Sunday, January 23, 2005

Great Books

Having come of age in the 1970's and later, I've had a good view of the changes in education that have taken place since the tumultuous years of the 1960's, including the reaction against what are known as the "Great Books", or as some call them, books by "dead white men". The argument in a nutshell against keeping these books as a major part of the educational curriculum is that books written by white men must be about white men, and must therefore exclude narratives about women and anyone who isn't white. A white man, by this argument, is somehow unable to write a book or a story about a black woman, and vise-versa. Secondarily, there is an affirmative-action side to the argument, which is that women and non-whites deserve to have their literature read too.

Certainly there's some truth to both these points. Many of the "Great Books" are white, male-oriented narratives, and as recently as the last century, for example, female authors felt compelled to use masculine pseudonyms since the prevailing view was that women either had nothing to say, or nothing to say about certain subjects. James Tiptree, a pseudonym for Alice Sheldon, who disproved the idea that there was a substantial difference between "male" writing and "female" writing in science fiction, is a good example of such a pseudonym. Clearly art and artistic talent occur in all cultures and in both genders, and to argue that only "Western" civilization, or dead white men, or left-handed housewives from Topeka, have produced literary masterpieces is to miss the richness that human literature embodies. Art resists definition, and one man's masterpiece is another's Ed Wood.

But lurking in the reaction to the "Great Books" is the idea that we can only write about our own "kind", that a white man is incapable of writing accurately about a black woman. While it might well be more difficult for him to do so, it cries conceit to say that he cannot, or worse, that he should not even be permitted to try. Such logic, followed to its extreme, would conclude that none of us can write anything but our own autobiographies, which is clearly not true. At the same time, to argue that all the great books that can be written have already been written is no less ridiculous. The concept that the canon of great literature is closed is clearly indefensible.

Unfortunately, the reaction against the "Great Books" has been swept up in the troubled world of academic politics, and this has diluted its original and noble goal of bringing out literatures beyond the old canon. Rather than simply add diversity to literature, the movement has sought to redefine the canon to exclude the old classics, claiming that they do not speak to the majority.

This begs the question: Can we read too much? Does spending an evening with Hemingway preclude us from reading Morrison? It is certainly true that there are more books in existence than anyone can possibly read in a lifetime; in fact there are more books published each year than one can possibly read in a lifetime. But given that the average American reads so little, it seems ironic that the very academics whose job it is to study literature (and teach it, presumably) should try to actually reduce how much people read. Such is my first objection: the canon is flexible, and open ended. We do not need to remove the "Great Books" from it; rather, we need to add to their number. As Joanne Greenburg put it in I Never Promised You A Rose Garden: "To praise one thing is not to damn another."

My second objection lies in the effort to redefine "Great Books" themselves. Again, a central argument is that they aren't relevant to the masses, that they speak only to a small minority of educated white males, and are therefore at best irrelevant and at worst guilty of perpetrating sexism, racism, and whatever "-ism" is currently trendy. Yet, as Jonathan Rose has noted, it is only recently that the "masses" have found such works inaccessible; perhaps the classics are classics because they speak to a wide audience, and that audience transcends generations and even cultures. Perhaps, in fact, there is something to Shakespeare or Homer or Austen or Steinbeck that makes them great, and that it is we in our reality TV mass-media dominated society who can no longer appreciate them. Perhaps those of us who fancy ourselves authors need to try and find out what that something is if we are to write literature that is meaningful.

In my own reading, the thing that most strikes me about "great" literature is that it is more than simply entertainment. Certainly there is a place for entertaining books, and a great book can be entertaining, but what distinguishes books I remember and reread from those I don't seems to be the extent to which they challenge me. This is different from simply having a "moral" to the story, or using a story to present a finalized philosophical idea; a great book is a sort of conversation in which the ideas the author puts forward are meant to inspire debate, thought, and growth. Often such books do not provide answers but rather simply frame questions. The result is that the reader must wrestle with the book and its implications long after the last page is turned, and for this reason the story stays with us. It may, if read by others, even engender dialogue among its audience.

When combined with technical virtuosity, the result is art of great power. The Grapes of Wrath may be about a white American family in the Dust Bowl, but its critique of capitalism and the "stumbling-forward ache" that characterizes human beings is about everyone; it is a thesis about humanity and can be applied to any time in history and any place in geography, and discussed in any of these contexts. The desire for revenge is sadly universal, and one not need be a prince of Denmark to benefit from the implications of Hamlet.

The conclusion? Read. Read the "Great Books" and read other books. Develop an eye not only for what the story is saying, but what it is making you think. And if it is making you think, even if this makes you uncomfortable, ask yourself why and keep reading. Great literature is great because you can emerge from it with so much more than you had when you began.


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