(title courtesy of Johnny Foreigner)
I just finished reading Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, and I'm of several minds regarding it. It's clearly brilliant literature. It's chock full o' allusions and metaphors and satire. There's a good deal of humor in it, the pacing is solid, and the juxtaposition of the two stories is clever and inventive.
I just didn't enjoy reading it very much. Most of the satire was lost on me. I suspect that, even if you're familiar with 1930s life in the Soviet Union, you probably would have to have been there to really "get" it. I missed a great number of the references and, even after reading up on them, couldn't grasp their significance. It was a great book, but it wasn't a great book for me. It understand why people like and I certainly respect it, but it's not a book I look forward to reading again anytime soon.
On the other hand, I just re-read all three volumes of Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen's Phonogram.* I enjoyed it enormously the first time I read it and it didn't lose any of its charm the second time around. It's a pitch-perfect tale series of stories of how people relate to popular culture (and specifically, my favorite flavor of pop culture, music), full of allusion, metaphors, satire, and the best glossary I've ever encountered. The second time through, I was less fixated on the cleverness of the conceit and paid more attention to the character arcs and...oh, just go read it. You can thank me later.
Twenty years ago I would have regarded the comic as a guilty pleasure, but now I know better. Don't think for a heartbeat that popular culture is inferior to real culture. Even when pop culture is simply recycling old stories, songs, fashions, or whatever, and translating them into modern contexts**, it's still the real culture of its era. Whatever Mozart can tell us about life, hip-hop or country and western can tell us in ways more relevant to our lives. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with liking Shakespeare. The Bard is certainly a massive influence on our culture, but influence is not the same thing as being a living element of who we are right this very moment. Popular culture is our culture and I'm done with feeling ashamed of it. ***
** And goodness me, does Phonogram ever address this particular feature of culture.
*** Of course, pop culture doesn't always age well. Most of it looks cringe-worthy five years down the road, but who cares? It's a reflection of right now, and not meant to stand the test of time. The trick is always knowing when to let go and move on.