Maybe we don’t always need to read the ‘great’ books because they’re already in the water. The Canterbury Tales introduced a bunch of new stuff to literature, but then those innovations spread. You’ve probably read a hundred books that took those innovations for granted and built on them. By now, The Canterbury Tales is in your blood as a reader (and as a writer).
In other words, maybe some books have a kind of built-in obsolescence: they carry memes (ideas, values, literary techniques) that eventually spread to ubiquity, and therefore no longer require individual carriers (readers).
But maybe that’s just cute; I still suspect that assigning The Canterbury Tales is a good thing. Lemme see if I can say why.
When we consider assigning books to our students, I think what we really care about – or maybe what we should care about – are two questions:
1) Does this book do something valuable?
This isn’t a tight sieve; there are lots of ways for books to be valuable. Some of those reasons have to do with literary technique; others are more about insight, expansion of perspective, and so on. (And of course, innovations in technique can make certain kinds of insights/reading experiences possible.)
Anyway, The Canterbury Tales certainly meets this bar, but so do lots of books that haven’t attained ‘classic’ status.
2) Was this book (one of?) the first to do something valuable?
This narrows things down quite a lot (and Canterbury still passes, by a big wide margin). Again, there’s value in getting a sense for where we came from, what problems our predecessors encountered and how they grappled with them, what alternate routes weren’t taken, etc.
I’m not suggesting that books need to meet both criteria in order to end up on reading lists. But it’s worth noting that these are two very different types of arguments. 1) is about a book’s continuing relevance – This book might change you. 2) is about a book’s historical role – This book changed people long ago, and we honor its place in our heritage.
Let’s shift things a bit. We’ve talked a lot about the canonical books in the Western tradition, but not much about our personal canons – the books that have meant the most to us. What are some of those for you?
I like that a lot, and I think it’s a useful way to think about the conversational nature of our intellectual history. It allows you to acknowledge the importance of tradition without insisting on rigid reading lists.
As to personal canons, it will probably not surprise you to learn that the first and most foundational book to influence my thinking was the Bible. Growing up in an evangelical environment, I was exposed to scripture long before I was able to understand any of it.
As a child, a fair amount of my intellectual training came via memorizing and reciting verses. When I was a teenager I read the Bible on my own, supplementing it with books about the Bible and the Christian life, such as C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, and Augustine’s Confessions, among others. Any interest that I may have taken in the western canon was preempted by my very early interest in the Christian canon.
As an adult, my gradual separation from evangelicalism has coincided with broader reading habits, though many of these continue to deal in transcendence. Emerson’s Essays has been important to me since college, along with Thoreau’s Walden, and a long list of American “classics” that I consumed out of a desire to understand better my Americanness as well as my Christianness.
Irving, Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Norris, Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck. At first I intended to go to grad school to study William Faulkner specifically. Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin helped to develop my perspective on race. I went through a beat phase, and I still love On the Road. Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O’Connor, and Joseph Heller. Annie Dillard.
While in college I got into Latin American writers, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Giaconda Belli, Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, and Jorge Luis Borges.
This list is inconclusive, and there are certainly others that haven’t really influenced me, but that I wanted to include to make people think that they have. So the list is evidence of restraint in at least two ways.
I hadn’t actually thought much about this before, but clearly my reading interests fall mostly into two tracks, the Christian and the American, which overlap from time to time. I have read a lot of European stuff as well, including about ⅕ of Proust and almost all of Nietzsche, but most of that is not quite as near to my heart. What’ve you got?
I’ve read addictively since I was a kid, but I tend not to be able to list my favorites, or even call them to mind out of context. If you tell me you’re reading James Baldwin, I’ll probably get swoony and effusive, but I don’t walk around thinking about him – or anyone else, really. I just keep gobbling.
I think that’s because I don’t think about the sweep of my life very much. I tend to be pretty focused on the moment, the next task, the rest of the day. I don’t mean that I’m some meditation guru or flow-state master. If anything, it’s the opposite – I’m often caught up in fairly consuming obsessions and compulsions. (As you know, I have a pretty serious case of OCD.)
Because I don’t think about my long-term trajectory much, I also tend not to think of authors or books as pillars or pivots in my life. They may be those things – there are a couple dozen books on Buddhist psychology, and some others on ethics and political philosophy, that have provided a huge portion of whatever shape and orientation my life has – but I don’t make those connections on a day-to-day basis. I don’t even own many books; I suck whatever nutrition I can out of them, and then I sell ‘em or give ‘em away as quick as I can. Keeping them on the bookshelf makes me feel claustrophobic.
Which is a bit weird, since I often read to calm down and de-claustrophobicize in the first place. Fiction is great for getting distance from my emotional and perceptual patterns, for living in another mind-space. And philosophy – especially epistemology, ethics, and political theory – is a great way of putting my often-limiting beliefs under the microscope.
But I also just read because I read. It’s what I’ve always done. I guess I could say something like, “It’s a great way to spend time,” but framing my reading in terms of an abstract value feels ridiculous. It’s self-evidently awesome. Or, at least, it’s self-evidently me.
