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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 23, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Local Services, Ethel M, and the Real Canon

Local commercials are notorious for being very, very bad. The screaming car guy. The married couple arguing in stilted dialogue and then reconciling over some absurd store or product. You've seen them; you've fast-forwarded through them; you've mocked them.

But that isn't how it has to be. For instance, for years I've worked with Andy Lindsay of Barking Shark, a local media production company. Since I have nothing to advertise, I've never hired him to devise a commercial for me.

Ads for books make zero difference in sales; the only things that affect book sales are the cover, word-of-mouth, and your past experience with the author or the genre.

But if I were to attempt a commercial for a book, I'd head straight to Andy Lindsay, because of ads like this one that he entered in a Doritos national commercial competition: http://vimeo.com/32321946 .

Officially we're not supposed to regard commercials as entertainment, but the good ones are. They're the commercials we don't fast-forward through. The ones we stop for and make our family come into the room to watch. And there's no reason why local television and radio advertisements can't at least aspire to that level of cleverness and memorability.

*

Did you need another source of excellent chocolate candies? I know I didn't. I have See's and Fannie May, both online. From Fannie May, it's the vanilla buttercreams; from See's, it's pretty much anything.

I also have Loco for Coco, here in Greensboro; they draw together chocolates from many sources, just for me. Fortunately, they also allow other customers to shop there, too, so you can pick over whatever I happened not to buy.

But because I recently ordered custom M&Ms for a wedding, I ended up on a mailing list for ...

Wait. You do know about ordering customized M&Ms, don't you? You can pick the colors you want, and have your own messages or even pictures printed on them.

They leave enough candies that have the traditional "m" on them for your guests to know that these are real M&Ms and not some pallid substitute.

But you can put on things like the names of the couple getting married, or the name of the graduate. And you can have more than one message. For instance, for the wedding I just bought M&Ms for, half the candies say "Kyle and Emily" and the other half say "Emily and Kyle."

For Halloween, I ordered individually wrapped portions of M&Ms for the high school students who come to our house for religion class at 6:15 a.m. every school day. Our congregation is called "Summit Ward" and we call the religion class "seminary," so half the M&Ms bore the message "Summit Seminary," and the other half "Saints Awake."

So while nobody would call M&Ms "fine chocolate," they're part of American culture, and going to http://www.mymms.com/ to order personalized candies is one of the main reasons for the internet to exist, in my opinion.

Anyway, because I've ordered at MyMMs.com, I got an email chatting about Ethel M's. Guess what the "M" stands for? Mars.

Yep. Ethel Mars was the mother of Forrest Mars, Sr., of Mars candy fame. They tell us that "in 1911, Ethel Mars began treating her family and friends to delicious handmade brittle and candy stirred in copper kettles in her own kitchen."

And so her name is used for M&M-Mars's line of small-batch handcrafted chocolates. They have actual stores in Nevada, but nationwide you can order by telephone from a catalog (call 1-800-438-4356) or online, at the website

http://www.EthelM.com .

You can create your own assortments, the way you can with See's and Fannie May. There are 8 nut selections, 6 satin cremes (the vanilla satin creme is lovely), 4 fruit selections (lime, lemon, raspberry, strawberry), 9 dessert selections, 6 truffles (dark chocolate is good, but cinnamon is great), and 7 caramels (including both creamy and chewy varieties).

The look is somewhere between the natural matte finishes of See's and Fannie May chocolates, and the shiny "patent leather" finish of Godiva. The presentation is lovely -- enhanced by the inclusion in every box of a photographic chart of all the chocolates, so that gift recipients can identify each flavor before taking a bite.

In a large box you can choose up to 8 flavors; in the smaller box, up to 6. Order a box for yourself, and decide which flavors you want to send as gifts to family and friends in faraway places.

The hard thing, really, is deciding whether to send Fannie May, See's, or Ethel M boxes.

And then, to complicate things further, I must point out that you can go in to Loco for Coco and order boxes to be sent to your entire Christmas list from that store!

Several local companies are giving customers and/or employees Loco for Coco selections in customized mini-boxes, with the company name and a message printed on; you can't beat Loco for Coco's elegant presentation.

So if, like us, you're committed to giving mostly Christmas gifts that are to be consumed rather than take up space in the recipient's house forever (or until the next white elephant gift exchange), I'd head for Loco for Coco first (or their website, http://locoforcocochocolate.com/ ; but to order their brilliant non-pareils or customized selections, you have to phone them at 336-333-0029), and check out their offerings.

Besides, if you live in or near Greensboro, giving Loco for Coco gifts supports a local business, which is a wise shopping principle to keep in mind in this troubled economy, so that Greensboro can continue to keep its better-than-a-town-our-size-could-hope-for array of restaurants and shops.

*

I recently took one of the Great Courses on the Western Literary Canon. For those who aren't literature students, the "literary canon" is not book-launching artillery. Or maybe it is. The "canon" refers to a term from religion -- it means that something (or someone) is officially certified. So a person who is declared a saint is "canonized," and also the official scripture is said to be "in the canon."

