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The Lifetime Reading Plan

On the Great Books project.


When I was a child, there were some books that I was not allowed to read.

Although I mostly had free rein over my parents’ shelves, there were a variety of reasons why several books were off limits. There were a few books, especially ones in nice editions, that were kept away on account of the occasional childish inability to distinguish between meum and tuum, or my tendency (runs in the family) to read at the dinner table. I think that is why I wasn’t allowed to read our beautiful one-volume Quality Paperback Book Club edition of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Other books were forbidden for reasons that had more to do with their content. But the problems with the content were not always what you might expect. At the age of eight I began to devour my father’s old Ballantine paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings. My parents decided that I needed time away from Middle Earth when they heard me muttering wizardly imprecations around the house. The three tattered and creased volumes were hidden for a while in the upper reaches of a spacious (downright Narnian) closet. Many attempts were made to scale these impressive heights before the books were finally brought back down.

There were plenty of books, however, that were disallowed for all the usual reasons of content: sex, profanity, heterodoxy, and so on. This would be why I couldn’t read, for instance, the novels of John Gardner or Anthony Burgess. Not that I minded that much, though. Neither of them caught my eye until much later on.

There was a book in this category of prohibition that did catch my eye, and that I did very much mind not being able to read. It was called the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. One reason it caught my eye was that its title seemed to get both its size and color all wrong: it was neither little nor brown. Rather, it was big—both hefty and tall—and forest green. But the other part of the title was true: this big book contained thousands of anecdotes, organized alphabetically by last names of the people about whom they were told, from Hank Aaron to King Zog I. The stories recounted in this anthology were often highly amusing, even laugh-out-loud funny, though perhaps not always suitable for the ten-year-old reader. On one level the book functions as a reference work, and so of course the canonical stories you learn in school are dutifully collected—George Washington and the cherry tree, Mark Twain and Halley’s comet, and so on. But its primary function is to delight, and much more space is given to things like Yogi Berra’s gaffes, Wilde’s witticisms, Dorothy Parker’s naughty ripostes (“If all those sweet young things were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised”) and the furious outbursts of Toscanini. It is a perfect volume for bathtub or bedside reading, the kind you should browse through at random when the mood strikes. The mood for such contraband reading struck me often enough that tape was soon needed to bind the spine of the book to the rest of it.

Inscribed on this spine, below the chromatic error I found so perplexing, was a familiar-sounding name. Clifton Fadiman was listed as the General Editor of the volume. Fadiman’s name graced a number of the books that entertained me in my childhood years, so I can’t say for sure whether the Book of Anecdotes was my first introduction to him or whether some other volume deserves that honor. Fadiman was frequently present as editor, contributor, anthologist, or writer of forewords in books picked up at used bookstores, library book sales, Y.W.C.A. book sales, and on my father’s office shelves. These were anthologies with titles such as World Treasury of Children’s Literature, The World of the Short Story, Clifton Fadiman’s Fireside Reader, The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. These anthologies contain short introductions to each of the excerpted writers and works. In them, Fadiman positions himself as an avuncular guide to the world of books, dispensing pithy judgements that ably summarize an author’s virtues and limitations. Here is Fadiman’s evaluation of John Cheever:

At first glance Cheever’s interests seem so restricted that they arouse doubts as to his lasting appeal. He takes little account of large social movements, contemporary historic events, the world of the poor, of ethnic minorities, indeed of any world lying beyond a sixty-mile radius of New York. . . . His stories have no “ideas.” Yet, on careful reading, all this seems to matter little. Kipling’s Indian tales, the best of them, still speak to us though the society they reflect is as dead as Nineveh. So with Cheever. Like Kipling, he is preserved by personality. The exact dimensions of his terrain do not matter. What does matter is the odd, unique angle of his penetrating glance. Add to this his Ancient Mariner’s power, rare in our time, to glue us to his narrative, plus a perfect command of an ironical, economical, and elegant prose style.

In evaluating Cheever, Fadiman aims for catholicity of taste. There must be some reason, he seems to imply, why these descriptions of Westchester cocktail parties strike a chord with readers and critics. By comparing Cheever to Kipling, he puts great souls in conversation with each other, though separated by time, space, and the grave. And in this, as in many such introductions, Fadiman is essentially interested in what kind of great writer we’re dealing with. In an appreciation of Nabokov, Fadiman writes, “One (but only one) way of viewing modern novelists is to divide them into two classes: the engaged and the unengaged. The engaged . . . are not necessarily propagandists or message bearers, but they have something on their minds, some special view of the world they are anxious to pass on to us.” Fadiman lists Swift, Huxley, Solzhenitsyn, and Camus as examples of engaged writers. By contrast, you might call writers unengaged who primarily “operate on our . . . esthetic sensibility”—writers such as Borges, Nabokov, and presumably Cheever.

