Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Magical Mysteries and the Mass Market

Magical Mysteries and the Mass Market by Daniel Harms is a talk that explores the ironic nature of the idea of "secret knowledge" being published. There is in the Western world a long tradition of writing and (once the printing press was invented) publishing books that contain secret information. The fact that such books are written at all reveals something about human nature. People love the idea that they are being told a secret, something that only the select few are privy to. We all want to feel special, and one of the ways we seek that out is by being included amongst others we think are also special. There are many ways this desire expresses itself, including joining cults, secret societies, and endorsing conspiracy theories.
The irony comes when people turn for this feeling to books. "Secret" knowledge, once published, ceases to be secret. The very act of writing information down puts the secret in jeopardy, sending it to the publisher puts it to death. (To be fair, in the days of old, before mass publishing, the idea was that only a few books would be printed, and then closely guarded.) This talk discusses the popularization of this secret information in the novel format. At the beginning of the 20th century (and, ironically, likewise at the end of it), interest in acquiring such information through the mixture of science and mysticism exploded. Books poured out of the pens of middlin' quality writers (and even, surprisingly, some quite good writers, William James, Henry James, and most philosophers all tinkered with this) opening to the public both new "discoveries" and lost "knowledge." Since then, the market has experienced a glut of such books, in a non-stop torrent of literary (and much less literary) creations designed to titillate the masses by pandering to their desire to be in the know.
And, well, I think the point has been made. Fortunately, it's an interesting one, especially from a Christian perspective. Christians believe that there is in fact a book which can convey knowledge, knowledge which is not commonly known to the masses.
Here, however, is where the analogy breaks down. The knowledge of God contained within the Word of God is not unknown because it is secret, has been hidden by a cabal, or has been forgotten, but because we are wicked and have suppressed it. And this is why there will never be a Christian best seller that fits comfortably into this category of fiction- no one wants to read that the great hidden secret which only a select few know is "you're a sinner and you hate God."
Overall the talk was interesting, if a bit dry at times (Harms is clearly young and inexperienced at public speaking, but he shows great potential once he gets his feet under him). Recommended for those interesting in the relationship between books and people :)

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