Last night I went to the Upper East Side and came away feeling thoroughly exhilarated. It wasn’t a visit to an upmarket French restaurants or sale of haute couture that did that to me but a simple lecture at the 92nd street Y
Going to talks and readings at the Y is something that I’m always thinking about doing but somehow it only ever goes as far as the ‘thinking about’ stage.
This year for some reason I’ve managed to motivate myself to attend two of them.
A couple of weeks ago I saw Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith give a reading from their latest books and last night I went to see Nick Hornby give a talk.
Naturally I had been totally unaware of what the talk would be about. I’d just seen the words Nick Hornby and grunted before buying a ticket.
Had I been of a more enquiring disposition I might have found out that Hornby was endeavoring to read Virginia Woolf for the first time in his life.
This was very fortuitous for me because I had read Woolf’s novel ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ about a year ago, so I had the book pretty fresh in my mind.
However, anyone expecting an erudite appreciation of Woolf and her work were in for a rude awakening.
Hornby had not come to praise Woolf but to bury her.
Not for her limpid and beautiful prose you understand but for her supercilious and snobbish attitude towards the ‘lower orders’.
From looking down on someone whom had the audacity to be self-educated and get books from a library to being appalled by some low born woman who had the temerity to faint in the street, Woolf displayed an appalling lack of empathy for the ordinary working human. Something you would think fairly essential for someone who wanted to be a novelist.
Such a view couldn’t be more at odds with Hornby’s self-avowed populism. As he pointed out, there is absolutely no evidence that reading the Woolf’s of this world and taking an elitist view of culture improves you as a human being. If that were the case the literature departments of universities would be littered with high-minded and empathetic souls.
By contrast reading what you love, regardless of whether the intellectuals of the day deem it worthy, is something that can only improve you. Your enthusiasms will be genuine and long lasting, be they for The Beatles, Charles Dickens, Alfred Hitchcock or Harry Potter
Naturally they will only bring you disdain from the Proust-reading, opera-loving types. However, you should be secure in the knowledge that their taste is far more about expressing social superiority than it is about genuine love of high culture.