Reading many such evaluations at a young age impressed upon me the notion that you could talk in an objective way about qualities in literature. Your opinions about a given author or work might be different from other people’s, but nonetheless they do not represent subjective expressions of our likes and dislikes or our emotional state when reading. Rather, they constitute an attempt to describe reality, however fragmented and imperfect.

This was brought home to me more than anything by judgements with which I disagreed. For instance, I remember being rather scandalized reading Fadiman’s blurb about The Hobbit in the World Treasury of Children’s Literature. (Whether pre– or post–Tolkien hiatus, I don’t remember.) It called Gollum “certainly the most evil character in the whole book.” Of course, head filled with lore of the rings, I couldn’t understand how anyone could make such a foolish mistake. How could that deformed little river hobbit compare in wickedness to the great monsters and devils of Middle Earth? It proved to be an instructive thought exercise to consider the ways in which that verdict might have been correct: as a literary creation, the character of Gollum is certainly Tolkien’s most successful and incisive depiction of vicious hatred.

The various appreciations found in these anthologies, and more extensively in The Lifetime Reading Plan, Fadiman’s most popular book, initiated me into a life of taste, reflection, and delight in reading that was more rewarding than the trashy Hardy Boys–style children’s literature by which I was surrounded. It was also better than the narrow Great Books snobbery to which it is adjacent, and the decidedly un-catholic literature of nerd culture towards which I might have been inclined by temperament. Fadiman led not just me, but many readers of the last eighty years, towards “the best has been thought and said.” This legacy will doubtless endure. But his career fostered and was fostered by the post-war ideal of the general reader, along with a genuinely middlebrow culture, both of which are dead and gone.

Throughout his long career Fadiman wore many different hats—though it may be a more apt metaphor to say he juggled them. At the same or at different times, he was the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, the book critic of the New Yorker, a founding editor of Cricket magazine, a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, a member of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He gave intermission lectures at the Boston Symphony, hosted the popular radio show Information Please, and was one of the first teachers in the original Great Books classes. Underneath all these hats, Fadiman’s essential role was that of a popularizer, a bringer of high culture to the great Middle.

In the years when Fadiman was at his busiest, there was a great demand for such popularizers. The G.I. Bill, the great boom in material prosperity after the Second World War, and the expansion of mass media were all involved in the growth of popular aspirations to high culture and further education. These were the years when Leonard Bernstein’s engaging Young People’s Concerts were broadcast on C.B.S.; when the fifty-four-volume set of Great Books of the Western World was sold door-to-door; when Wernher von Braun collaborated with Walt Disney on a television special about outer space; and when Kenneth Clark, an elderly British museum director, Pied Piper–like led millions of viewers on both sides of the Atlantic through the history of Western art on the B.B.C. miniseries Civilisation. These were also the years when Julia Child taught American housewives how to make civilized food, instead of a hundred variations on gelatin.

It is true that Americans already aspired to the heights of European culture before the world wars. In the early twentieth century, however, our relation to the Old World had the aspect of an inferiority complex. We were less the stewards of our Western heritage than its estranged wards. Perhaps the destruction and brutality of World War II revealed advanced civilization to be a fragile thing, which needed to be preserved and protected in the anxious atomic age. Thousands of young Americans who might have otherwise never traveled to Europe were exposed to the culture of the Old World as it was being torn apart. After the war’s end, they returned with a legal right to an education, and a new expanse of leisure time. Also arriving in America were European intellectuals and artists fleeing Nazi persecution or the upheavals of war. America provided men such as Einstein, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Toscanini, Kantorowicz, Bruno Walter, and Thomas Mann with comfortable academic chairs and music directorships; and they in turn helped bring European culture to the American masses. This explosive growth in culture was made directly available to ordinary Americans through television, radio, and the long-playing record, but it required middlemen, or popularizers, to make it fully accessible to them.

