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A Magisterial Appreciation for a Magisterial Effort: Fadiman's Lifetime Reading Plan

Nathan Payne at The Lamp

Photo by Charlotte Peacock / Unsplash

When I was a child, there were some books that I was not allowed to read.

Although I mostly had free rein over my parents’ shelves, there were a variety of reasons why several books were off limits. There were a few books, especially ones in nice editions, that were kept away on account of the occasional childish inability to distinguish between meum and tuum, or my tendency (runs in the family) to read at the dinner table. I think that is why I wasn’t allowed to read our beautiful one-volume Quality Paperback Book Club edition of Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Other books were forbidden for reasons that had more to do with their content. But the problems with the content were not always what you might expect. At the age of eight I began to devour my father’s old Ballantine paperback editions of The Lord of the Rings. My parents decided that I needed time away from Middle Earth when they heard me muttering wizardly imprecations around the house. The three tattered and creased volumes were hidden for a while in the upper reaches of a spacious (downright Narnian) closet. Many attempts were made to scale these impressive heights before the books were finally brought back down.

There were plenty of books, however, that were disallowed for all the usual reasons of content: sex, profanity, heterodoxy, and so on. This would be why I couldn’t read, for instance, the novels of John Gardner or Anthony Burgess. Not that I minded that much, though. Neither of them caught my eye until much later on.

There was a book in this category of prohibition that did catch my eye, and that I did very much mind not being able to read. It was called the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. One reason it caught my eye was that its title seemed to get both its size and color all wrong: it was neither little nor brown. Rather, it was big—both hefty and tall—and forest green. But the other part of the title was true: this big book contained thousands of anecdotes, organized alphabetically by last names of the people about whom they were told, from Hank Aaron to King Zog I. The stories recounted in this anthology were often highly amusing, even laugh-out-loud funny, though perhaps not always suitable for the ten-year-old reader. On one level the book functions as a reference work, and so of course the canonical stories you learn in school are dutifully collected—George Washington and the cherry tree, Mark Twain and Halley’s comet, and so on. But its primary function is to delight, and much more space is given to things like Yogi Berra’s gaffes, Wilde’s witticisms, Dorothy Parker’s naughty ripostes (“If all those sweet young things were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised”) and the furious outbursts of Toscanini. It is a perfect volume for bathtub or bedside reading, the kind you should browse through at random when the mood strikes. The mood for such contraband reading struck me often enough that tape was soon needed to bind the spine of the book to the rest of it.

Inscribed on this spine, below the chromatic error I found so perplexing, was a familiar-sounding name. Clifton Fadiman was listed as the General Editor of the volume. Fadiman’s name graced a number of the books that entertained me in my childhood years, so I can’t say for sure whether the Book of Anecdotes was my first introduction to him or whether some other volume deserves that honor. Fadiman was frequently present as editor, contributor, anthologist, or writer of forewords in books picked up at used bookstores, library book sales, Y.W.C.A. book sales, and on my father’s office shelves. These were anthologies with titles such as World Treasury of Children’s LiteratureThe World of the Short StoryClifton Fadiman’s Fireside ReaderThe World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought. These anthologies contain short introductions to each of the excerpted writers and works. In them, Fadiman positions himself as an avuncular guide to the world of books, dispensing pithy judgements that ably summarize an author’s virtues and limitations. Here is Fadiman’s evaluation of John Cheever:

At first glance Cheever’s interests seem so restricted that they arouse doubts as to his lasting appeal. He takes little account of large social movements, contemporary historic events, the world of the poor, of ethnic minorities, indeed of any world lying beyond a sixty-mile radius of New York. . . . His stories have no “ideas.” Yet, on careful reading, all this seems to matter little. Kipling’s Indian tales, the best of them, still speak to us though the society they reflect is as dead as Nineveh. So with Cheever. Like Kipling, he is preserved by personality. The exact dimensions of his terrain do not matter. What does matter is the odd, unique angle of his penetrating glance. Add to this his Ancient Mariner’s power, rare in our time, to glue us to his narrative, plus a perfect command of an ironical, economical, and elegant prose style.

In evaluating Cheever, Fadiman aims for catholicity of taste. There must be some reason, he seems to imply, why these descriptions of Westchester cocktail parties strike a chord with readers and critics. By comparing Cheever to Kipling, he puts great souls in conversation with each other, though separated by time, space, and the grave. And in this, as in many such introductions, Fadiman is essentially interested in what kind of great writer we’re dealing with. In an appreciation of Nabokov, Fadiman writes, “One (but only one) way of viewing modern novelists is to divide them into two classes: the engaged and the unengaged. The engaged . . . are not necessarily propagandists or message bearers, but they have something on their minds, some special view of the world they are anxious to pass on to us.” Fadiman lists Swift, Huxley, Solzhenitsyn, and Camus as examples of engaged writers. By contrast, you might call writers unengaged who primarily “operate on our . . . esthetic sensibility”—writers such as Borges, Nabokov, and presumably Cheever.

Reading many such evaluations at a young age impressed upon me the notion that you could talk in an objective way about qualities in literature. Your opinions about a given author or work might be different from other people’s, but nonetheless they do not represent subjective expressions of our likes and dislikes or our emotional state when reading. Rather, they constitute an attempt to describe reality, however fragmented and imperfect.

This was brought home to me more than anything by judgements with which I disagreed. For instance, I remember being rather scandalized reading Fadiman’s blurb about The Hobbit in the World Treasury of Children’s Literature. (Whether pre– or post–Tolkien hiatus, I don’t remember.) It called Gollum “certainly the most evil character in the whole book.” Of course, head filled with lore of the rings, I couldn’t understand how anyone could make such a foolish mistake. How could that deformed little river hobbit compare in wickedness to the great monsters and devils of Middle Earth? It proved to be an instructive thought exercise to consider the ways in which that verdict might have been correct: as a literary creation, the character of Gollum is certainly Tolkien’s most successful and incisive depiction of vicious hatred.

The various appreciations found in these anthologies, and more extensively in The Lifetime Reading Plan, Fadiman’s most popular book, initiated me into a life of taste, reflection, and delight in reading that was more rewarding than the trashy Hardy Boys–style children’s literature by which I was surrounded. It was also better than the narrow Great Books snobbery to which it is adjacent, and the decidedly un-catholic literature of nerd culture towards which I might have been inclined by temperament. Fadiman led not just me, but many readers of the last eighty years, towards “the best has been thought and said.” This legacy will doubtless endure. But his career fostered and was fostered by the post-war ideal of the general reader, along with a genuinely middlebrow culture, both of which are dead and gone.

Throughout his long career Fadiman wore many different hats—though it may be a more apt metaphor to say he juggled them. At the same or at different times, he was the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, the book critic of the New Yorker, a founding editor of Cricket magazine, a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club, a member of the Board of Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica. He gave intermission lectures at the Boston Symphony, hosted the popular radio show Information Please, and was one of the first teachers in the original Great Books classes. Underneath all these hats, Fadiman’s essential role was that of a popularizer, a bringer of high culture to the great Middle.

Read the rest (subscription might be required)

The Lamp Magazine | The Lifetime Reading Plan
On the Great Books project.