This month Lindsay Ellis discusses the Literary Cannon, or how books become “worthy“, in It’s Lit.
I swear that when I started posting these videos that I didn’t know the series would cover one of my pet topics. Worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures, are all things I love to bang on about. This video feels like a worthy addition to my posts on the topic.*
Let’s explore what makes a book “important.”
Literary critics, writers, philosophers, bloggers–all have tried to tackle where and why and how an author may strike such lightning in a bottle that their works enter the pantheon of “Classical Literature”. Why this book is required reading in high school, why other books are lost to history.
It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. This all leads to a nationwide vote of America’s favourite novel. Learn More Here: https://to.pbs.org/2IXQuZE
Old white guys sit around discussing how to set up a totalitarian military state with them as the rulers.
Plato’s famous text covers a lot of ground as it tries to establish what justice is. It covers politics, personal and political ethics, idealised states (democracy ranks third out of four), education, and virtue. The Republic is a heady read, whilst being fascinating.
The strawman style to the interlocuter dialogue did annoy me as a reader. Whilst it was in service of making a larger point, it did make the discourse feel more shallow than it is. Plato’s thinking was also amazingly progressive for an age that predates the enlightenment by the best part of a millennium. But this thinking was also confined by the times.
Plato, along with Socrates and Aristotle, were the drivers behind western society. Books like The Republic put forward a lot of ideas for discussion and dissection, opening the dialogue that would lead to progress. That alone makes The Republic worth reading, but I also found it was worth reading if only to see much of it in context rather than discussed second-hand. E.g. The famous allegory of the cave takes on a slightly different light when not viewed in isolation.
I have long-held a disdain for the way reading and books are presented in schools. At a time when kids are trying to be cool by gaming, watching the right TV shows, seeing cool movies, Snap-chatting themselves half-naked, and sleeping until noon, schools try to suck all the fun out of reading.
Up until high school kids are more likely to read regularly for pleasure. At high school this rate declines markedly, and doesn’t really recover until retirement (if at all, as I’d argue that the older people making up those Pew survey numbers grew up in an age before internet, decent TV, and gaming). Not only are teens exposed to more other potential entertainment sources, they also find less enjoyment in reading. Something happens in high school. Something terrible. We assign them standardised texts to read!
In his book, Readicide, Kelly Gallagher explains why the American system has been failing kids and how to fix it. I think many of the points apply to any nation that utilises an emphasis on standardised testing for schools. Below is a summary presentation that you can navigate to by clicking on the image. Worth a look for any fellow book nerds and/or parents.
I don’t actually agree with everything in the overview, namely the idea that classics are classics for a reason. You have to remember that the reason a book becomes a classic is often chance, or because some person reckons it should be, not because it is always good. Plenty of good books have undoubtably been lost in obscurity and thus to history. An example of a book now regarded as a classic that was almost lost to history is Moby Dick. It faded into obscurity after its release and was pretty much forgotten until one literary critic – Carl Van Doren – revived the novel 70 years after its publication. So one guy reckoned it was good, others nodded and agreed with him, and so that means it’s a classic.*
The idea that kids should be reading classics or literary “masterpieces” is part of the problem, in my opinion. This is very much a top down decree of what is important by people who have made a career out of lecturing others on what is important…. to them. Just because they like it doesn’t mean that it will inspire kids to be lifelong readers.
Now, that isn’t to say that those “important” books aren’t worth reading. But it is to say that there is a stark difference between what a literary critic or scholar deems good, and what a kid who just read Harry Potter for the first time deems good. School curriculums would be better off without trying to bash kids over the heads with books they are unlikely to enjoy.
As with most things Hank and John Green are involved with, I have become a fan of Mentalfloss. Their recent article on embarrassing things we all do was interesting, but had one point in it that made me think “what the hell is wrong with you people”.
By “you people” I obviously mean it in the pejorative dissociative sense, in that I’m not having a shot at you, or Mentalfloss, just the ubiquitous and ethereal “them” and “you”. Unless of course what I’m about to write does hit home, in which case, stop it now!
One of the items listed as an embarrassing thing that everyone does, was people claiming to have read books and watched movies they haven’t in order to appear more intelligent. I have previously discussed the list of books people claim to have read and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve haven’t read certain “classics”. I do have to admit to having claimed to have read a book I haven’t, To Kill a Mockingbird (still on my TBR pile), but that is also why I’m coming out against the practice.
And that is the point I wish to make here, there is no shame in not having read a classic book or watched a classic film. Maybe you don’t like extraordinarily long and self-indulgent wedding scenes in a movie (Deer Hunter). Maybe you don’t like novels with more than 450 main characters (War and Peace has over 500). There isn’t any shame in that. And how many “classics” have gone unread because they were in the wrong language, poorly translated, never got published, or just lucked out (John Green made mention of this recently).
Essentially we are worried about our subjective taste disagreeing with someone else’s subjective taste. The stupidity here is that we are being judged for something we haven’t done, rather than a strong opinion one way or the other on the actual topic. If we came out and said “Well, I hated 1984, it was rubbish” or conversely “Well, I loved 1984, and anyone who says it’s rubbish is a poo-poo head” we’d get into deep arguments about the relative merits of the novel. That is perfectly acceptable. But if we say “I haven’t read that one (yet)” or “Never seen it” then the response is something along the lines of calling us crazy, implying we have lived too sheltered a life, and/or that we have missed out on something great.
They could be right, of course. We may have missed out on the single most impressive book or movie ever. Our lives may be dramatically improved by reading or watching the work in question.
The reality is that it really doesn’t matter. Some people will never have enjoyed a Jack Reacher adventure, or clung to the edge of their seat reading a Matthew Reilly novel, because they have been busy reading all the “great literary works”. Who is to say that their choice of entertainment was superior? Some people prefer to watch sports: are they any less entertained?
I think we have to stop pretending that our subjective opinions are something to be ashamed of. Like what you like, don’t be ashamed to say so either. I’m always amazed at the number of closeted Buffy fans there are, which only shows how damaging this mindset of “worthiness” is.
During a discussion the other day my favourite authors and books came up as a topic of conversation. Needless to say I listed off writers like Lee Child, Matthew Reilly, Robert Crais, Matt Hilton, etc. Now these people weren’t exactly literary snobs, but they did respond as if I was supposed to list the authors of classic literature and contemporary literature.
Can we all stop pretending that there is something superior about literary fiction. I’ve seen discussions of social problems in crime fiction, fantastic use of literary techniques in horror, exploration of character and humanity in science fiction; all performed with more skill and insight than I have seen in the literary genre.
How about we go back to judging a book by its cover.