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Gass, William H., writer, philosopher, critic, author of three collections of short stories, the novels Omsetter’s Luck and The Tunnel (which won the 1995 American Book Award) including a lengthy passage on the merits of reading for a young man which I will include here when I find my copy of the novel again. For the moment I will include a passage from the essay “Even if All the Oxen in the World,” found on page 273 of Fiction and the Figures of Life.

“It’s in a way unfair to popular culture to compare it with the workmanships of artists since they do perform such a different functions; nevertheless this kind of comparison is not completely unjust. Both shape a consciousness, but art enlarges consciousness like space in a cathedral, ribboned with light, and though a new work of art may consume our souls completely for a while, almost as a jingle might, if consumption were all that mattered, we are never, afterward, the same; we cannot not consciously go in the old way; there is as in Rilke’s poem “Torso of an Archaic Apollo,” no place that does not see us, and we must change our life. Even Arnold Bennett noticed that we do not measure classics; they, rather, measure us. For most people it is this that’s painful; they do not wish to know their own nothingness-or their own potentialities either, and the pleasures of popular culture are like the pleasures of disease, work, poverty, and religion: they give us something to do, something to suffer, an excuse for failure, and a justification of everything.

Gass lives in St. Louis, and I spoke to his lovely wife Mary one afternoon when I was seeking to bring him to a conference on the arts I was organizing in Saskatchewan after reading one of his articles in Harpers. He grew up in Fargo North Dakota and I thought I might be able to tempt him to come a little further north.  Mary said he wasn’t taking speaking engagements at the time.  He is now 88, and as far as I know, still alive.

He has published 10 books of non-fiction including On being blue.


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