in a small but sumptuous living museum. But his reverie was short-lived: no sooner had he started their vintage Rambler than his wife indignantly huffed, "The man has no taste!"

The second vignette occurred a few years later. Upon completing his doctorate, the graduate student accepted a position at a nearby school. One day, his mail included a letter from his wife's venerable Aunt Fan, an impeccably elegant lady who garnished her exquisite cuisine with brilliant conversation. A member of a book club which had decided they "needed" to read the best novel ever written, she sought its title. Armed with all the wisdom of his twenty-six years, the young teacher promptly settled on Eliot's Middlemarch (1872), quickly found a long paper he had once written which amply demonstrated the book's claim to greatness, and immediately dispatched it to Aunt Fan and the "ladies of the club" (Santmyer).

A Faculty Salon, held last year, serves as backdrop for the third memory. The discussion of historian Barbara Tuchman's marvelous final work, America's First Salute (1988), had yielded scintillating general results, in turn sparking several conversations over refreshments. One in particular involved two English professors. Said the first, "We ought to consider a novel for a future salon," to which the other responded, "Yes, but it should be something very readable which will appeal to specialists in other fields, perhaps even a collection of short stories by someone interesting, such as Flannery O'Connor." The first rejoined, "She's excellent, of course, but sometimes grotesque. How about a novel by a Mormon?" The answer came speedily, pointedly, and unequivocally: "Oh, I don't think so"; the first retorted just as quickly, directly, and absolutely: "Why not? Many Mormon novelists are currently writing, and some are very good. Consider Jack Weyland, for example." "I haven't read anything by him yet" was the less certain reply, which elicited a telling riposte, "I have, and you should. He's solid, fluent, and, what's more, good." The conversation abruptly ended when the second colleague roundly asserted, "But I don't want to read him."

A young child figures prominently in the fourth remembrance. As bedtime approached, a small boy wheedled his father into reading him a story. Acquiescing, father followed son to his bedroom where they examined the many books displayed in the bookcase. As the father's confident hand grasped the spine of a quaint volume of lore forgotten from his own childhood, the boy firmly restrained him. "Not that one," he said; "This one." The father answered somewhat peevishly, "We've read that one many, many times. Let's try a different book tonight. Besides, you know that story by heart." But the boy's eloquently simple rebuttal irresistibly prevailed: "I know I know it. That's why I like it."

The last incident happened only recently. Head bent over a paperback, a professor strolled through TVA. The query, "What are you reading?" lifted his eyes from the book's engrossing pages to a student's friendly face. Sensing a "teaching moment," he mentioned the title and launched into a hurried but entertaining outline of the book's plot, its occasion, its interest to himself, and its literary value. The student interrupted his professor's explanation in peremptory astonishment: "You mean you're not teaching this?" "No, why?" came a response clearly as surprised as the student's. This question evoked yet more amazement from the student, who blurted, "Then you don't have to read it? I mean, it's not required or anything?"

Taken individually, these recollections suggest specific reactions, depending on the age, education, and circumstance of whoever hears them; taken collectively, they prompt a nexus of related questions: what had the inexperienced graduate student yet to learn concerning taste that his wife already intuitively knew; can one novel ever be "the best," and, if so, who is qualified to judge it; has Mormon literature at last "arrived," to take a place among the "best that is known and thought in the world" (Arnold 832); is one story or book better than another merely because we like it more; and, why does a person read at all, especially if he is not "required" to? Perhaps, the place to begin reviewing these questions and others connected to them lies with the last: why do we read? For once we understand the reasons behind the perennial injunction by teachers in every profession to read, we can in turn consider the need to cultivate taste or discrimination in order, first, to determine what constitutes "great" literature, and then to recognize and defend that reading, great or not, which most appeals to us.

In the foreword to Good Reading, Carl Carmer, Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Committee on College Reading, recalls a time during his childhood when his mother's friend, Mrs. Cole, "one spring day. . . ushered [him] into her library. 'My children have grown up,' she said, 'and there is no one to enjoy these books any more. I don't see well enough, and Mr. Cole reads new books. Come to this room as often as you like. I'm not going to tell you what to read here. Find out for yourself'" ([10]). A true story no doubt, yet Carmer's anecdote provides a remarkable example of life imitating art; in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868), Mr. Laurence performs a similar service for Jo March by permitting her to roam his library "voraciously" (74). That these two tales, one real, one fictional, echo each other is interesting but hardly significant; of far greater importance is what they reveal about their respective protagonists: both had already discovered a love of reading before they gained unlimited access to an extensive library.