Clifton Fadiman embraced the role of popularizer, though not without some insecurity when he viewed himself in relation to those he considered “real” literary critics. (This stemmed in part from Fadiman’s lifelong embarrassment at having been born to Russian Jews in Brooklyn, who lived above and managed a shabby drugstore. As his daughter Anne Fadiman shows in her memoir The Wine Lover’s Daughter, he both envied and admired those who had been born into WASPish refinement.) In a retrospective essay from 1955, Fadiman writes, “For about a quarter of a century I have been one of that small, unimpressive army of American communicators who act as middlemen of thought and opinion.” Although he had “always dreamed, among other things, of being a scholar,” he claims to have decided he did not “have brains enough to be a scholar—I mean a good scholar—and that’s about all there is to it.” (Fadiman’s self-deprecation should be taken with a large grain of salt: when he started graduate school at Columbia, he was told that the English department had “room for only one Jew,” and they had chosen his friend Lionel Trilling over him.)

Despite his estrangement from academia, Fadiman thought that his variegated career had allowed him to act as a sort of “hemi-demi-semi-quasi-professor,” or a “pitchman-professor, selling ideas, often other men’s, at marked-down figures.” Underneath the layers of irony and self-deprecation, Fadiman was proud of this role, and he believed it to be one that was absolutely necessary. He was concerned that the gap between the intellectual class and the general public was widening, and that American institutions were failing to produce a “large class of fairly well-educated citizens.” The intellectual class was either unable or unwilling to speak to mainstream American society, and instead developed “its own private closed language” and “its own isolated identity.” To close this gap, and to communicate great art and great ideas to the forgotten general public, was the popularizer’s essential, though in some quarters thankless, task.

Before his successful career as a popularizer, Fadiman was present on the ground floor of the attempt to create a middlebrow public. In 1927, the Carnegie Foundation paid him and several other recent Columbia graduates fifteen dollars a week to lead Great Books discussions in public libraries, Y.M.C.A.s, and church basements. These were free classes for adults, and their students included

Merchant mariners marooned until the next voyage. Burly truck drivers who had read Bob Ingersoll and nothing else. Brash dogmatists who had read Marx and didn’t want to understand anything else. Pale-faced Emersonian clergymen. Young stenographers, their eyes reflecting the solitude of the dismal hall bedroom. Comfortable matrons pouncing on a bargain in culture. Professional arguers trailing their soap boxes. Recent immigrants seeking a key to a bewildering America. Those too poor to go to college. Those thirsty for something college had been too poor to give them.

The impecunious young men who taught these classes were animated by the conviction that everyone had a right to a liberal education, to listen in on a conversation that has been going on since long before we were born and will continue going on long after we die. Chesterton calls tradition the “democracy of the dead”; Fadiman uses the opposite metaphor to make the same point: “We were becoming members, however modest, of the only aristocracy that has lasted for three thousand years, the aristocracy of those who refuse to lead the unexamined life.”

Fadiman and his co-teachers were inspired by the example of John Erskine, the Columbia professor whose General Honors course was based on a reading list consisting of the classics of Western literature in unabridged form or in translation—starting with Homer and Virgil, Plato and Aristotle, and ending with Freud and William James. (Also involved in that General Honors course were two other intellectuals who wrote for a middlebrow audience, Mark Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler. The titles of some of Adler’s popular books give a sense of the Great Books movement’s overall ethos: How to Read a Book, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th-Century Pagan, Aristotle for Everybody: Difficult Thought Made Easy.) Erskine’s former students hoped that although they could not match him or Van Doren as teachers, the lively minds embedded in the texts they were teaching would do the work for them. Although they could not measure the effects of Melville or Milton upon souls, they did not think that meant that none could be discerned. Fadiman writes:

The Marxist launched fewer manifestoes. The arguer stepped down from his soap box. The truck driver grew less arrogant, the immigrant less humble. Introduced to each other by the most radiant hosts the world has ever known, our reasons cautiously shook hands.

Fadiman’s hope was that great literature would have a humanizing tendency in an age of mechanical propaganda, and a leveling tendency at a time when fewer and fewer men controlled the lives of greater and greater numbers. The rise of mass society made the traditional humanities more important than ever before. By the time Fadiman wrote in retrospect about this educational experiment of his youth, many more Great Books discussion groups had sprung up around the country, with an estimated fifty thousand participants in 1949. The sort of middlebrow public that Fadiman thought so important to a healthy society had taken shape.

Not all critics approved of this audience or tried to appeal to it. The most notable writer to reject the role of popularizer was the pugnacious Dwight Macdonald, a former Marxist who by the time of the height of the Great Books’ popularity was more of an all-around gadfly than an ideologue. Macdonald was the editor of Partisan Review, responsible for publishing Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” Greenberg claimed that since traditional folk culture could not survive under the conditions of industrial capitalism, commercially produced mass culture, or “kitsch,” had taken its place.

