These "cliff notes to culture" were published when showing up at a dinner party meant you would be expected to display your broad reading. People would literally judge you on how well you could quote Shakespeare and how insightful your comments on The Marble Faun were. (The what?) And how well you did on those subjects would determine whether you were invited to join Skull and Bones, or considered as a match for the young Miss X, or offered an early investment in the Pittsfield-Bulldock Railroad. Contrary to what some suggest, you were NOT expected to love Shakespeare or Hawthorne. But you had to know them and have a well-reasoned opinion about their work.
Two things come to mind about this:
1. It is a good thing for any field of cultural production when strong social pressure exists for individuals to cultivate it. But it is also good for the poor pressured people, too, as at least some of them will discover a pleasure in the process, a pleasure which will enrich their life forever.
2. As in all ages, we are judged on our cultural likes and dislikes today also. But today a well considered opinion on Shakespeare does not matter; while familiarity with a recent pop star and/or stand up comedian and/or news commentator does. And since I can't name a singe one of those, I am never offered an early peek on the PBR investment. So thank god it has been built already and doesn't really need me.