This is fortunate, since, as Eudora Welty remembers in her charming literary reminiscence, One Writer's Beginnings (1984), sometimes not only libraries but also librarians hamper rather than nurture a child's fledgling reading efforts. Welty's description of herself as a child in Jackson, Mississippi, doggedly accepting the draconian rules governing usage of the public library manned by Mrs. Calloway, its commanding officer, would be humorous if it did not tragically mirror the regrettable state of many libraries in the early decades of this century, a time when some people still mistakenly venerated books as physical objects to own rather than as beckoning passports to knowledge or adventure. Like the librarian in Betty Smith's moving tale of triumph over slum life in New York, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Mrs. Calloway actually had no more interest in her patrons than has the librarian "who hated children anyhow" in Francie Nolan (25). No one, including the precocious Eudora, could check out more than two books per visit, and no one, furthermore, could return a book to the library the same day on which it had been checked out (Welty One 30). Says Welty, "I knew [reading] was bliss, knew it at the time. . . . I wanted to read immediately. The only fear was that of books coming to an end" (One 30).

The question, then, is not, as many educators have asked since the 1960s, why can't Johnny read (Flesch); no, the real enigma is, why Johnny--or Carl Carmer, or Jo March, or Eudora Welty, or Francie Nolan, or Lois Swapp, or Preston Larson, or Lanette Thornock, or Lil Crisler--reads? Any of us can supply a legion of reasons to account for someone's non-reading, ranging from the pernicious evils of television to the uninviting architecture of most libraries. But discovering why Johnny, despite the overwhelming societal odds mitigating against his ever becoming a "reader," yet persists in developing a reading routine, proves far more elusive. Most of us possibly remember a beloved teacher, who, motivated by the best of good intentions, periodically quoted a long dead author regarding the necessity of reading and one's responsibility to read well. A favorite, surely, was Thoreau, whose charge to "read. . . deliberately" has been thrust at generations of students (92); another may have been the Victorian word smith, John Ruskin, who astutely surmises that "life being very short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books" ("Preface" 33).

But does a quotation fervently imparted in our youth adequately account for the impassioned commitment some of us maintain to reading? In 1892, William Dean Howells, a highly influential nineteenth-century American novelist, entitled one of his lesser works An Imperative Duty; do we regard reading as a kind of literary "imperative"? Historically, our culture has accepted imperatives--the Mosaic Decalogue (Ex. 20: 3-17), Homer's ancient command to Calliope to "sing. . . the wrath of Achilles Peleus' son" (1), the gentle mandates of Christ in the New Testament, or the optatives in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Such directives conceivably explain the adoption by many of the reading habit: simply put, we read because we have been told to--to obey is both human and divine.

Still, following a commandment, regardless of our esteem for its issuer, obviously does not constitute the sole reason for reading. If asked to supply others, we could undoubtedly chorus, like highly disciplined members of a well-rehearsed choir, one or more traditional and serviceable responses. Welty, for example, nostalgically labels her experience "a sweet devouring," recalling that the "pleasures of reading itself--who doesn't remember--were like those of a Christmas cake" ("Sweet" 486), while the great Mortimer Adler, like Isaac Asimov, a literary "renaissance" man, terms the classics "inexhaustible" as "sources of enlightenment" (19). A second reason for reading, then, is that it furnishes savory amusement: we read because we enjoy it. A quick poll of a few faculty members in the Language, Literature, and Communications Division confirms this explanation. Their immediate answers to the question, why do you read, basically reveal variations on the theme of diversion.

Yet not everyone reads simply to obtain pleasure; a fair amount of reading occurs, as Adler intimates, to acquire facts (19). Recent findings indicate that many adolescents, especially those whose acquaintance with reading may still be embryonic, actually prefer informative non-fiction (Beers), a situation substantiated at our house where the arrival of the latest National Geographic causes a greater stir than does the newest issue of The Friend or The New Era, despite their entertaining stories.