Macdonald adopted Greenberg’s categories for his own criticism, but expanded upon Greenberg’s understanding of “kitsch.” Between the poles of mass culture and the avant garde was what he called Midcult, bourgeois art that imitated and diluted the avant garde. This was “sophisticated kitsch,” high-minded cultural production that appealed to the general public’s sense of intellectual insecurity. Americans purchased artifacts of Midcult not for pure enjoyment, but in order to keep up with the Joneses.

For Macdonald, the Great Books movement was the apotheosis of this ersatz high culture, and Clifton Fadiman was one of its prophets. In a scathing essay from 1952 (ostensibly a review of the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World set) called “The Book-of-the-Millennium Club,” Macdonald mocks Fadiman’s extravagant praise of the undertaking from a speech given at a banquet held in its honor. In that speech, Fadiman compares the editors of the Great Books set to the monks who preserved priceless manuscripts in the turmoil of the Dark Ages. Macdonald does not concur with Fadiman’s high assessment of the project. Instead, he characterizes it as an attempt to package and sell the entirety of Western thought. Macdonald tries to show that in spite of Fadiman’s high hopes and the earnest intentions of Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, the leaders of the expensive project, the set was meant more to be displayed on middle-class bookshelves than to be read for instruction and delight.

I hate to have to hand it to Macdonald. Fadiman’s noble vision of the Great Books being preserved from modern barbarism resonates today more than it did then. We live in our own Dark Ages, in which no idea is considered valid unless it can be easily communicated in bullet points; library books are thrown into the dumpster to make way for more screens; and STEM in all caps is believed to be a magic word. (For example, “STEM bridge-building” is somehow considered a more impressive label for an educational exercise in model engineering than just “bridge-building.”) But when Macdonald lists the deficiencies of the Great Books set, many of his complaints ring true.

Some of the set’s problems have to do with the selection of great authors and books. The project’s Board of Editors, with the idea of “greatness” on their minds and striving for encyclopedic completion, tended to include the complete works of major authors, while neglecting important works by minor authors. Also excessive is the space given to great scientific works by men such as Galen, Archimedes, and William Harvey. These were included for their historical significance but are for the most part completely unedifying to modern readers. Another way the Great Books set fails to communicate to modern readers is its intentional lack of apparatus or introductions. This decision was made because of the editors’ misguided notion of removing every “barrier’’ between the reader and the text. In addition to this lack of readers’ aids, many of the poetic works of antiquity are presented in translations that are downright unreadable. And there is an unappealing lack of variety in font and design. In a time of cheap paperback classics, who wants to read a turn-of-the-century prose translation of Homer in tiny print?

The Great Books set does include one apparatus of a sort, which Macdonald targets for special ridicule. To accompany the original texts, Adler, with the help of a large group of graduate students, put together a massive index to the Great Books, called the Synopticon. This two-volume work inventories one hundred and two Great Ideas, from Angel to World. The entry for each Great Idea contains references to passages in the Great Books where it is mentioned or discussed. It is hard to imagine this work being put to use by either laymen or scholars. If a layman is interested in the topic of Love, for instance, painstakingly searching up every mention of it, great or small, from Homer to Freud, seems like a less efficient use of time than reading a general overview, like de Rougemont’s. On the other hand, a scholar who is studying Plato’s idea of love will need years of philological work which Great Books in translation cannot give him, and will need to hone in on certain key passages and their controversies, such as Diotima’s ladder of ascent, which the Synopticon, in its completionist, all-inclusive grasp, will not differentiate. This index, the labor of seven years, today seems little more than an exercise in subclinical autism, one which even proponents of Great Books education never use. The Synopticon’s lack of educational purpose did not stop the Encyclopædia Britannica from commissioning an army of salesmen to travel around the country teaching people how to use it.

In hindsight, the deficiencies of the Great Books project, or at least of this hefty physical manifestation of it, seem clear. It was not an adequate resource to provide the remedial education that many Americans knew they needed. But it seems equally clear that the project’s deficiencies do not vitiate the principle behind it: that the great minds of the Western world still deserve to be read today, and that today’s men and women still deserve to read them. Failures of selection and presentation do not signify that no texts deserve to be selected and presented; if anything, they demonstrate the opposite, since to complain about such things is to imply that one could do a better job.

