Not “popular culture,” just culture


At a cocktail party, the topic would come up. Inevitably. And when it did, all the academics would make condemnatory, exasperated noises. TV was bad, soulless, empty, moronic. Everyone knew that. One by one, they would take the pledge, one of the pledges, anyhow:

“We have no television.”

“We have a television but it’s black and white.”

“We have a color TV but it only gets a couple of channels.”

“We have a TV with cable but we never watch it.”

“We watch cable TV but only PBS and ‘serious’ programming.”

“We watch several channels on TV but we make fun of everything we see.”

You only had to wait, oh, about 17 minutes before these same academics would be demonstrating an astonishingly thorough knowledge of Law and Order and the specific accomplishments of Michael Moriarty and Sam Waterston as the Executive Assistant District Attorney.

This was not just the sherry talking. The academics had to give one another permission to take the topic seriously, to settle into it by degrees. Because of course they did. It was only for official purposes that TV was “not done.”

Some of the more desperate neo-Cons continue to insist on this position. But the rest of the world managed to come to its senses.  Most academics no longer regard TV watching as a “shameful secret” and a “guilty pleasure.”

This is a very big cultural difference, one of those differences that makes a difference. I am not sure who gets the credit. Some of it must go to people born in the late 60s and 70s.  It’s also true that TV got better (HBO and all that). But this weekend I came across something that might some day be seen as a watershed: in 1993, there was a changing of the guard at the Times crossword puzzle.

No, really. Before 1993, the author of the crossword was Eugene T. Maleska, former Latin teacher and, according to the Times, a curmudgeon of some standing. “If you were of a certain age or a cultural snob or raised in or around New York City (or, ideally, all three), he was your hero.” On Maleska’s death, the job fell to Will Shortz whereupon, “the puzzle began to demand much more extensive knowledge of contemporary culture.” It was now necessary to read something other than the Times to dispatch its crossword.

But this is just the surface thing, really, the obvious one. For Shortz’s puzzles also demand “the ability on the would-be solver’s part to come to terms with a number of other puzzle dimensions: themes that bear on how one interprets clues correctly, rebuses, squares containing more than one letter or figure, graded levels of difficulty, and so on.” In sum, the puzzle began to demand a dynamic engagement. You have to listen to the game as you play it. The game instructs you as you go.

Ah, cultures, by their puzzles we may know them.  Ah, puzzles…


All quotes from: Romano, Marc. 2005. First chapter: Crossworld. As excerpted in the New York Times. July 10, 2005. here


Hargurchet Bhabra (for the title of this post)

2 thoughts on “Not “popular culture,” just culture

  1. Grant

    Amanda, Thanks! It is hard to imagine that you can claim cultural competence and never watch TV, but this is not uncommon. Thanks, Grant

Comments are closed.