Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines


I think reversing one’s position, or changing one’s mind – or in this case, maybe the idea of an ‘aesthetic education’ might be worth discussing. But I’ll leave you to flesh that out…” – Jim

Dear Jim,

In your last letter you gave me the broadest of briefs. To throw out a few thoughts on changing one’s mind or – you said, as if the two things were obviously linked – ‘aesthetic education’. I’ll deal with the latter because although less interesting to me it won’t spiral into a ramble. A tight 500 is the goal. This bletter needs sending today and I left it all until the final countdown.

Cue music:


In terms of aesthetical edugogy, I think it’s a valuable thing for one to do to oneself. But I’d be tentative about getting super evangelical about it. While there are somewhat weak arguments about art engaged humans being better citizens, I think liking art is more of a self-help thing than a social responsibility. With that caveat in mind, here’s what I think.

The general goal of the court mandated aesthetic education, as put together by Minister for Art Appreciation for Jon Pill would be, I think, to get the student – i.e. me  – to think about art intentionally. I think this is what is meant by that buzz word ‘engage’.

The human brain can engage with art at all sorts of levels, but the zeroth level that we all do pretty instinctively will always be: Do I like it? And here is where it is easiest to stop. With the Yes/No answer.

I come from a family of readers, my Dad read to me before I could read and listening to him read remained a family activity, especially on holiday where The Hobbit and the Harry Potter saga often made short work of train journeys.

Reading for myself was encouraged and there would be a regular exchange of cheap second hand paperbacks between the various members of the family. Redwall and Alastair MacLean, Jack Higgins and The Phantom Tollbooth. Stuff like that.

So there were books. But there was also a general air of philistinism. The first question I am asked whenever I say I have read Classic Book X or Epic Poem Y to a family member is always: ‘But is it actually any good? Or is it just one of those books your supposed to read?’

The inherent assumption behind the word ‘good’ is that it be enjoyable*. There was no room for a book to be challenging, the unpleasant, the interesting, the beautiful, unless it came with a good plot. In a house full of Austen lovers, I am the only one who likes Emma [Edit: My Dad has corrected me on this. He also likes Emma. Like father, like son.]. People hate Emma because they dislike Emma. That’s was all it takes: an irritating character that rubbed you up the wrong way. Never mind that her irritating faults are the driving force of a series of engaging dramas, never mind the amusing ironies her faults breed, never mind the impressive skill involved in what is pretty much the invention of the close-third narrator.

That is a difficult attitude to shake. Because good = enjoyable is a massive barrier between art and artee. A key part of that aesthetic education is just shedding the idea that an immediate sense of pleasure is the only positive response to something.

So interrogating Do I like it? with intentionality would level one of converting the barbarians. Once you have your yes or no follow it up with: Why do I like/dislike it? What do I like about it? What is it making me feel? What thoughts is it giving me?

I never learned to ask these questions formally. It’s been a slow trial-and-error sort of thing mostly through talking about film with friends, and more recently through reading widely, going to galleries, watching plays. And I’m still not always great about thinking like this. But, you know, fail better and all that. #selfhelpisnotselflove.

There are, of course, a ton of other ways of engaging with art, but cultivating this kind of self-aware thoughtfulness is the basis for all the rest of it. The basis of a lot of living well. #unexaminedlives. We’re not talking about turning  into a – hold back the sick – literary theorists after all. Just helping them get a bit more out of swirls of paint or lines of ink.

What the next stage in an aesthetic education might look like I’ll leave to you, someone who has spent five years formally studying fiction-books, in your next bletter.

Yours appreciatively,


P.S. *This issue of enjoyment vs. other stuff, Greene’s entertainments versus novels, and genre versus literature is all something we’ll have to come back to some day. For now though, I will leave that can of worms on the shelf beside the baked beans and Spaghetti-Os.



Filed under Dear Jim, Reading, The Silver Screen, Writing

3 responses to “Dear Jim… (#17) Re: On Converting The Philistines

  1. Simon Turner


    RE: the question of enjoyment. Michael Chabon’s collection of essays “Maps and Legends” is really interesting on this topic. I don’t have the exact quotation to hand at the moment, as I’ve lent my copy of the book to the nefarious Loveard, but in the lead essay in the collection, ‘Trickster in a Suit of Lights’, Chabon attempts to tackle the problem of this binary between ‘fun’ and ‘importance’, and comes up with the quietly radical solution of almost limitlessly expanding what we conceive of as being ‘enjoyable’ or ‘entertaining’. Genre fiction gets a bad rap, Chabon argues, because it’s equated with junk food by purveyors of lit fic and ‘serious’ culture: it’s all about the addictive charge of the ‘what now?’, and by default – goes the logic – it can’t offer the long-term mental sustenance provided by serious literature. Which is bunkum, basically, and M-Chabs makes a strong case for some form of enjoyment or entertainment being present across the literary board, so that everything, from the page-turning momentum of an airport thriller to a dense block of high-end linguistic theory that needs to be picked apart with a fine-tooth comb, can be enjoyable for the reader: it just necessitates recalibrating our definition of ‘enjoyment’, and overturning those rather silly binaries that limit and corrode our literary culture. Read voraciously and randomly!

    Simon @ G&P

    • Jim

      Can I just say for the record that you totes have not leant me “Maps and Legends”? Alternative facts!

      – Jim

    • S@GP,

      Yeah, I think there is actually something in the idea that airport thrillers are less likely to provide the ‘long-term mental sustenance’, but I think that is more to with the fact that you *can* read them passively. It’s not that there is nothing in a Robert Ludlum novel to light up the pre-frontals its more that you can get away without engaging. I would say that is broadly what allows pop-culture to become pop. That easiness.

      Easiness is a skill too and perhaps worth pointing one’s instruments at. You do need to choose to engage in that way. The fault is not in the books, but in ourselves.

      Ulysses on the other hand, can *only* be got through if you’re gonna take the reading seriously. Which is why it can only sneer.

      I think the point about expanding the idea of enjoyment is what I was getting at although I did so by throwing more stuff into the bucket with ‘enjoyment’ rather than redefining. I suspect it also reflects our readerly backgrounds: you wanting your academic colleagues to read Christopher Priest like he was Dickens, and me having found there’s more to reading than Michael Crichton.

      The end result is the same. More reasons to read.


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