Calculus: how fast is that reader moving and where to?

I’m not sure where I came across Arnold Bennett’s Literary Taste and How to Form It. I want it to be from reading Walter Allen’s The English Novel. Both books look at literature and everyone associated with them – their authors and the authors of the works they examine – are dead. Both pluses as far as I’m concerned. I never came across references to them in my dad’s copies of The London Review of Books, or in the articles listed in the website aldaily or in the free issues of The Literary Review I download onto my iPhone. In other words, they weren’t being discussed by critics and reviewers; a result, I imagine, of simply being forgotten. On the other hand if I had read more of the articles in the London Review of Books, and not just the ones on history, subscribed to some of the magazines and journals listed in aldaily and paid for my copy of The Literary Review I might have found myself swamped by references to both men. But I doubt it.

I  found it in Wikipedia, of course. Although I can’t link it directly with Walter Allen’s book there must have been something in Allen’s comments, such as “Bennett’s thesis, that young girls grow into fat old women may be a limited truth, but it is worked out with the fullest intensity,” that made me want to find out more about him. There in the bibliography of the Wikipedia page was Literary Taste and How to Form It. Did I follow the link to find out more? I don’t know but I did decide very quickly I was going to read it and see if I could use its reading lists to form my own  literary taste. That it had been originally published in 1909, only referred to books written in English and would be useless in helping me make sense of contemporary literature made that decision easier. Oh, and everybody associated with it was dead.

I haven’t seen the film Supersize Me but I knew that my work would take what I assumed to be its premise, format and just about anything else from it to give me the structure I needed. I even thought about videoing my efforts to form a literary taste and posting them on YouTube. It would be the antidote to reality TV. It would also be very dull. But although I’m writing my experiences the end will be the same as a film which I have not seen. I would reflect on the process and judge the end result by looking back at where I had started. It would be great if I could have a literary expert in the role of my medical adviser to make sure I did no lasting damage to my aesthetic values but maybe that’s hoping for too much. Or possibly going too far with what is essentially a throwaway metaphor.

But how do you check for literary taste? You can watch a man getting fat. You can check his blood for cholesterol. But where’s the tipping point that let’s you say “Now I’ve got literary taste”? How would you recognize it and what would you do if someone said “You haven’t got literary taste. You’ve just read a lot of books. All of them by dead people.”? After all, it’s much easier for everyone to agree that someone is fat because they’ve eaten a load of hamburgers than to agree when someone knows a lot about literature. Unless their name begins with Professor and they work in a university.

A thermometer graphic seemed as good a place to start. The kind that is found outside churches raising money to repair the roof. As the mercury rose I’d know my taste was getting more developed. But it was my brother Ken who came up with the idea of plotting coordinates on a chart. “You could use calculus to work out the direction of  your literary taste,” he said. “Could I make one of the axis Virginia Woolf and the other E.M.Forster because if Virginia Woolf is the y-axis and E.M. Forster is the x-axis, I know I’d like my literary taste to develop more along the x-axis?” I asked. Ken said that would be okay. “And negative coordinates?” I asked. “James Joyce would be the negative of Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway would be the negative of E.M. Forster.” Ken said that would be okay too. Hmm, I thought, a coordinate on the E.M.Forster and James Joyce axes would be a good thing. (The graph at the moment only works in the Joyce/Woolf axes. But I will work on making it shows Hemingway/Forster axes too).

So far I’ve read William Hazlitt’s essay On Poetry in General and Isaiah Chapter 40 – “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” As Slovakia flexes its political muscles and Wales goes into the Rugby World Cup semi-final I have plotted the first coordinates:  E.M.Forster 1,Virginia Woolf 2.

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