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Mark Twain was underestimated by his fans; Henry James was largely ignored by his countrymen and preferred to live in England (he even became a British Citizen). America was, alas, a country of great eccentrics and great prudes, of great writers and few readers.

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People interested in putting together a very restricted canon of great books don’t really like reading; true readers, among whom I have the impertinence to include myself, are always sniffing out more and more titles. Reading is a hobby that never grows stale–and an unpunished vice.

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If we look at classic authors, we can see that evil characters are not always unsympathetic; we are drawn to schemers, revenge-seekers, bad hombres, because they have strong intentions in a vapid world, piercing insights into the fog of existence, unrelenting plans in a rudderless world.

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Precision is easier to master than artful vagueness, especially now when, thanks to Google, novels are fact-heavy. We no longer refer to “flowers” but to particular varieties of roses. The whole valuable distinction between foreground (precise) and background (blurred) has been lost, and now everything is crowding toward the viewer, clamoring for attention.

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The novel remains the one artistic form to explore our thoughts, to get inside our heads, and that is where we live.

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