I want to talk about humility. And I know that’s going to seem like an odd thing, but the subject does come up extemporaneously even if it’s not a common choice for the subject of a blog post. And it does relate to several other things we spend a lot of time digging into around here, so please bear with me as I make my way to the point.
The thing that really gets me about it is that people act like it’s noteworthy or extraordinary. Honestly, I really can’t wrap my head around that. Humility is inevitable. It’s normal. It really is.
Consider Chuck Mangione, the mastermind behind the 1978 Billboard hit “Feels So Good.” Here’s what he had to say on the subject:
I keep telling people to look for the zen masters of music: the Dizzy Gillespies, and the Art Blakey’s, and the Cannonball Adderlies, and the John Coltranes, the Charlie Parkers…. I just consider myself a lucky kid who got a horn and likes to honk on it. So… there’s a lot of other people to check out.
I don’t know a single jazz musician that doesn’t talk like that. Mathematicians…? If you could get them to open up, I’d expect them to be the same way when it comes to Fermat, Euler, and Pascal. If you could find somebody big in computer programming right now, corner them– and then compare them to John McCarthy, the creator of Lisp. First they’ll be stunned, then they’ll be honored, then they’ll struggle to turn down the compliment without coming off as ungracious.
It’s an appreciation of a canon that makes people genuinely humble– and that’s one huge reason why the whole “don’t read anything before 1980” scene is going to have some particularly noxious side effects as things go on. It’s much more than the destruction of common reference points that makes it infinitely harder to convey rich ideas and imagery through easily invoked allusions. It’s an attack on entire generation’s capacity to even develop an essential virtue.
You can see this in the fantasy fans that only even know Brooks, Jordan, and Martin. But it’s much worse for the young protesters whose depth of literary exposure fails to go beyond Harry Potter. It shouldn’t be like this. And yes, I’ve seen it dismissed repeatedly I think I’ve heard every conceivable explanation for why older generations tend to resent the younger ones. People get nervous whenever this subject is broached and start cracking “get off my lawn” jokes, but something really significant is happening. Take a look a JD Cowan’s account of how he managed to dig himself out of this sort of thing:
Then I read someone named G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. It fundamentally changed how I saw the world. He was the first person I’d ever read that made perfect sense. It was as if he was talking directly to me over a hundred years after writing that book. I’d never experienced anything like that before. Looking into him led me along an odd string of events to find a book called The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope which honestly might be the best book ever written. It had everything: action, adventure, comedy, romance, and it was fun. It made me realize that I’d missed so much, and I never even knew it.
But what really shifted the way I saw things was Mr. Chesterton as a person. He was friends with H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. He was a well known figure. He wrote scores of books, fiction and non-fiction, and he was highly respected even among those he opposed. He even wrote a pretty good play called “The Surprise” that earns its title.
That lead me to a very important question: Why had I never heard of him?
That is the question.
Every other field has the benefit of a canon. Can you imagine Mathematics or Computer Science or even Jazz leaving this sort of thing up to serendipity? It would destroy them. There’s no way around that. I suppose the case could be made that literature is different somehow. Regardless, science fiction authors’ penchant for slagging off on their pioneers and predecessors is more than a little tacky. The reactions to my rather mild pushback in that area are rather telling, I think:
On the other hand, Johnson takes it all so very seriously. In his concluding and judgemental rant he seems to treat the Appendix as an authoritative, sacred canon that defines which books of the period are worth taking a look at instead of just a list of titles that Gygax happened to read and enjoy.
Note where the sneer really takes root there: at the invocation of the sacred. It’s like the attitude is completely foreign to them.
The thing is, it isn’t to Chuck Mangione. And that’s a huge part of why he was able to make such a superlative recording.