Extending this to literature, the "canon" means the works that the academic community regards as essential for any educated person to be familiar with.

The trouble is that what academia considers to be the "canon" has become absurd.

Once, there were works that everybody knew because education followed similar paths. When grammar-school students all had to struggle through translating Caesar's account of his Gallic Wars from Latin into English, and then reading Cicero, Virgil, and others in the original, naturally all educated people recognized famous Latin tag lines.

It was a mark of education, not that you had memorized "Veni, vidi, vici," but that you actually understood that it meant "I came, I saw, I conquered," and that it was a clever but perfectly natural and understandable way of delivering the message.

But educated people also read books which they selected themselves. There was no English literature department in any university in the 1800s; it was still controversial to have an English department at Oxford, for instance, when Tolkien helped design the course of study for English students.

After all, why in the world would you need a university to teach you how to read the literature of your own language? So English students were required to learn Old English and Middle English, so they could study great works that were written in versions of English that we no longer speak.

Who in the world would need a teacher to explain Dickens or Austen, Poe or Twain? They're perfectly clear to modern readers. And the only reason you'd need an English teacher to explain Hawthorne is because he's such an unbearably bad writer that you'd rather not read his books yourself.

So the "canon" consisted of books that readers, critics, and writers came to love and respect and pass from hand to hand. Professors didn't tell you that you had to read Dickens -- you simply had to in order to be part of the culture of your time, rather the way that if you haven't read any Harry Potter books you're viewed with pity by anybody who actually reads for pleasure.

Nobody declared Harry Potter to be "officially good" literature. Rowling's books were selected by volunteers. And that's how it used to be.

Jane Austen, for instance, was merely one of many popular writers when her novels first appeared. But she quickly became a favorite among other writers, in part because she developed techniques that nobody else was using, which eventually evolved into the third-person-limited viewpoint that absolutely dominates popular literature today.

And Austen's books were memorable, so that people passed them from hand to hand and from generation from generation. There was no academic support for this, but her books remained in print perpetually because it was always profitable to publish them. They found readers because readers loved them and wanted other people to share the powerful and pleasurable experience of reading them.

That's how, for a time, the canon grew. A combination of joy and admiration, along with the prestige of the person who gave, lent, or recommended the book to you, gave life to the literary canon.

And then they started teaching contemporary literature in the universities, and the whole process was kidnapped by idiots.

Gone was the "love and joy" portion of canon formation. In fact, the more popular a book was, the more despised it became among academics. Why? Because academia swallowed the entire bunkum of Modernism, which sneered at "middle-class" values and thought of "high" literature as something deliberately put out of the reach of the common rabble.

The result was pretentious twaddle like James Joyce's Ulysses, which can only be understood with the magic decoder ring which Joyce thoughtfully provided to friends, and which they passed on to the professors.

By declaring Ulysses to be the greatest work of literature of the 20th century, academics attempted to guarantee their continuing employment. If you can't be an educated person without reading and pretending to understand, care about, and admire Ulysses, then you must obviously take college classes from English professors.

But the whole scheme has backfired, because when we finish learning how to read and understand Ulysses, most of us realize that it's twaddle. Whatever insights into the human condition James Joyce had to offer were trivial compared to the labor of receiving them.

And it's not just James Joyce. Students of literature spend endless labor learning to read work after work of modern and post-modern literature, and then learn the precious and silly vocabulary of deconstruction and the patronizing talking-down of multiculturalism, and in the end, what have they done?

They've opened Al Capone's vault and found it empty, and their English professors stand there like Geraldo Rivera, desperately trying to explain that it's still very important to have opened the vault, even though nothing of value was in it.

The result is that enrollment in English departments has plummeted. It used to be that a major in English was good preparation for a career in law or business, because you learned the roots and bones of English so you could write -- no, communicate -- with clarity and grace.

Now, you learn to write with obscurity and hypocritical pretension, and without independent thought. You come out of English programs knowing nothing of grammar and incapable of writing well, with your head stuffed full of literature that nobody cares about.

I mean really -- do you take Stephen Dedalus or Leopold Bloom into your heart and life?

OK, maybe a few hundred academics do. But it's nothing like the way millions of people have embraced Harry Potter. Or, for that matter, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Pip, David Copperfield, Jo and Meg and Beth and Amy, Elizabeth and Jane Bennett and Darcy and Bingley, Scarlett and Rhett and Melanie and Ashley, Judah Ben-Hur, Frodo and Gollum and Sam, Paul Muad-dib, Hari Selden, Sherlock Holmes, Douglas Spaulding, Tarzan, Conan, Robinson Crusoe, Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister, and animals named Buck and Flicka and Bambi and Lassie.

Maybe you didn't know some of these names, or the works they came from, but I'll bet you knew a lot of them, and not just those whose names are in the titles.

So while academics and critics -- people who live by impressing others with their erudition and elitism -- almost universally declare Ulysses to be the greatest work of the 20th century, volunteer readers -- people who love literature for the joy of it -- repeatedly declare that The Lord of the Rings is the greatest work.