If there is a principle to be rejected in the Great Books set, it is the ideal of monolithic singularity that inspired Adler’s labors. Oneness is an important idea in the Western tradition; yet it is an idea that is fundamentally at odds with the work of compilation, which by definition takes multiplicity as its matter and theme. A good anthologist knows that there are many authors, many works, and many translations, which are destined to be read in many forms, by many readers, and for many different purposes. Clifton Fadiman was a good anthologist; and his presentation of the Great Books displays many strengths of compilation that Adler’s lacks: patience, flexibility, wit, reflection, and a more relaxed attitude toward the books in question. These qualities especially shine in his own reference work for readers, The Lifetime Reading Plan.

The title of Fadiman’s most popular book is misleading. It does not contain a rigid schedule of self-improvement of the sort for which we Americans from Ben Franklin on have demonstrated a tremendous appetite. It does not make any promises to the reader. It is simply a genial introduction to some of the books that make life more interesting, consisting of short discussions of a little more than a hundred authors from the Western tradition, with recommendations of particular works and occasional tips for successful reading. The key word in the title is lifetime, rather than plan:

The books here discussed may take you fifty years to finish. They can of course be read in a much shorter time. The point is that they are intended to occupy an important part of a whole life, no matter what your present age may be. . . . These authors are life companions. Once part of you, they work in and on and with you until you die. They should not be read in a hurry, any more than friends are made in a hurry. This list is not something to be “got through.”

In The Lifetime Reading Plan, Fadiman avoids some of the mistakes that mar the Great Books set. For one thing, he takes a humbler approach to his selection of books. In his introduction, titled “A Preliminary Talk with the Reader,” he tells us that the Lifetime Reading Plan is “not in any absolute sense a list of the ‘best books’” and that “no single scholar” would find it “satisfactory in all respects.” Fadiman is at such great pains to insist that his guide is no substitute for a formal education, and that he cannot make any sure claims for it (“It will not make you happy—such claims are advanced by the manufacturers of toothpastes, motorcars, and deodorants, not by Plato, Dickens, and Hemingway”) that it almost seems like he anticipates the critiques of the likes of Macdonald, and crafts his rhetoric so as to neutralize them in advance.

Fadiman goes on to acknowledge the limitations of his Lifetime Reading Plan; when compared to the hubris of the Great Books project, some of these limitations seem like strengths. Among them are that he has omitted the Bible and the classics of the East, as well as many of the great works of the West that have a respectable claim to be included among the Great Books. For example, The Lifetime Reading Plan does not list any works of science or mathematics. Fadiman explains that to include Archimedes or Kepler “would be little more than an act of academic piety.” Fadiman’s audience is the common reader, for whom such works are all but inaccessible. His reading plan is one meant to be used, rather than admired from a distance. Fadiman also apologizes for leaving out most works in translation, though this is another of the book’s strengths. He is right to insist that, for most translated works, “even the best versions . . . convey too small a proportion of what must be great originals” and that “there is simply no use in claiming that Baudelaire and Pushkin can be read intensively in English with great pleasure.” Of course, learning another language and reading its literature is one of the great pleasures of a lifetime reader, but Fadiman, unlike the Great Books compilers, realized that there is no easy substitute for doing so.

This is why for each of the translated works Fadiman does include, he recommends particular translations and tells readers to avoid others. He is also willing to suggest the best editions to read, along with secondary works to give context to the books in question. For example, he prefaces his entry on Aeschylus with a long note on reading Greek tragedy, which he suggests is “so different from the plays we are familiar with that the beginning reader will do well first to study some standard book on the subject; or to consult the relevant chapters in a history of Greek literature; or at least to read carefully the notes and introductions usually accompanying the translations.” Although Fadiman reveres what he calls “original communications,” he is under no illusion that one can profitably approach these texts without help. For him, secondary works enhance great literature rather than sully its aboriginal purity.

Rather than rejecting the idea of apparatus, as more severe purveyors of Great Books ideology do, Fadiman embraces it as a necessity of the reading life. The virtues of The Lifetime Reading Plan are those of an apparatus. Fadiman is willing to tell the reader what kind of book he is reading and how he should read it. Fadiman tells us to “absorb” the poetry of Robert Frost “slowly, over a long period” and to read the poetry of Eliot in chronological order. His advice is to save Hobbes “for your more insistently intellectual moods” and to “wander about almost at will” through the essays of Montaigne. Fadiman indicates this facet of his book in the introduction. He warns that different books will require different approaches:

