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Our brains have just one scale and we resize our experiences to fit.

We can distinguish, I think, between the aesthetic pleasures that people can appreciate immediately and the aesthetic pleasures that must be developed. For instance, anyone can tell that a picture is of an attractive naked woman with large breasts; however, it takes effort to appreciate the subtle interplay of light across her cleavage. The latter is called ‘taste.’

Having taste tends to make you dislike popular things and to dislike more things. This is, I think, because taste does not so much change the things you care about as give you more things to care about. A reader who doesn’t have particularly good taste in literature wants a protagonist who’s engaging, a plot that keeps them reading, and an absence of grammatical errors so glaring that it throws them out of the story. A reader who has good taste, conversely, wants all that and a world that feels so real you could step out into it, a thematic argument that coheres, a plot that continues to hold up a week later, psychological realism, and prose that sings. The former reader is perfectly satisfied with the Da Vinci Code; the latter spends the entire time going “OPUS DEI DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY.”

A lot of things that people with taste like are just completely inaccessible to people without taste. I think this happens for two reasons. First, sometimes you have to put in effort to learn how to appreciate things. My understanding is that in filmmaking there is something called “cinematography”, which possibly has to do with camera angles and things, and which is the reason that Hannibal is so trippy and the fight scenes in Mad Max Fury Road make more sense than those in other action movies. There are certain directors the cinematography of whom various people I know are excited about. I have absolutely no idea what they’re so excited about, because I don’t have taste in cinematography, but I’m glad they like it.

Second, when you appreciate a lot of different things, books can be good in different ways. For instance, you might read a book with absolutely gorgeous, lush worldbuilding and prose that is kind of lacking on the plot front. Since you appreciate more things about the book, you can enjoy it. Conversely, the reader who just wants an interesting plot is like “nothing happened in this book! 0/10.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people have decided to pretend that they have taste when they actually don’t. Perhaps this is because taste is a Veblen good, a way of showing off that you have enough free time to listen to all of Bauhaus and enough intelligence to understand what they’re going for. Some areas people try to cultivate taste in are just fake: for instance, even experts can’t reliably tell apart good wine from bad. This is of concern for any aspiring connoisseur. How do you know if you actually are learning more about poetry, or if you are just deluding yourself?

If you’re interested in not deceiving yourself about whether you have taste, I’d recommend running an occasional blind taste test (pun completely intended). Ask a friend to pick an unfamiliar song by a popular and widely disliked band, and an unfamiliar song by a band you like and think is generally good. If you don’t consistently pick the liked band, then you are probably engaged in self-delusion.

In my opinion, it is a good idea not to develop taste in anything where developing taste will cost you more money. For instance, I would strongly advise against developing taste in chocolate. You will no longer be able to appreciate the two-dollar chocolate bars at your local convenience store! You will find yourself dropping two hundred dollars at the Godiva store and thinking to yourself ‘wow, this is really a bargain’!

Conversely, there is no cost in developing a taste in literature. The Warrior’s Apprentice costs exactly as much as Storm Front, it’s just that one of those books is not written by a hack. Indeed, my understanding is that developing a taste in music may even save you money, because instead of spending a couple hundred dollars on the Fall Out Boy concert you’re spending twenty bucks to see some obscure hipster with an acoustic guitar.

You should absolutely not develop taste about anything that is necessary for your life. Personally, I require three to four cups of tea daily to remain a coherent and functional person. Quite by accident, I developed a significant enough amount of taste that I am repulsed by drinking Lipton tea, which I wind up drinking anyway when I am (for instance) on vacation and away from a steady tea supply. If I had better taste in tea, I would be equally grumpy when I had to drink Celestial Seasonings and I’d be unhappy any time I was in a restaurant.

There are some kinds of experiences where developing taste ruins the experience. For instance, I am a big fan of modern, non-representational art. I appreciate it on an instinctive, gut level: it makes me grin and wiggle and bounce up and down and flap my hands. I understand that many of the artists are attempting to question the nature of art and so on, but I see no reason to develop taste in this matter. I fear that developing an understanding of what Rothko means for painting would interfere with my instinctive delight in the big yellow-and-red square. I suspect that taste tends to be higher, more intellectual, more rarefied, and thus might interfere with pleasures that are childlike or animal.