A Happy Thanksgiving to all.
Earlier this year I read the collected stories of Saul Bellow. Currently I’m enjoying a collection by Jorge Luis Borges. I can’t go too many months without rereading a James Joyce or Willa Cather story.
Of course my Book Review Editor position at The Los Angeles Review requires me to read a shelf full of newly-released collections and novels, and lately I’ve been considering the differences between the new books and the old, particularly in light of that highly critical review/essay I’ve mentioned in recent weeks, which discusses what I believe are some shortcomings of certain styles of fiction, and which will be unleashed in December.
What’s the attraction of these ancient texts for me, apart that I too, am getting old?
There is a feeling I get when reading the old masters, which I might call a literary excitement, an intellectual surge that translates into a physical sensation—like an electroshock of rediscovery, sparked by unearthing something long buried. It’s a feeling I don’t get very often reading the stories in modern collections and journals, which sometimes seem filled with pieces featuring contrived, irreverent down-and-out characters looking for sex and/or personal validation in bars, on the road, or in dysfunctional family settings.
The old masters dared introduce subjects like—OMG—philosophy and history, the roles of religion and society in shaping a life. They wrote of racism, Nazism and a host of other political and social issues, through the eyes of well-educated everymen and women. In comparison, I see characters in many of today’s stories merely as reflections of our current cultural landscape—fringe people, far less educated, concerned primarily with their own needs and wants; disconnected (but not, like the old masters, disinterested) to the point of solipsism. These are, to me, surface stories that ignore the human capacity to think beyond oneself, to encompass sets of ideas about morality, science, and belief. Don’t tell me those things do not matter.
This is an old-fashioned view, I suppose. Admittedly, it also ignores the fact that there must have been just as many “other” stories circulating in those days—contemporary bits about contemporary life. But what survives from those days are works that transcend the concerns of the moment.
Who are the great philosophers of our day? I can’t think of any either. The fact that we can’t name one off the top of our heads says a lot about how our culture has changed. Corporate interests do their best to reduce us to marketing statistics, simple-minded targets who can be manipulated with advertising and who don’t care about existential ideas. They like us that way—we buy more stuff. And this popular culture has become the dominant culture. As a nation, we no longer look to the most intelligent among us to guide our decisions; in fact, many people distrust those with higher levels of education.
There are some contemporary writers whose work is much larger than what’s on the page. The ones who come closest for me are Rebecca Makkai and Kevin Brockmeier. But they are largely known only in literary circles. In their day, the public at least knew about Bellow and Borges, Joyce and Cather, even if they didn’t read them.
 That’s philosopher, not scientist, sociologist, politician or—gimme a break—celebrity.
 Think I’m kidding? The number of people cramming stores on Black Friday was estimated at 147 million—almost half the nation.