No one is obligated to remain unchanging or consistent in his tastes. Evolution across time in what we prefer to eat, read or listen to is inevitable. If, in late middle age, we subsist on a diet of SpaghettiOs, Isaac Asimov or The Doors, something about us is backward and stunted. We have not put away childish things. In a sixty-four-year-old, the teenager ought to be no more than a memory, and not necessarily a happy one.
In 2000, a professor of English at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Shawn Halliday, wrote to Anthony Hecht, asking if he would contribute to a collection of essays on American writers and popular music. Hecht’s reply dates him. Born in 1923, his first musical love was Bach (“after an infantile infatuation with Tchaikovsky”). Only later, through a friend, did he discover what he calls “dixieland” (not a musical but a marketing term). He means traditional jazz, naming Armstrong, Bechet, Morton and Waller, among others. He belatedly enjoyed some of Benny Goodman, but there’s no mention of bop or anything that followed. Tatum is the most recent non-“trad” jazz musician he admits to liking (an excellent choice, of course). He goes on to remember “Desert Island Discs” and its American counterparts, which prompts Hecht to wonder what constitutes “a very select group of works . . . [that] prove durable.” On this date, Sept. 24, in 2000 (The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, 2013), he writes:
“Getting old is very instructive in such matters. I used to feel confident in my choices of Shakespeare plays, for example. But time has taught me that my views of the Shakespeare canon have altered over the years, and I have learned to detect treasures where formerly I had overlooked or under-appreciated them.”
In my case, Shakespeare is the perfect example of the mutability of taste. On first reading him, I embraced the tragedies. Next, with some reluctance, the history plays, followed, grudgingly, by the comedies. That scheme remains only partially in place. When I want to read Shakespeare, I customarily return to the plays I have already most often read – King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, et. al. Less so, Hamlet. But I sprinkle in Measure for Measure, Cymbeline and others more sparingly. High school almost ruined Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, but now I love the history plays.
With music the story is even more complicated. In the eighties I owned a recording of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, performed on vinyl (flimsy, Soviet bloc vinyl) by a Czech orchestra. For several years I played it obsessively but I probably haven’t heard the piece in twenty-five years. At the same time I owned a couple of Philip Glass records, though I can’t remember actually listening to them. I’m usually fairly immune to the shifting pressures of fashion, so why did I buy them? I can’t remember. As I’ve gotten older, traditional country music has become more important, but I remain loyal to my early loves, blues and jazz. Today I can’t get enough of Erroll Garner but almost never listen to John Coltrane, once an obsession.
If we could plot across a lifetime the ebbing and flowing of our interests and tastes, we might have in front of us a more interesting autobiography than any mere recitation of facts.