Saturday, January 12, 2013

`Natural, Expressive, Wholesome Vulgarity'

A familiar complaint among the notes I receive from readers, most of them anonymous, regards my failure to read new books, fiction in particular. True, I feel no compulsion to “keep up” with publishing, but neither do I scorn a book because of its copyright date. That’s not a consideration when I’m looking for something to read. I have my prejudices – works in English over translations, proven over untried – but otherwise my literary palate is reasonably omnivorous. I’m guided by pleasure. No book is obligatory and flavorlessness is no guarantee of nutrition. I read Milton, not Ashbery, because Milton gives me pleasure and Ashbery does not. “Classics” in the context of books is meaningless. Think of the “Classics” shelves in the neighborhood branches of public libraries – dusty, misbegotten after-thoughts, at best. Jane Austen and Harper Lee, and only the latter with a broken spine. Here is Samuel Johnson on this date, Jan. 12, in 1760, writing in The Idler #91: 

“The riches of the English language are much greater than they are commonly supposed. Many useful and valuable books lie buried in shops and libraries, unknown and unexamined, unless some lucky compiler opens them by chance, and finds an easy spoil of wit and learning.” 

To the hospital on Friday, to read in the recovery room as I waited for the drugs to wear off, I brought A Jacques Barzun Reader (2002). It met my criteria for the situation – familiar, consoling, respectful of its readers. In a miscellany titled “Jottings” at the end of the volume, Barzun writes: 

“Vulgarity comes in two grades that critics often fail to distinguish. There is vulgarity in its Sunday best, in celluloid collar and cuffs, and this kind the public feels at home with. And there is the natural, expressive, wholesome vulgarity, such as we find reproduced in Shakespeare, Beethoven, Balzac and other makers of robust and spacious works.”

1 comment:

Cal Gough said...

How interesting that Barzun surfaced in your reading recently: I'm midway through Barzun's amazing A Stroll with William James, and just today added to the top (rather than to the bottom) of my "to be read" list Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, which I have sampled enough of to know that its elegant, magisterial (but non-pompous) style will bring me hours of pleasure and much painless edification. Barzun died last year (at age 104!), and we've lost one of our major prose stylists; luckily, he left behind many books for us Barzun lovers to track down. Thank you for holding up his name to your readers!