I keep something like 15 or 20 books going at once – basically, one for every mood or sub-mood. I tend to get big on particular authors and then dive into them hard, or return to them again and again until I’ve read most of their stuff. I’ve had phases like that with Baldwin, Woolf, Dostoevsky, Franzen, and Foucault. Lately, I’ve been really into the novelists Kent Haruf and Michael Chabon.
Our approaches are pretty different – and different in interesting ways. I think a lot about the sweep of my life, and I like having bookshelves full of traces that help me understand it. For a long time I have been a hoarder of books, lugging them from move to move in dozens of medium-sized boxes. But these days I’m trying to transition to something more like your style. In part because I feel that I have come to terms with my life and its various changes, I no longer feel the need to keep those objects close to me.
Now I am trying to focus in on certain writers who help me think more carefully about the world, devoting my energy more to quality than to quantity.
It sounds to me like both of us consider reading to be part of our lifestyles, rather than something that we do casually or for recreation. Do you think of reading as a conscious pursuit? As something you do to cultivate yourself? To grow as a person? Do you think of yourself now as a product of the many books you’ve read in the past? Do you think your life to this point would be markedly different in some ways if you had read different books, or none?
Larger questions: Do you think it is important for people to be active readers in order to reach their potential as human beings? Is it important that they read “great books,” or simply those that speak to their circumstances and interests?
Reading is my single biggest non-work activity (and I integrate it into work as much as I can). I wake up and basically try to de-grog myself as fast as I can – coffee, shower – so that I can get to it. When my first batch of energy starts to burn itself out, I’m thinking about refractory periods.
I’d definitely be a different dude if I’d read different books, but then, if I’d read different books, I’d be a different dude. I can never tell – is saying ‘chicken/egg’ glib, profound, or both?
As for your more general questions, here’s some stuff I think I believe:
1) Some people are wiser than others. They see more of the world, of the sources of our suffering, of the possibilities for renewal. There is a (perhaps infinite) pool of human insight, but these people have plumbed deeper than others.
2) A subset of these people are able to skillfully communicate what they’ve seen.
3) A subset of these people use written language to do so. These are authors.
4) There are lots of ways to communicate insight. Concision, clarity, and honesty can help. So can a poetic sensibility. (In the case of a novel, this often involves a capacity to imagine characters and then translate the non-language of their private thought into prose that’s accessible and comprehensible to readers.) So can a rhetorical sensibility.
5) The first three items in this list might sound like a dispositive list of criteria for inclusion in the canon. But since language and human sensibilities change over time, so too can the usefulness of literature.
Consider two novels: E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Now, let’s assume for a second that they’re both valuable in the same ways, but that Howard’s End has the edge in terms of quality, accessibility, and power. (This is insanely reductionist, perhaps, but stay with me for a sec.) Or, rather, it did when it was published, but given changes in readers’ skills and sensibilities, White Teeth now has the edge. Do we insist on preserving Howard’s End in the canon, given our goals?
6) Wait, what our are goals again? Maybe something like Providing reading experiences that expand students’ awareness of themselves and others in all their complexity. (This includes a sense of their heritage, in both the narrow-ish cultural senses and the larger human/planetary/universal sense.)
7) In other words, we don’t teach 19th century literature just to check a box or to jam facts into students’ heads. We do it because we want to give them a share of what belongs to them – something they might be delighted to have, once they have the skills to recognize/appreciate it. Of course, none of this can be done on demand – it takes a long time to build these skills.
8) But perhaps the canon needs to shift over time, too, and not just because readers’ skills and sensibilities change. There’s also timely stuff going on – wars, demographic shifts, technological developments, cultural changes – that students might need to know about. Literature can help.
9) Two foci of canons, then: the timeless and the timely.
The timeless: the nature of love, aspects of human psychology, etc.
The timely: life in a networked world, eco-threats, etc.
10) Canons can also be good correctives for an overdeveloped focus on the timely. They’re our way of saying, Humans have accumulated a lot of wisdom and a lot of good questions. Your culture has introduced you to some of that. Here’s what you missed.
And also, We couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t give this to you. There are some tensions that people have been wrestling with for a long time – between individuality and community, freedom and responsibility, etc. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel (and feel like an eccentric while you’re doing so). We can work through this stuff together. Take a look at what your grandparents did.
This last is the part of your perspective that I like most. When we talk about the importance and utility of reading, the question usually places the burden of proof on reading’s defenders – how will this be useful to me? You sort of flip that script, placing the burden on the critics – what happens if we don’t read?
It’s not that we teach and encourage reading because we think it will have some vaguely positive effect on your life. We teach and encourage reading because we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t. We would be limiting you in the sense that we would be failing to provide you with the tools to broaden your thinking and deepen your engagement with the world. We owe it to you to ensure that you have access to the historical reservoir of ideas and arguments and artistic achievements that stand to make you a better person with a more satisfying life, and better able to distribute that knowledge and to improve the lives of those you meet along the way.
Once you have this access, if you take it seriously, you will never be satisfied with questions about utility.
Nice! This all reminds me of Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom. His broad idea is that when we think about what we want for ourselves and others, we see that what we really care about is freedom. And not just freedom in some narrow, down-with-dictators sense (though that matters), but also in terms of recognizing and acting on our own deepest, richest potential. What kind of people would we be if we didn’t give our kids the tools to do that?