A fourth reason for reading centers on a desire to become conversant with what the educated world deems the "great books." Remembering an exuberant sophomore, who dropped by my office years ago to discuss his intention to read the best books I could recommend, reminds me of my own sophomoric fear that I would complete high school without having read all the novels I might be expected to know thoroughly in college. Such worry persists: not long ago my septuagenarian mother-in-law requested a list of books one should have read during a lifetime, so that she and some friends could complete it, lest they die before finishing their task. Evidently, we also read to receive the silent approval of dead authors--a kind of historical pathetic fallacy.

Related to this reason is a fifth, the chance to learn from the experiences of others, to participate vicariously in the life of someone else, whether a fictional character or an author himself. As Julian Barnes perceptively comments in his recent novel, Flaubert's Parrot (1984), "books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren't. I'm not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life" (190-191). Benjamin Franklin's playful couplet, "either write things worth reading,/Or do things worth the writing" gives added support to reading as a solid means for sharing what others have considered crucial to them (194).

Reading also exposes us to the great questions which have inflamed thinkers since time began. In ascertaining how others have answered such questions, we not only hone our own reactions to them, but we also join ourselves to a living continuum of philosophical speculation, forging links in a chain stretching far beyond our puny attempts to conceive its ends. That we reach conclusions less profound than those of someone preceding us in biblio-history matters not. Again, Barnes provides comfort: "if all your responses to a book have already been duplicated and expanded upon by a professional critic, then what point is there to your reading? Only that it's yours" (188). A professor in graduate school taught me a valuable lesson which echoes Barnes. Casting about for a suitable dissertation topic, I lamented that many seemingly excellent subjects had already been treated, to which he instantaneously replied, "But you haven't done them. Surely, your interpretation is valid and necessary, if only to yourself." Thus, some of us read because we think, and we want to know what others have thought.

For others, reading is a spiritual activity. An anonymous homilist succinctly observes that reading makes us feel "whole and holy." If clothes make the man, clearly reading makes the mind. It presents, as Clifton Fadiman lucidly articulates, "larger dimensions. It is rather like what is offered by loving and marrying, having and rearing children, [or] carving out a career" (10). The mental rigor reading supplies surpasses in difficulty any merely physical contest, but the rich rewards it bestows endure forever.

Amanda Cross, pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun, a gifted professor of English at Columbia University, proffers a kindred reason for reading through an observation by Frederick Clemance, a minor character in her early mystery, Poetic Justice (1970): "'I expect I was so drawn to literature from the beginning because it is the only way man creates worlds: his godlike faculty'" (156). Perhaps, this is the end towards which most explanations examined thus far have been tending: at a deep, subconscious, primal level, we read because of a theomorphic yearning to construct our own global creations. As members of the Church, we must remember that only seven million people today know that we actually can one day enjoy this divine ability; for the rest of the world such a possibility remains precisely that--a possibility, one impossibly craved, improbably cherished, but also continuously fed through reading. Man conjures for himself the world in which he most desires to dwell. If skilful enough, he also describes it, as did Plato, Sir Thomas More, or Samuel Butler; failing that solution, he resorts to reading about the "utopias" of others, thereby assuaging his own creative propensities in worlds imagined beyond his most unimaginable imaginings.

This penultimate reason for reading leads ineluctably to one final cause: reading offers an enviable interest in man's collective memory through the marvels of storytelling; of all the theories advanced, this is surely the most fundamental. Although in their seminal study, Voices of Readers (1988), Carlsen and Sherrill propose that a "love of reading is inborn" (xi), they supply little evidence for their putative conclusion; what seems far more probable is that the desire for story is innate. Indeed, Reynolds Price sees the human need for story as "essential. . . second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative" (3). To comprehend totally the elemental truth of Price's supposition, one need only recall the oral tales of youth, still etched deeply on memory's walls, to remember pleasant moments passed in the company of talented raconteurs, or to hear the lyrical beginnings of formal written stories such as these:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . (Dickens 13);

At dawn one still October day in the long ago of the world, across the hill of Alderley, a farmer from Mobberly was riding to Macclesfield fair (Garner 1);

You don't know about me, without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' but that ain't no matter (Twain 17);

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit (Tolkein 15);

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife (Austen 9);

It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love (Márquez 3).