Herodotus can be enjoyed in an informal mood; Thucydides gains if you gird your mental loins in advance. Furthermore, these works cannot all be read at the same tempo. Just as you slow down at curves, so you are forced to slow down at Aristotle or Dewey. You can handle Candide in a single pleasant evening, but you may find it worthwhile to spend an equal amount of time over a single short poem such as Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Throughout The Lifetime Reading Plan, Fadiman employs a simple device to further aid the reader. Whenever he refers to an author discussed elsewhere in the book, he indicates the number of that author’s entry in parentheses. He writes of Thucydides that “he is the first historian to grasp the inner life of power politics. Hobbes (71), Machiavelli (78), and Marx (75) are, each in a different way, his sons.” Elsewhere, he writes that the novels of Dostoyevsky “anticipated many of the ideas of Nietzsche (76) and Freud (77)” and “influenced such non-Russian writers as Mann (44), Camus (53), and Faulkner (59).” At first, this device may seem pedantic or trivial. But its virtues become evident after some time spent perusing Fadiman’s commentaries. The numbers help us to connect the authors under discussion. And they give a sense of how these books reveal a conversation between great minds, unfolding through time. In this regard, Fadiman’s aim is the same as those of Adler’s Synopticon, though it is achieved with a minimum of fuss and years’ worth of reflection.

I have already referred to Fadiman’s “catholicity of taste.” Throughout the Lifetime Reading Plan, you can find him weighing his personal sympathies and antipathies against the general consensus, and adjusting them if necessary. Fadiman is not embarrassed to be forced to re-evaluate an author—Virginia Woolf, for example. (“One of the advantages of a long life,” Fadiman says, “is that you are given a chance to change your mind.”) Neither is he embarrassed to remain unimpressed by an author whom most critics revere. In his Lifetime Reading Plan entry for William Faulkner, he coolly lays out the critical consensus on Faulkner’s greatness, and then registers his own mild, good-natured dissent, conceding that “the only fair thing for [him] to do” is to refer readers to more sympathetic guides to Yoknapatawpha. Fadiman saves his animosity towards Faulkner for elsewhere.

In the 1955 essay collection Party of One, Fadiman gathers all his Faulkner reviews from over the years into a section called “Puzzlements.” (The other author who merits discussion in this section is, unsurprisingly, Gertrude Stein.) In these reviews and in his retrospective commentary on them, Fadiman doesn’t exactly denounce Faulkner, but merely expresses his bewilderment—though not without a hint that maybe, just maybe, the emperor of twentieth-century American literature has no clothes. Fadiman regrets that he just doesn’t get Faulkner, but he also suspects that there’s not as much to “get” as advertised: readers wrongfully assume genius when they come across what is incomprehensible in Faulkner’s works.

Fadiman complains that all of Faulkner’s characters are lunatics, and that this weakens the tragic element of his novels: “A study of defeat can have great tragic weight, but only if the defeated are akin to us, which these mumbling, muttering, frozen-faced Sutpens surely are not.” He disapproves of Faulkner’s reliance on the violent, morbid, and grotesque, implying that Faulkner writes pulp fiction dressed in modernist garb. Here’s Fadiman on The Wild Palms:

After a while this brutality becomes merely ludicrous; one begins to feel not only that Mr. Faulkner is trying his darnedest to see how much misery he can make his characters stand but also that he is trying to see how much misery he can make his readers stand. It’s an interesting game, but nearer to old-fashioned melodrama than to literature.

The publishers may have had an inkling of this, for the blurb tells us that “The Wild Palms contains the most spectacular situations yet created by William Faulkner.” This is true. But a novel that has to be praised for its “spectacular situations” rather than for its power to mirror human nature truly and movingly has, to my mind, two strikes on it. Not meaning to be either paradoxical or frivolous, I think there is something feeble about a creative imagination that, before it can deal with human beings, must call to its aid a flood, two abortions, various extremes of physical suffering, near-madness, a woman in labor, quantities of blood . . . and human degeneracy ad libitum.

Elsewhere, Fadiman speaks of the “uneasy sense” he gets “from time to time of Charles Addams trying to be Dostoevski.”

Besides the melodramatic aspects of Faulkner’s work, Fadiman mistrusts his style. He suspects that Faulkner’s addiction to formal effects, which he believes “friendly critics” mistake for “mastery of form,” disguises the banality of his plots. Fadiman calls Faulkner a “champion of lost clauses” and speaks of his “Life Sentences”:

To penetrate Mr. Faulkner’s sentences is like hacking your way through a jungle. The path closes up at once behind you, and in no time at all you find yourself entangled in a luxuriant mass of modifiers, qualifications, relative clauses, parenthetical phrases, interjected matter, recapitulations, and other indications of style. All of Mr. Faulkner’s shuddery inventions pale in horrendousness before the mere notion of parsing him.