Some of us think that only William Shakespeare and Jane Austen rival J.R.R. Tolkien for brilliance of talent and magnitude of achievement.

Here's the lovely thing: Eventually, the literary canon bends to the popular one. Academics almost universally sneered at Lord of the Rings when it first appeared -- even though the author was the very academic who had rescued Beowulf from oblivion and made it that absolutely essential root of English-literature studies.

They hated LOTR because anybody could read it, without help. They declared it to be shallow and worthless and badly written.

But in fact those epithets applied far more aptly to many if not most of the works they taught as "great" contemporary literature. The Man Booker Prize is usually given to pretentious ephemera whose writing only thinly disguises the emptiness beneath it, but the slightly-more-popular prizes rarely do any better.

And anyone who says Tolkien's writing is less than brilliant simply does not understand language or writing. The Old-English-style poetry of almost every word Tom Bombadil says is a delight to those who recognize it, and Shakespeare and Hardy are the only writers I know who rival Tolkien for his ability to contrast heroic, courtly, common, and coarse language in the same work, the same chapter, the same scene.

Nobody in all of English literature is a better master of English prose than J.R.R. Tolkien.

Take this passage from Lord of the Rings:

"And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness."

Even if you haven't read the book and have no idea of what this moment actually means, that is simply gorgeous, fluid prose. Who has written about the power of language more beautifully than this, exemplifying what he describes?

The people are better judges of great storytelling and, yes, even great writing, than the academics. In the long run, the fads of the volunteer readers are more likely to identify great and lasting works of literature than the fads of the academics.

I'm not talking about bestsellers. There are genres whose best sellers become bestsellers simply because there are so many readers who seek out that genre for their entertainment.

But is anyone still passing along the works of Irving Wallace as must-reads? His work was popular in its time, but its time has passed; it does not take away from its meaning as a marker of culture, but it will never enter the popular canon.

But writers like Dickens and Twain -- and, in the long run, Austen and Alcott and Mitchell and Tolkien and Lewis and Bradbury -- force their way into the academic canon. How? Because while the professors of one generation might sneer at their work, there will come a generation of professors who became readers precisely because of the love and joy and admiration they got from these writers.

They remain perpetually dissatisfied with academic rules and theories that do not make room for works that these professors still love. And eventually, they create new rules and theories that welcome the beloved works, while eventually shrinking and eventually displacing entirely the once-admired works that were never beloved by volunteer readers.

However, there's another process at work in canon-formation: The Rescue. Moby-Dick sank like a rock when it first appeared, but it was rescued by mature readers who realized that it was not just a great literary achievement <yawn> but also a delightful, witty, mean, hard-hitting, powerfully told, memorable story.

Beowulf was a rescue, after all. Even Shakespeare, after years of eclipse, was rescued by a wiser generation. Often great works are pushed "down" into children's literature -- where science fiction and fantasy and women's fiction are often sneeringly placed by academics and critics too stupid to see past their prejudices -- only to be rescued by later generations.

After all, it was as a child that I was first given Alcott, Austen, Mitchell, Bradbury, Dickens, Defoe, and Twain; I was given them by people who loved both me and those books, and they were great and memorable gifts that have stayed with me my whole life.

Here is my rule: Never sneer at another person's taste in reading. Never make another person ashamed of a story that they love. You don't know what hunger that book is satisfying. And the book you despise today may be part of their personal canon in ways that you are simply unable to understand.

Meanwhile, if you're a reader, a lover of books, why not take on a little project? As you gather with family this Thanksgiving holiday, take out a notebook and paper and ask: What are the books you love? What are the books that you have urged on your friends and begged them to read?

Offer no word of judgment or criticism, and permit no one else to offer any. If someone says Twilight and you hate the book, keep your opinion to yourself and write it down.

Write them all down. Every book that has been loved.

The danger is that some will suggest books that they think will make them look smart -- the main reason for pretending to admire most books in the academic canon. Somebody will say "Plato" and someone else will say "Virgil."

It happens that I do love Plato, though I disagree with him on so many things; Virgil, though, I regard as a bit of a talented hack -- does anyone really care about the story of Aeneas? I suppose so. Write down the pretentious ones as well.

Leave the notebook open for people to add titles and authors as they come to mind, for many a beloved book lies deep in the memory and only pops up from time to time.

I think of Nordhoff & Hall's Bounty Trilogy, the third volume of which, Pitcairn's Island, struck me to the heart as a great tragedy, and the second volume of which, Men Against the Sea, became my exemplar of how the villain of one story can be the hero of the next, without changing even a shred of the character.

Create your family's Canon of Beloved Literature, and then distribute it. Post it on your blog. Send it out with your Christmas letter. Give books from it to people you love and care about. Make sure all the books on the list are on your Kindle or Nook or iPad, and sample the ones you haven't read.

We, not the professors, are the creators of the real canon. Let's take conscious control of the thing. As they lose their students, let's gain readers for the books we love. Then, when the professors wise up and start teaching from our canon, they'll get their students back. We will have saved them. Aren't we nice?


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