Whether we embrace or reject these statements matters little: if they appeal to us, we instantly long for more of what they introduce; conversely, if we dispute what we have read or heard, the stories have still won the match, for we will now read on, hoping to discover more to contest.

Thus, a love of story, and, therefore, the love of reading story, is deathless: even when a story ends sadly, as some must, the reader can freely begin the story anew, once again mining its opulent treasures. David Eddings concludes the brief "Prologue" to his fantasy, Castle of Wizardry (1984), with tantalizing insight: "And thus the account should be ended. But no true account can ever end" (7). Our own experiences dictate concurrence. The best stories are told and re-told, as the frequent recapitulation of Arthurian legends instructively reveals. Malory, Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, Tennyson, T. H. White, Mary Stewart, Katherine Paterson--to name a few--have all transferred their intellectual bondage to Arthur into words which continue to capture others. The same applies to ancient stories in the Old Testament, like that of Noah (Gen. 6: 13-8: 20), which crops up in the creation myths of many disparate cultures, to the parables taught by Jesus, to the immortal mythology of Greece and Rome, as Edith Hamilton has so brilliantly demonstrated in her Mythology (1940), and to classic folklore and fairy tales, such as "Cinderella," whose avatars appear in countless languages.

In fact, historically speaking, society traditionally pays homage to storytellers. For example, Homer, one of the earliest and most honored of that élite company, frequently interrupts his narrative to exercise his own passion for story by allowing Nestor, an august warrior of advanced age, to relate tales of his youth which tellingly parallel the problems besetting the Achaeans in their lengthy attempt to rescue Helen from Troy. In Richard Adams's famous novel, Watership Down (1972), the beleaguered rabbits, when distressed, instinctively turn to Dandelion, one of the wisest in their little band of vagabonds and easily the best storyteller, who regales them with tales of the triumph of wily El-Ahrairah, the epic hero of their race, over seemingly impossible odds. In the Book of Mormon, each historian not only implicitly understands the respect accorded him as the next keeper of the increasingly valuable plates but also faithfully executes that trust; even Omni, after bemoaning his personal iniquity--"I of myself am a wicked man, and I have not kept the statues and the commandments of the Lord"--faultlessly discharges his public duty by rigidly complying with one of those sacred directives: "I. . . kept these plates according to the commandments of my fathers; and I conferred them on my son" (Omni 1: 2-3).

Just as society has honored storytellers, so have they safeguarded their art and its tools, that is, words and the documents made from them. That Chaucer, greatest of medieval poets, considered himself, foremost, the "servant" of the word, a guardian of "'olde bookes'" or "'old stories'" (Koff 37), and that other tellers of tales both before and since have taken their self-imposed tasks as seriously as did their Book of Mormon counterparts should hardly astound us. After all, in John we learn that "in the beginning was the Word" (John 1: 1), an obvious allusion to Jesus Christ, but also a covert disclosure that Christ, his Father, and the Word itself are one, for of all religions, Judaeo-Christianity is "word-centered" (Postman 9). It depends for its unifying synthesis not on "graven images," not on pantheistic worship of the elements, not on indiscriminate belief in animism, not even on eremitic contemplation of a final, mysterious end after a soul's innumerable resurrections through Karma; no, it depends on the "word"--unadorned, powerful, thrilling, omnipresent, and, ultimately, God-directed. Not surprisingly, of all religions, Judaeo-Christianity likewise first acquires its animus from words, and then perpetuates itself through its constant and various re-telling of stories not only concocted of the word but also infinitely reproduced in the Bible, in oral tradition, in worship services, even--perhaps especially--in temple ceremonies where they receive both their most reverent exposition and raptest attention. Not by accident does the Koran name Jews and Christians "the People of the Book" (3: 64). Within such a word-oriented cultural and religious background arose Chaucer and other great storytellers. Interestingly, however, these taletellers refused to confine their efforts solely to the ecclesiastical anecdotes so familiar to their Christianized audiences; they also imposed their religious beliefs on Greek and Roman myth, on Arthurian legend, and, to a certain extent, on Islamic fairy tales, resulting in a radiant agglomeration of story, firmly cohered, despite an overt diversity, by an intrusive devotion to the word itself by both imparters and recipients.

