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Thomas Mann, Guilty Pleasures and Other Letters to the Editor

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This overlooks the possibility that it is culture, rather than race, that is being portrayed. Qualities such as “always fantastically proud”, assuming they exist, would seem unlikely to be of racial origin. Would it indeed be unwittingly racist to think that racial origin is what is claimed?

Generalizing from there, is it possible to criticize any aspect of a culture without appearing to criticize the humanity of its adherents? Tocqueville criticized us, and we are better for it. Otherwise, everything is culturally relative. Cultural relativism is a useful notion. Its widespread application is suffocating.

Peter Yates
Culver City, California

For the publisher:

I would like you to stop asking the luminaries of By the Book to quote their books on “guilty pleasure”. Why reinforce the proposition that everything we read generates or should generate feelings of guilt?

Reading is not like smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. You can indulge in reading as much as you want without worrying about cancer or cirrhosis. I have no guilt about my reading choices. Few people notice what I read, and those who do notice it are judgmental.

Well, most of the time it is. I arrived home one day about 30 years ago with the following message on my phone: “Mr. English is Agnes from the Somerville Library. The title you requested [she switches to an embarrassed whisper], ‘I smell Esther Williams’ [back to normal speaking volume], is ready to be checked.

Like I said, zero guilt. But, just to clarify, the aforementioned book is a surreal compilation of Mark Leyner’s comedic fiction. It is no more a book on Esther Williams than “Fifty Shades of Gray” is a book on Sherwin-Williams.

David English
Acton, Mass.