Daniel Mendelsohn is the prizewinning writer and cultural critic whose latest book, "Waiting for the Barbarians," is newly published by the New York Review of Books. Mendelsohn comes to the ALOUD series series at the Los Angeles Central Library on Thursday, where he'll be in conversation with Jonathan Lethem. He answered our questions about his essay collection and the state of criticism today via email.
The criticism in your book covers both high culture (19th century German literature) and pop culture ("Mad Men"). Do you think the high/low division still exists in our culture?
Well the division is certainly there, I think; I just choose to ignore it, because I'm interested in many things -- literature of course, since that's my background, but also popular movies and theater and opera and especially TV. (To my mind, the best writing happening in this country right now is in television, not "high" literature: it is the dominant art form of the present moment, the most exciting and lively: it's where culture is happening.) Oddly enough, it's my training, a long time ago, as a Classics scholar that gave me this broad perspective. When you study the ancient Greeks and Romans, you don't just study the "high" stuff -- you study everything, high and low, the erudite poetry but also the bawdy popular theater, with its scatological humor and foul-mouthed diction; you look at graffiti and pornography and kitchen utensils and tchotchkes, and try to put a picture together of what the whole culture was like, based on your deep study of all this detritus. In a way, I guess you could say that that's what I'm trying to do in the criticism I write: I'm looking at everything, from "The Lovely Bones" to "Avatar" to a new novel based on the Iliad, and trying to figure out what it all means -- as if it were the year 4012 and I'm looking back 2,000 years at "American culture."