Home Cultures

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A friend of mine just sent a link to a very nice piece at the new York Times, by a writer with whom I’m not familiar, Annie Liontas. She was discussing the ways in which some families have artists within them; other families introduce their kids to fine art and fine writing; and others have no access to that, leaving the kids to discover “literature” or “serious music” or “fine dining” on their own. Or, as Liontas argues, by being exposed directly to it through education rather than at home.

Although there were a great many things to be thankful for in my childhood, and my parents gave me everything they could, there was no literary inheritance to speak of. My father was a Greek immigrant to America, a welder who came to own his own business. I am among the first in my family to graduate from college. As a result, I’ve often felt myself left behind — untutored, fraudulent. But the truth is that anyone who makes a life of writing eventually finds her inheritance of culture. Mine just came a little later, like Saunders’s, through that great equalizer, education.

I’ve had my own teachers who’ve introduced me to fine writers. But I was also surrounded by books and magazines all the time as a kid, though no one would have mistaken them for being literary. Good Housekeeping, Hot Rod, Field and Stream, Reader’s Digest, Boy’s Life. Romance novels that my mother read, science fiction pulps that I acquired, used, by the boxful. The World Book Encyclopedia. And I learned to swim in the world of words; not in the carefully-laned racing pool, but in the open lake, with the weeds and old tires.

I was surrounded by music. Mostly not very interesting music, Lawrence Welk and church hymns and easy-listening or top-40 radio. The radio or the record player were always on. But I learned to understand why music mattered, that both listening to it and producing it had an immersive quality like little else.

And I was surrounded by stories. When my folks weren’t home, I watched a ton of television, and I learned how characters interacted, how they expressed their motives and desires through their words and deeds. I learned how to throw in a funny comment to lighten a tense drama, how a facial expression conveyed emotion. And I learned how to tell stories myself.

I think these origins account for why I’ve always been impatient with so much of academic writing. We consciously shed ourselves of wit and pace, of rhetorical repetition, of the responsibility to help our readers have an emotional as well as an intellectual experience. We mistake “high culture” for culture writ large, and forget that watching Cheers or listening to Iggy Azalea or reading Cosmo are themselves immersive, formative, aesthetic experiences that we carry forward into the work that we do. Immersion in “great art” has its power; immersion in any art at all has another.

I’m not a pure populist, willing to be so relativistic as to equate Justin Bieber and Dave Brubeck. But I’m also, frankly, bored by an awful lot of supposedly serious work, so precious that it can’t get out of its own way and just tell the damn story.