The Nutritional Pyramid of the USDA has taken a beating these days: instead of being built in solid layers, it's now a confusing mass of colored wedges, with recommendations like "eat more orange and dark green" and "make half your grains whole". There's a weird set of fourth-dimensional stairs on one side, and a chartjunk figure climbing on them, to spotlight fitness as well. Is Dr. Tufte in the house?
However, it remains a good metaphor for a lot of things. Clothing, for instance: most people need a lot of casual clothing, fewer pieces of work or school-worthy clothes, even fewer pieces of party wear, and maybe one (or two) formal outfits. And I think the same thing might apply to reading.
When I was a kid, it always seemed odd that, given the number and availability of what were called "classics" (meaning, in Ezra Pound's phrase "news that stays news", rather than the study of the ancient Mediterranean), that so few people read them. In the non-Yale set in Hamden, Connecticut, where I grew up, I was told (by the library staff!), straight out, that I was going to find "The Odyssey" too difficult to read (at the age of twelve) -- since it was Greek, it was "deep", and therefore for "eggheads", not nice little girls who should be (and yes, it was 1970, not 1955), worrying about my appearance, obsessed with clothes, and beginning to notice boys, not trying to figure out who Proteus was and trying to make electric motors from kits. Yet, it seemed arguable that someone who had read widely was more likely to be considered learned than someone whose interests lay in the current line of Helena Rubenstein.
Clearly, then, the idea was to get as many classics under your hat before you died, whatever those silly guidance counselors said, to climb the highest mountains of culture, just to get a better view, and to plumb the deepest, darkest books imaginable. And in this service, I've read Proust, and Derrida, and some of James Joyce, and the Tale of Murasaki..
I still like reading hard books, and even get antsy when I can't find something intellectual to munch on, whether it be a juicy article from Aldaily or a nice dry morsel of recreational math. Having been (mostly) an autodidact, albeit in one of the most intellectual regions on earth, my reading lists have been (mostly) from other people. So it was that I was interested in what I could find out from the Church Book Sale, which was comprised of mostly Yale-educated, literate people, from whom I could reliably find some kind of guidance.
The interesting thing was how many mysteries there were: roughly 75% of the books were mysteries, dating from the Thirties on up. Now and then, there was a book of topical sociology, and there were a few of the better bestsellers, but there were more books by Rex Stout alone than there were in the whole science section.
Hugh Laurie is one of the brainiest, best-educated people (Eton, Cambridge) in the public eye not to make a profession of being so, and (from all reports) is just as well-read, but his favorite two authors are P. G. Wodehouse (no surprise) and John Le Carre, along with Best Books regulars Herman Melville in the shape of Moby Dick, Joseph Heller Catch-22, John Steinbeck (Grapes of Wrath), along with a book on evolution, which only seems present because of class loyalty to St. Charles Darwin, who with the Blessed Thomas Henry Huxley, establishes him as part of the unspoken aristocracy of the British Educated Class. The reading habits of his character, Dr. House, are unknown, except that he surrounds himself with lots of books...from his observable tastes, he's the kind of guy who's seen Wagner at Beyreuth, but would rather be known for having been to Ozzfest, which makes him (arguably) more a true-blue intellectual than the opposite.
Which strikes an interesting chord with me: perhaps, just perhaps, a kind of pyramid exists in reading and culture as well. I wouldn't call "Diary of a Drug Fiend" or "The Code of the Woosters" Great Literature on the same level as T.S. Eliot, but a person who's read the latter and not the former is a little the worse than a person who's read both. One serves to give a background and a setting for the other: Aleister Crowley's knight-errant and Bertie Wooster's errors are just as much a part of the "unreal city" of London in the 1920's and 30's as T.S. Eliot's lost souls. As a matter of fact, Eliot is easier to understand when you've read the lesser books. The same is true of a good many other second-string classics: Gilbert ;amp& Sullivan's operettas and The Wizard of Oz aren't required reading (or hearing), but you're a sight worse off not having met the Tin Woodsman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, or Iolanthe and the Lord High Executioner. Although Lewis Carroll is always spoken of as a real-live highbrow author, Edward Lear's nonsense verse is just as surreal (and his non-nonsensical career just as interesting). Moving up into our own day, Theodore Sturgeon and Alfred Bester are just as avant-garde as William Burroughs and Lawrence Durrell (and just as much fun). Even further down the line, I would consider someone ill-read who didn't know some of the well-known songs, riddles and puzzles as ill-cultured who didn't know how to dress, how to keep house, or how to cook...what do you think?