This important rôle of keeper of the word is no less viable today than in Chaucer's time, in Homer's day, in the Old Testament era, or in the Book of Mormon period, for virtually any printed or oral text still necessitates guides, directors, or interpreters. Furthermore, modern storytellers also protect their craft as jealously as Chaucer and others might have, and for identical, timeless purposes: to enliven human heritage, to publish cultural myth, to inspirit historical pasts, to forecast unknowable futures, to define confusing presents, to foil enervating materialism, to provide intellectual touchstones, to maintain linguistic purity, to present common mysteries, to transmit religious credence, to celebrate symbolic hagiography, to promote liberal education, to create original fables, and, preeminently, to repeat old stories. The true storyteller never wearies of reciting a tale, possibly because he varies it slightly in each repetition, or because he knows it fulfils inherent needs in his audience; nor does that audience tire of reading or hearing true stories. As Paterson sagely discloses in her children's novel, The Master Puppeteer (1975), that the inhabitants of feudal Japan already know by rote all the plays the puppets enact heightens rather than diminishes the infinite joy they derive from artful re-creations of immortal tales; the little boy's natural explanation to his father that he likes best to hear the stories he already knows subtly underscores this same principle.

Regardless of man's reason for reading, then, both storyteller, or author, and audience, or reader, relish an elegant performance. However, mere reading, or even the palpable enjoyment of it, seems inadequate: we must also accept the obligation to cultivate taste in selecting our reading, an obligation which our preceptors have labored to press on us since the cradle. And what is taste? Literary criticism abounds with possible answers. According to Ruskin, "taste. . . is the only morality. . . .Tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what you are" ("Traffic" 274), while his American contemporary, Edgar Allan Poe, in his now famous essay, "The Poetic Principle" (1850), defines taste as the "sole arbiter" for evaluating the beautiful (260). Some years earlier, Coleridge, the English Romantic, asserted that "taste is the intermediate faculty which connects the active with the passive powers of our nature, the intellect with the senses, and its appointed function is to elevate theimages of the latter, while it realizes the ideas of the former" (Principles 227). Arthur Henry King, a modern critic and member of the Church, avers that "taste means there is unity between what we judge to be good and what we like" (130). King's reference to judgment indeed becomes the element which unites these apparently disparate definitions, for judgment suggests decision or discrimination. In this regard, the declaration by the great English social historian, George M. Trevelyan, when commenting on the state of Western culture in 1942, that education "has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading" recalls the assessment voiced by the graduate student's exasperated wife concerning Dr. Peckham's cluttered house: "The man has no taste!" (582). Not a dislike of the magnificent luxuries contained in his home, but rather their ostentatious and indiscriminate array compelled her to reveal her own inbred good taste. Like Alicia in Mormon mystery writer Anne Perry's Resurrection Row (1981), she knew implicitly that "'art is very much a matter of taste,'" a useful fact which had so far escaped Peckham, notwithstanding the exotic treasures he had collected (76).

Carrying this concept one step further prompts the notion that taste also dictates predilection, since choice obviously entails preference (King 130). Hence, properly developed taste is vital for discriminating between the good and the bad at one end of the scale and the good and the best at the other (Perrine 224). When Mrs. Corey, a member of an old but penniless aristocratic Bostonian family in Howells's The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), expresses her chagrin over her son's probable courtship of the daughter of the nouveau riche Laphams by tersely stating, "there is a point where taste has to begin," she simply acknowledges her own inborn understanding of this incontrovertible premise (81). Fortunately for Mrs. Corey, the Laphams, especially their daughter, Penelope, are teachable--unsophisticated, gauche, even lumbering at times, but still teachable, as must we be if we are ever to acquire taste for ourselves. And taste we definitely must have in bounteous supply if we subscribe to the definitions just enunciated, since they imply that we must determine the acceptable, the worthwhile, the desirable, the best, offered by art generally, or by literature specifically.

