A big part of our modern education system centers on instilling students with a love of classic literature, and with good reason: left to their own devices, only the most determined students will voluntarily crack open a hefty tome of Shakespeare or Faulkner.
But once they've read enough of the greats, those students can begin to develop preferences about what they read, an important step in the long path to developing an intellectual mindset. And preferences, no matter how outlandish, suggest a sense of taste and a not-inconsiderable body of experience -- vital if you want other mental titans to take you seriously.
In many institutions of higher learning, preferences about literature are taken very seriously. Merely uttering the words "Sylvia Plath" at a university get-together, for example, will kick off a heated discussion that, depending on the amount of spiced beer consumed, escalates in short order into stunning acts of scholarly rage -- someone might even bang their glass on a table.
Not that you need to unleash your inner Conan the Barbarian to make a point about literature. But given how intellectuals inevitably harbor well-tended lists of likes and dislikes, not confessing a deep hatred of, say, John Milton's poetry will compel other learned types to view you with suspicion.
Putting This Theory Into Practice
As previously suggested, the surest way to be revealed as a pseudo-intellectual blowhard is to fake a viewpoint far beyond your knowledge. And there is no greater minefield in that regard than literature. Position yourself as a literary lion, and sooner or later you will find yourself across the table from someone who wants to talk favorite chapters in Ulysses.
Before you can hold an opinion on any one author, you need to read as much of their work as possible: the early stuff, the midcareer stuff, the experimental stuff with letters randomly arranged on the page. You can supplement that with critical essays about the author's style, and pore over guides for those parts you don't quite understand -- so long as you read the books themselves.
After a few hundred pages, you're either enjoying the prose, or the very sight of the author's name on a book cover is enough to make you quake in revulsion (there is a middle ground of total indifference, which no wordsmith should aspire to inspire). Congratulations, you now have an informed opinion: nurture and defend it, in the face of those who will inevitably detail the ways in which you're wrong.
Keep in mind that certain writers and books are in vogue irrespective of their actual merit, and that, worst comes to absolute worst, you can always slam your glass down on the bar and tell anyone within earshot that, popular opinion be damned, you think Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion is a far finer piece of literature than his One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
And The Inevitable Footnote...
Every author has defenders, some fewer than others. Mention the name "Marquis de Sade" in mixed company, and half the room will cringe with revulsion: the French aristocrat was -- how to put this delicately -- a bit explicit in his descriptions of perversion, a big part of why his writings continue to attract attention after more than 225 years.
When confronted with an author whom everybody hates, the more altruistic intellectual is sometimes tempted to rally a defense of the poor bugger, whether or not he or she enjoys the actual writing. This is a noble impulse, and helps level out the wild swings of hatred and love that many authors' works endure throughout their public lives. (Granted, it's more difficult to defend Sade, who went out of his way to offend sensibilities.)
Adapted from How to Become an Intellectual, a firmly tongue-in-cheek guide to becoming a truly brainy thinker, published by Adams Media in April 2012.
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