Cultural Buddhism is increasingly attractive. Far from trying to keep up, to be well-informed, to be well-read, to be widely cultured, or even to just be in the swim, all increasingly difficult and thankless tasks, intellectuals are becoming narrow and exclusive, a deliberate specialisation that proves, if proof is needed, that knowledge and the science that produces it is a private good.
In the literary arts this has resulted in a studied negligence of the media-endorsed writers. I am hardly illiterate, and I read a great deal, but I have no interest or much knowledge of contemporary fiction or poetry, and I feel no particular loss or guilt about this omission. In 2009 I took the trouble to read the Booker prize shortlist. It was a tedious experience, and only one of the books left any positive impression on me at all, Sarah Waters' Little Stranger, which is an unpleasant, indeed a nasty, but perfectly written and constructed satire on the National Trust and Mole's enthusiasm for the Water Rat's picnic. The rest I found lacking in interest and, in the case of Hilary Mantel, quite literally unreadable at the sentence level.
At around the same time I bought a number of anthologies of contemporary poetry, and even a few single volumes by better known writers, and read them diligently, but found the sight of mature adults affecting adolescent confusion and ignorance quite repellent. The experiment thus over I returned with relief to energy, economics, and political theory, which, though hard work and often monotonous does actually make progress. The range of reference is very broad, and often novel for even a well-educated reader, and these materials are handled in ways that are both imaginative and intellectually creative. Fiction generally, and modern fiction particularly, on the other hand, seems to leave no residual conceptual trace; it flares up and burns brightly, but the combustion does no work in the thermodynamic sense, and there is no residual trace except the unstructured ashes of a forgotten experience. It seems best to take the short-cut and, after recalling Hume's magnificent advice, throw the things into the metaphorical furnace immediately:
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.