Faulkner’s eccentric vocabulary also comes in for heckling: “Requiem for a Nun, for example, offers, among other wonders, the following: mammalinity, evictant, undeviable, incubant, impedeless, rejectant, toyment, and fissionating.” Fadiman discusses a description of a horse in The Unvanquished: “Now, what am I to do with this horse of Mr. Faulkner’s, this abrogating, relegating, insulating horse? I am far too unsophisticated even to have thought of a horse like that, much less met him.”

I have quoted at length from Fadiman’s “case study of the non-Faulknerian mind” not just because it is entertaining, but because I also think it is instructive. Fadiman’s admission of failure to “get” Faulkner speaks to the virtues of his approach to the reading life, and compares favorably to today’s middlebrow reading culture.

Consider the most successful popularization of middlebrow culture in contemporary life: Oprah’s Book Club. Now, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing but respect for Oprah’s Book Club. Many fine books have gained a wider audience through being selected by Ms. Winfrey, and many new readers have been born through her efforts. It is worth nothing, however, that in her selection of older novels, the most representative picks tend to be Faulkner and writers who take him for their primary influence, such as Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and Cormac McCarthy. It would seem that in the popular conception of literary fiction, formal experimentation, mythological archetypes, and thick symbolism have won out over the traditional subjects of money, marriage, manners, and morals. You’re not going to find Barbara Pym or Kingsley Amis on any A.P. Literature syllabus.

This all seems suspicious. Setting aside for a minute the merits of High Modernist fiction, it strikes one as counterintuitive for it to beat out novels of manners among the serious literature that has made its way to a popular audience. For one thing, the latter usually makes sense, while the former often doesn’t. The average reader has to rely on “experts” to tell him that a Cormac McCarthy novel is good and explain what is going on in it. The reader’s capacity for judgement is not exercised but is replaced by blind faith. This reliance on experts—this assumption that what is “difficult” must be good—cannot be healthy for a widespread literary culture.

Dwight Macdonald thought Fadiman’s conception of middlebrow was phony. If only he could take a look at the middlebrow we have now. A recent political vignette shows how our pretensions to high culture mask an illiteracy much deeper than Macdonald could have dreamed. Sometime during the Trump impeachment trials, Ted Cruz, who, whatever else one might say about him, did graduate from high school, said that the proceedings were “like Shakespeare”: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The M.S.N.B.C. journalist Andrea Mitchell tweeted in response, “No, that’s Faulkner,” referring of course to the title of the novel from 1929. The neoconservative columnist Jennifer Rubin replied that “it says volumes about his lack of soul.” When it was pointed out that Faulkner borrowed the title from the final soliloquy in Macbeth, which I make high school seniors memorize and recite, Mitchell said: “I clearly studied too much American literature and not enough Macbeth.” Indeed. Fadiman was prescient in seeing in the Faulkner cult a sanctimonious approach to reading opposed to true critical appreciation and disconnected from the need for any grounding in humane letters—grounding without which Faulkner’s real greatness cannot be discerned.

Fadiman’s befuddlements about Faulkner can be found in Party of One, his collection of familiar essays. Fadiman regretted the decline of the familiar essay and wished to do his small part to conserve it. In an age of propaganda, there is little room for a mind to wander at will, conversing with the reader in an informal style; and in an age of specialization there is little room for the broad education that both the writing and the reading of a true essay requires: “There is something to the notion that the intimate discourse, bright with its thousand flowers of allusion, grows more richly in the climate of omne scibile, or at least one in which a large number of people all know the same things.” In “A Gentle Dirge for the Familiar Essay,” Fadiman asserts the prerogative of the learned man to write about anything he wants; and in the rest of the volume he does just this, discoursing on fireworks, nursery rhymes, the art of the deathbed utterance, and the pleasures of reading in bed, among other things.

Party of One is my favorite of Fadiman’s books. Fadiman was a great talker on the radio—smooth, polite, and agile to coax the wit of co-hosts such as Oscar Levant and John Kieran on Information Please—and these qualities show up in the conversational style of his essays. In an essay on the art of conversation, Fadiman calls it the “translation of one’s personality into evanescent words intended to reach a few persons at most.” This is a good description of the appeal of Party of One, which is now unfortunately out of print.