Naturally, not all readers agree on what constitutes this elusive "best" in literature, as illustrated by the list of Nobel laureates which includes such salient authors as O'Neill, Pirandello, Faulkner, Yeats, Mann, Eliot, Sartre, and Singer--each a demonstrably gifted writer whose work can fittingly be classified as "great." But what of other Nobel recipients: Eucken, Jensen, Sillanpää, Kawabata, Seferis, Pontopidian, Carducci, Laxness? Are they also great; have their works exerted a lasting influence on world literature; or, in reality, are they anything now but trivial footnotes? Similarly, not all winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction receive universal acclaim today. Who, for example, has heard of Ernest Poole, Margaret Ayer Barnes, Martin Flavin, or Josephine Johnson? Clearly, the bestowal of an award does not categorically confirm greatness on a writer or his work, nor does its absence indicate his inferiority. James, Conrad, Pound, Stevens, Hardy, cummings, Fitzgerald, Lawrence, and other superior twentieth-century writers never won either prize, yet few would dispute the greatness of their respective work.

Besides mistakes in selecting the best authors to honor, peer evaluation has also erred in another respect. The list of books banned, outlawed, or burned at some point in their careers displays a woful lack of literary perception. For example, Caligula, one of Rome's most salacious emperors, ironically declared the Odyssey pernicious (Haight 3). In 1497, the ascetic reformer, Savanarola, burned the works of Dante in the famous Florentine "'bonfire of the vanities,'" while England banned Boccaccio's Decameron as late as 1954 (Haight 8-9). In 1597, Elizabeth I ordered all references to monarchical deposition excised from Shakespeare's Richard II; and the madness of another English king, George III, removed King Lear from the British stage during his reign in deference to the king's insanity (Haight 22). This reprehensible situation scarcely improved in the nineteenth century: Russia and, subsequently, the USSR have suppressed Balzac since 1850 (Haight 46); and British circulating libraries excluded Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895) and Eliot's Adam Bede (1859), the latter because it contained "'the vile outpourings of a lewd woman's mind'" (Haight 47, 52-53). Our own era reveals a similar proclivity for misinterpretation. New York dropped Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) from its list of books approved for state schools in 1957; in 1958, Vermont banished Sister Carrie (1900), a judgment still unreversed; the National Organization of Decent Literature, a pillar of literary paralysis, still condemns Madame Bovary (1857) and Nana (1880); and The Catcher in the Rye (1951) receives sporadic vilification (Haight 57, 70, 54, 101).

As these unconscionable rulings manifestly convey, perhaps great literature is not so much a matter of contemporary acceptance as of lasting judgment: that which remains longest deserves the greatest respect. Many literary critics accept this theory, arguing convincingly that no book qualifies for greatness until both the careful scrutiny of readers and the faithless vagaries of time have unquestionably established its unsullied reputation, as dowager Lady Fitzroy-Hammond in Perry's mystery obdurately affirms: "'Time is the thing--whatever has lasted, that is worth something! Old paintings, old houses, old blood,'" a list which could easily have included old books (76). But Alicia's spirited retort divulges the tautology of this standard argument: "'Pure survival alone is hardly a mark of virtue'" (Perry 76). If the critics be right, writers like Golding, Lessing, Momaday, Wilbur, and Albee are too recent to achieve greatness, but if Alicia prove correct, the test of time becomes meaningless for writers of evident merit, as Robert Frost, himself a great poet, attests in a review of a collection of poems by his contemporary, Amy Lowell: "It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound--that he will never get over it" (8). Like Frost, each of us who calls himself a reader remembers that ineffable moment when he discovered for himself some book--a so-called "classic," a recent best seller, a complete unknown--which he instantly knew without being coached was great.

