I live for the day when some person who’s regarded as an arbiter of cultural taste is asked to name their favorite books. “I know you’re expecting an answer like Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, but, truth be told, the one story that really sums up the human condition for me is issue number 55 of The Amazing Spider-Man.” They then proceed to deliver a literate, succinct defense of their preference which would do credit to an Oxford professor’s deconstruction of Beowulf. I know this might sound weird, but then I also hope for the day when the consumers of culture, and not a coterie of critics, decide what they want to read, see, and hear.
Hidden treasures are what make looking for materials on the Mid-Manhattan Library’s Art and Literature floor so interesting. Three-quarters of the books and DVDs that people request will be about art and plays and architecture and novels and cartoons and poems and buildings I’ve never heard of until today. That’s why it’s interesting to flip through the pages of each book that’s pulled from the shelves. I want to see what kind of sculpture Antoine-Louis Barye produced (more on this later), what factors influence the design of an airport, and just what sort of poem is “Aniara” by Harry Martinsson (more on this later, too).
The Library’s Picture Collection, where I work, is the world’s largest free, circulating image resource, yet there can be days when it seems that users ask for nothing but the Empire State Building, the painting of the Creation from the Sistine Chapel ceiling where God’s and Adam’s fingers are about to touch, and the sailor kissing his girlfriend in Times Square at the end of World War II. I grow slightly edgy inside, and want to tell them we also have images of ocelots, sorghum, and longshoremen.
This sort of cultural individuality can make a sensitive individualist feel like something between a stranger and a pariah when it seems like most of the world is worshipping (cheerfully or under duress) at the Church of Literary and Artistically Significant Stuff Identified as Crucial to Society (C.L.A.S.S.I.C.S.). It’s been proven very convincingly to me what musical and structural masterpieces certain symphonies are, and I can listen to them with pleasure, but they don’t make me absolutely dissolve with emotion the way American Federalist era composer Victor Pelissier’s incidental march and aria “She is Condemned” written for the long-forgotten drama The Voice of Nature does. I’ve experienced the former both live and on the radio many times, but have only heard the latter when I play it from its CD in my apartment. I try to feel better about all this by telling myself how good it is to roam so freely across the plains of creativity, but sometimes I ruefully think that all we as a society can do is endlessly and recursively refer to Shakespeare, Mozart, and The Godfather. As I wrote in my pen-and-paper journal a few weeks ago:
And so, ‘tis now as ‘twas ever, as the world sings its age-old refrain:
More honors we’ll give to the honored, and forget the forgotten again.