Narcissus Regards a Novel

Today’s books succeed when the reader is entertained—and affirmed

| May-June 2011

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    Jesse Kuhn /

  • narcissus-regards-a-novel

Who is the common reader now? I do not think there is any way to evade a simple answer to this question. Common readers—which is to say the great majority of people who continue to read—read for one purpose and one purpose only. They read for pleasure. They read to be entertained. They read to be diverted, assuaged, comforted, and tickled. The evidence for this phenomenon is not far to seek. Check out the best-seller lists, even in the exalted New York Times. See what Oprah’s reading. Glance at the Amazon top 100. Look around on the airplane. Reading, where it exists at all, has largely become an unprofitable wing of the diversion industry.

Life in America now is usually one of two things. Often it is work. People work hard indeed—often it takes two incomes to support a family, and few are the full-time professional jobs that require only 40 hours a week. And when life is not work, it is play. That’s not hard to understand. People are tired, stressed, drained: They want to kick back a little. That something done in the rare off hours should be strenuous seems rather unfair. Robert Frost talked about making his vocation and his avocation one, and about his work being play for mortal stakes. For that sort of thing, assuming it was ever possible, there is no longer the time.

But it’s not only the division of experience between hard labor and empty leisure that now makes reading for something like mortal stakes a very remote possibility. Just over 20 years ago, students paraded through the campuses and through the quads, chanting variations on a theme. Hey, hey, ho, ho—they jingled—Western culture’s got to go. The marches and the chants and the general skepticism about something called the canon seemed to some an affront to all civilized values.

The conservatives, protected by tenure, slammed the windows closed when the parade passed by. They went on with what they were doing. Those who concurred with the students bought mikes and drums and joined the march. They were much in demand in the news media. The Washington Post was calling; the Times was on the other line. Was it true? Were the young professors actually repudiating the works that they had purportedly been retained to preserve?

It was true. But the media—most inconstant of lovers—came and the media went, and the academy was left with its cultural authority in tatters.

Now the kids who were kids when the Western canon went on trial and received summary justice are working the levers of culture. They are the editors and the reviewers and the arts writers and the ones who interview the novelists and the poets (to the degree that anyone interviews the poets). Though the arts interest them, there is one thing that makes them very nervous indeed about what they do: They are not comfortable with judgments of quality. The academy failed and continues to fail to answer the question of value.

4/30/2011 9:27:38 AM

"But where is this truly common reader—this impossible, possible man or woman who is both confident and humble, both ready to change and skeptical of all easy remedies?" Readers looking for an intelligent, sensitive, and deep reflection of today's concerns may find sustenance in books by Thomas Moore, an American psychotherapist and author of more than eighteen books. Moore is best known for his bestseller Care of the Soul, however he explores relationships in Soul Mates, depressions in Dark Nights of the Soul and medicine in Care of the Soul in Medicine. The reading public may drink a glass of fresh water if publishers were more willing to support writing like Thomas Moore's offerings. Moore writes about the myth of Narcissus as a story of transformation, and many readers, looking to be transformed, may be guided by his images.

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