Does this mean, then, that great literature rests purely on personal choice? Compilers of tables of the world's best books emphatically refute this suggestion. In The Lifetime Reading Plan, Fadiman assembles a hundred titles, "generally considered of prime importance and excellence" (17); in 1934, The Committee on College Reading first published its list of "100 Significant Books," formed of "a representative selection of . . . books well worth knowing" (85); and the "Great Books," developed in the Fifties by a distinguished gathering of scholars headed by Adler, probably the best read man of our century, contains fifty-one separate volumes. Of course, each of these collections is deceptive: Fadiman's hundred titles actually number over 213 separate works; the 100 Significant Books are roughly 235; and the Great Books comprise more than 250 individual works. Despite their hidden sizes, however, such enumerations, if read, presumably result in a sharpened ability to select "correct" books on one's own, or so Allan Bloom's controversial The Closing of the American Mind purports. Like others, Bloom recognizes the problems in determining precisely what the "good old Great Books" are, but he nevertheless champions their value (344). Were she alive today, Aunt Fan would definitely approve of the likes of Bloom.

Doubtless, any register of "great books" which Bloom might devise would closely approximate those of Fadiman, Adler, and others, just as the five-volume series, Out of the Best Books, so well known to Mormons during the Sixties, also features excerpts from the work of many "established" authors: Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Keats, Browning, Blake, Clekhov, Frost, Yeats, etc. It also includes "popular" writers such as Ogden Nash, Joyce Kilmer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Stephen Vincent Benét, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Kathleen Norris, as well as others, distinctly unfamiliar today, whose work nonetheless possesses significant literary merit like Mary Wilkins Freeman, John Woolman, and Sarah Orne Jewett. What it does not contain, surprisingly, considering its stated audience, the Relief Society, is many Mormon writers: Mormons are absent in volume one; only one, Eileen Gibbons Kump, appears in volume two, "partly," according to editors Clark and Thomas, "because we want to include some selections by L. D. S. authors" (300); volume three contains a poem by Edward L. Hart and excerpts from a play by Clinton F. Larsen; in volume four, the sampling is healthier--several poems by Carol Lynn Pearson, S. Dilworth Young, and Eliza R. Snow; a lone story by Jean C. Mizer graces volume five.

Thus, by a circuitous route, we arrive at the final question: what, precisely, does personal taste allow? Are we to shun Mormon literature, as both the professor at the Faculty Salon and the editors of Out of the Best Books essentially did, because of a kind of snobbish reverse provincialism which goes something like this: since Mormon authors are not "great" yet, I won't read them, nor will I attempt to divine what I may be forfeiting in summarily dismissing them. On the other hand, if rightly obtained taste permits us to determine for ourselves what we most appreciate--evidently the desired goal of list makers and anthologists--then cannot we extend our appreciation to Mormon or any other literature? The answer must be affirmative, but qualified by an overriding condition. We can like whatever we choose, but we are required, because of the good taste our reading has aided us in evolving, to explain our selections. Choices enjoin justification, a clarification of how our own preferences both relate to the canon of great books and of how they augment or, quite possibly, enhance it.

To illustrate, suppose one's biology professor in a moment of unbridled enthusiasm assigns Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859). Realizing the scientific nature of the book practically assures a new definition of "boredom," one approaches this assignment with distaste, electing to read the tome only because of a dutiful respect for authority. Unexpectedly, this decision yields dividends, as one discovers Darwin's consummate power to communicate his own voluptuous wonder in observing and reporting nature in the raw:

From experiments which I have tried, I have found that the visits of bees, if not indispensable, are at least highly beneficial to the fertilisation of our clovers; but humble-bees alone visit the common red clover (Trifolium pratense), as other bees cannot reach the nectar. Hence I have very little doubt, that if the whole genus of humble-bees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests; and Mr H. Newman, who has long attended to the habits of humble-bees, believes that 'more than two thirds of them are thus destroyed all over England.' Now the number of mice is largely dependent, as every one knows, on the number of cats; and Mr Newman says, 'Near villages and small towns I have found the nests of humble-bees more numerous than elsewhere which I attribute to the number of cats that destroy the mice.' Hence it is quite credible that the presence of a feline animal in large numbers in a district might determine, through the intervention first of mice and then of bees, the frequency of certain flowers in that district! (125)

Here is a scientist at work, obviously, but here is also a proficient, logical, engaging writer. He may not be an Eliot, a Dickens, or a Thackeray, his novelistic contemporaries in Victorian England, yet he writes for purposes altogether different from theirs. Apprehending this fact, the appreciative reader of Darwin also understands that his reading storehouse would be measurably emptier had he balked at his professor's assignment. His expediently cultivated taste, serendipitously for him, permits recognition of valuable, if improbable, literature whenever he encounters it.

