Cliff Notes

"I thought you said you read this."

“I thought you said you’d read this, Emma.”

This one really made me laugh: turns out a LOT of people are pretending they’ve read fancy literature when they haven’t, just to impress.

I didn’t think anyone cared about this sort of thing anymore.

But yep, according to the survey, Orwell’s 1984 was, believe it or not, the book most of us lie about having read, followed by War and Peace. (That one I can understand. Just lifting it is a chore.) Instead of really cracking these works, it appears many people rely on TV and movie adaptations, Wikipedia entries, glances at book flaps, things like that.

Now, I’m the first to admit there’s a long long list of great material I still have yet to glance at. Sometimes it depresses me just how long that list is, and I’m not getting any younger. But I also have dishes to wash and teeth to brush. We all die with chores undone.

Still, it surprises (and gratifies, in a way) me that people care about this enough to lie. I thought cultural illiteracy was kind of like muffin tops: everyone knows they’re déclassé, but you see plenty of them in public anyway.

Once upon a time intellect was currency. Someone who had a broad, liberal arts education was respected and maybe even envied. Then came the great revolution of the Sixties, which fucked up education in a way from which we have still not recovered. Canons were demolished, people who studied them belittled, structural analysis was replaced by sociology, and all that mattered was your opinion of something—generally the more radical the better. This, along with the fact that the children of the boomers all considered a college degree (but not the rigors of college learning) a birthright, is how the liberal arts, in my opinion, got a bad name.

So I thought we were long past the point where anyone cared that most people, even college-“educated” people, are completely unfamiliar with Bach, Thomas Mann and Champollion. Or Sigmund Freud, Frank Lloyd Wright and Béla Bartók.

I recall a funny bit in the Woody Allen movie Zelig, about a man who wants to be accepted by his intellectual peers so much that he impersonates them—literally—by turning into them. He also lies about what he knows to impress. (Allen was shrewd enough to set the movie in the 1920s-30s, when appearing erudite carried a lot more social weight.) His therapist, played by Mia Farrow, decides to play along in order to expose him: she claims she was at a party with a bunch of smart people and pretended she’d read Moby-Dick because everyone else had. The closing crawl states that on his deathbed, Leonard Zelig, who’d since been cured of his need to pretend, had just started reading Moby-Dick and was upset about dying because now he’d never know how it ended.

But that was then. We live in a time when mastery of “the bottom line” is what matters, where your achievements are measured by understanding Benjamins, not Walter Benjamin; Picasso doesn’t matter, except as a status symbol. Of course this isn’t really new, and people will point to complaints that go back a hundred and fifty years. This is true; at the same time I do think it’s gotten worse. I think the collapse of Communism seemed to leave capitalists without any sort of moral imperative and has left all of us in the U.S.A. without a national compass.

Gone is the need, as Truman in the 1950s, Kennedy in the 1960s and to a lesser extent Reagan in the 1980s felt, to host programs of “high culture.” Kennedy never really cottoned to the stuff, daydreaming about Marilyn Monroe while Beverly Sills or Renata Tebaldi sang; he reportedly had an aid nudge him when it was time to clap. Reagan was less hypocritical: during a performance at the White House by Rudolf Serkin, he nodded off.

Now that the USSR was a proven failure there was no need to put on airs anymore. The culture wars that pitted Sviatoslav Richter against Van Cliburn or David Oistrakh against Isaac Stern (or, in a different context, Boris Spassky against Bobby Fischer) seem quaint now, if most people today remember them at all. (And I’m betting readers under 30 are scratching their heads.)

More recently, I worked with a local television news anchor who studied in Paris and would be considered by any measure well-educated, who had never heard of Isaac Stern and questioned, when he died, the wisdom of running an obit of “that obscure violinist guy” because nobody but me would care.

So I’m gratified to hear, in a way, that some people still feel that at least appearing educated is important. It shows that the arts still have some social currency, even if that’s a cockamamie way of showing it. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. Oddly.

Read more about people who want to be erudite here. Or you can always just pretend you did. Who’ll know?


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