The personality translated into the words of Fadiman’s familiar essays could perhaps be uncharitably described as pedantic, or maybe reactionary. It sounds nicer to call him a bit of a gadfly. Fadiman was quick to notice the ways in which the world was getting worse. In an essay called “Plain Thoughts on Fancy Language,” Fadiman draws attention to the manifold deformations of the English language. He complains about what he calls the “enfeebling intensifier”:

the jerky-brisk definitely!, the fake-commercial it’s a deal, the tiresomely bright-eyed you can say that again!, the effusive I know just what you mean, and the genteel-epicene you’re so right!

the “learned vulgarism”:

The savage believes that to name an object gives him a certain control over it. Similarly we gain assurance when we use allergy for dislike, schizophrenia for mental eccentricities of varying types, nostalgia for yearning, philosophy for virtually any notion or opinion or slant, psychology for any insight into a mental process, complex to denote a strong interest or concern, compulsive for what is merely habitual, etc.

and “Madison Avenue English”:

a rich hash of metaphors drawn from sport (largely football), technology, run-of-the-mill clichés, the columns of our more frenzied newspapers, and the jargon of “social scientists” and “social engineers” . . . a soul-satisfying rebellion against what the businessman calls gobbledegook, or bureaucratic English.

In addition, Fadiman shares my hatred of grown men who speak of needing to use the “little boys’ room.”

In a similar vein, Fadiman turns a gently skeptical eye toward the various technological “improvements” of the modern world. He begins an essay with an anecdote about finding it difficult to order just two scrambled eggs at a diner, without a dozen sides and accouterments. Fadiman’s somewhat irritable list of examples of this over-accessorization of things becomes a thoughtful reflection on man and his relationship to tools:

The car with the automatic shift is doubtless a better car. The question is whether the subnormal who can now drive an automobile is a better man. A super-speed highway is a better highway, but its users are slightly worse humans, because super-highway travel, with no scenery, few curves, no obstacles, is so dull as to be a kind of prison in motion. Better to watch a cow from a canal-boat than the Andes from the air.

Fadiman hits on the idea, expressed in more abstract terms by such writers as Heidegger, Wendell Berry, and C.S. Lewis, that the tools humans use to obtain mastery over nature end up altering human nature, sometimes for the worse.

In these essays, Fadiman does not come off as a crank. His criticisms of the modern world come off as winsome musings in the vein of the New Yorker essays of E.B. White, or Thoreau on a good day. Fadiman registers a modest, gentle dissent without any hope of influence or effect. Without much of an ideological system or plan, Fadiman was concerned about the status of truth in the age of advertising, and indeed anticipated the idea of the post-truth era, or Harry Frankfurt’s concept of “bullshit”:

The restaurant that calls attention to its “world-famous apple pie” is not dishonest. It is merely unconsciously confessing its alienation from the obsolescent world of reality where words have checkable meanings.

Fadiman’s persnickety attention to the truth of the most trivial words springs from the same source as his advocacy for great literature: the fear that humanistic values were in danger of being crowded out by the values of a mechanistic age, and that reflection, curiosity, and wit were no match for conditioning, consumption, and cant.

He was right, of course. After seventy years or so of mass culture and new leisure, we are as shallow, as easily manipulated, as addicted to novelty as ever before. Humane learning is viewed as obsolete due to machines that can respond to any question you put to them with answers that are inane, superrficial, and false. The library book sales where I first found Fadiman’s anthologies were organized in order to make room for computers, more computers, and yet more computers.

The ideology of Great Books is not a perfect response to the inhumane world of the technicians. Although great books are necessary to break what Fadiman called the “curse of the contemporary,” they are not by themselves enough to base a worldview on. None of their authors thought they were—not Homer, not Jane Austen, not Nietzsche, certainly not Saint Augustine! At times, Fadiman seems to make the “great conversation” an end in itself, and almost a religion. In his essay on the Great Books groups he says

I think we will not vanquish either the iron faith of the Communists or the leaden faith of the defeatists unless we deploy in the struggle the armament of a deeply felt and superior creed of our own. I cannot see on what that creed can ultimately found itself if it be not the whole scripture, sacred and profane, of our Western world, that long dialogue, which, I trust, will never come to an end.

If there’s one thing the sacred and profane scripture of our Western world should teach us, it’s that no human work or achievement will last forever, and that everything comes to an end. Besides, Chartres Cathedral was not built in honor of a “long dialogue”; the greatest works of human wisdom and ingenuity were not meant as ends in themselves.

Grace is ultimately what’s missing from the ideology of Great Books. However, grace builds upon nature, and Christ’s gospel doesn’t make sense in a world drained of poetry, stories, music, conversation, history, and philosophy. These things must be defended and recovered if the world is to be saved. In this humane work, Clifton Fadiman is a good, if imperfect, guide.

Nathan Payne teaches English at Saint Philip Catholic Central High School in Battle Creek, Michigan.