Though hypothetical, this experience with Darwin represents exactly what occurs when most of us select our favorite books: either because we have perused it or have gained familiarity with it by other means, we possess a fairly firm idea of what is considered great, and, further, much of this body we may like; but we have additionally formed definite opinions about other literature which we also esteem. For example, I have often found myself arguing passionately for a revaluation of such writers as John Gay, Christopher Smart, or Harold Frederic, whose work I admire, but who I know are regarded as marginal. Other literature which many critics consider decidedly second-rate also captivates me, such as young adult novels, Mormon fiction, humor studies, a few mysteries, and a smattering of modern fantasy. Indeed, my most abiding literary interest, Frank Norris, to whom I have devoted a sizeable chunk of my academic career, is still routinely omitted by some imperceptive college anthologists. Thus, my own literary preferences have forced me to contemplate my attraction to these marginal areas, especially when, for lack of "world enough and time" (Marvell 82), I sometimes guiltily think I ought to read solely those same great books so hallowed by Adler. Make no mistake here. I denigrate not the canon: it stands unassailably on its own merits. But frequent musings on this subject have generated the certainty that marginal literature also justly commands attention. A book deserves to be read on its author's terms initially. If those terms fail, we have lost only time, but if they succeed, we have gained eternity, simply because seeking the marginal and vindicating its allure lead to several healthy results for readers, including the intellectual aggression necessary to defend our favorites and, paradoxically, the willing acceptance of what others prefer, even though we may dislike it, mainly because we recall our own kindred fascination with similar fringe material.

Of course, not everyone blithely adopts the philosophy of a taste for the marginal. In The New Industrial State (1967), John Kenneth Galbraith writes that a "man who lives close to the margin of subsistence must spend to exist and what he spends is spent. A man with ample income can save" (5). Galbraith implies that saving is the more desirable state, as it undoubtedly is to economists. But his implication begs the larger, more consequential question: in which state is one better off, more productive, more secure, more at ease, in sum, more at one with self? Is it not the former? As the person close to the "margin of subsistence" expends his earnings, he does so carefully, not profligately. Having little, he gives sedulous consideration to where his money goes. Since he can ill afford life's luxuries, life's necessities become riches, and he revels in them, knowing that his small wealth permits their infinitesimal but steady acquisition. The constant impedimenta of money he does not have stifle him not a whit, unlike the man who must shepherd his savings: if meager, he must hoard it; if vast, he must validate its use. Like E. M. Forster in his minor masterpiece, "My Wood," the saver suffers the consequences of property--heaviness, avarice, guilt, and selfishness (330-332). Happy the man who is, instead, on the margin, for to him life extends lavish bounties, leaving abundant time for the important, the real business of living. Truly, a marginal life provides more options for speculation, mystery, creativity, credulity, originality, magic, and individuality, concepts Thoreau must have envisioned when he announced, "I love a broad margin to my life" (101).

Recently, award-winning Mormon author, Donald R. Marshall, published a beguiling children's book entitled Enchantress of Crumbledown (1990), in which four runaway foster children team with a sanatorium fugitive for a few "brief shining moments" of blissful freedom in an abandoned shanty, nestled in a small wood. They literally have nothing, save an existence in which nature, intellect, beauty, truth, excellence, and, above all, effort are more significant than money. Idealistic and impractical? Yes. Beneficial and rewarding? Also, yes. To belittle a taste for the marginal whether in literature, learning, or life bespeaks a pusillanimous spirit, for such a taste is no less commendable than is a respect for the great, provided that one not only comprehends the fruit of that taste or respect but can also justify both. To these ends, let us read pleasurably, revere story, develop critical taste, sample great literature, investigate possible personal compensation in the marginal, and find lasting comfort in our own literary preferences, remembering that the Lord's admonition to "seek ye out of the best books" refers to more than scripture (D & C 88: 118). To paraphrase a luminous observation by Coleridge, "not the [book] which we have read, but that to which we return, with the greatest pleasure possesses the genuine power, and claims the name of essential [literature]" (Biographia 14).

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