RARA-AVIS: "The Canon"?

From: Mark D. Nevins (nevins_mark@yahoo.com)
Date: 28 Feb 2009

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    MRT wrote:
    "There is still the idea of the "great books", that somehow it matters whether one reads the Iliad or not. It doesn't matter. If you read Jim Thompson and not Thackeray, it's fine. If you read Italo Calvino and not Shakespeare, that's fine, too. If you read Cormac McCarthy for dystopias instead of Brave New World, that's fine, people will get a lot out of it. Harold Bloom has had a bad influence on this great book business. This attitude considers learning and course-taking as some sort of badge of honor. It is nothing of the sort. Reading some good books, maybe not that many, and thinking about them a lot, discussing them, that's what it's about. Especially reading a little and thinking a lot. No badge (frankly, thinking of education as a badge is ridiculous).".

    This topic is WAY off-charter, but I can't help but respond since it seems to have generated a thread with some leg.

    To put things in the most essential perspective, you're right, MRT, it doesn't matter. When we live on a planet where a large number of our fellow humans are literally starving to death or living under extreme oppression, no, it really doesn't matter what anyone reads.

    That being said, if one is as lucky and priviled as I assume most RARA AVIANS are, and one wants to partake of the greatest human thoughts ever recorded, one should want to read the Bible, the works of Homer and Shakespeare, etc. etc. If for no other reason than these writers and the other "great books" have literally shaped the entire discourse of western thought. There is a great conversation that begins with the Greeks, and travels up through the Enlightenment, and forms the entire basis of modern democratic society. You can ignore it if you want to, but up until the "canon wars" of the 1980's, all educated people, even mildly educated ones, read these texts. It remains to be seen if the world will be a better place now that schools no longer teach these texts. (In order to head off criticism that my position is somehow culturally hegemonic, I'd also suggest that an intelligent person should also be interested in non-Western texts--one of my own
     interests is the African novel--but to be fair those texts, for good or for bad, were not a part of the "great conversation" that forms the basis of the dominant culture of the last several hundred years.)

    More to the point of this particular discussion group, spending time reading Plato and Rousseau and J.S. Mill and George Eliot and yes Austen (a writer with an admittedly limited scope but one who essentially created an ironic manner of addressing social conventions which has deeply influenced modern culture from the novel to the sitcom) doesn't mean that one can't also read Hammett, Thompson, and Bruen. I'm not at all arguing for a canon (and I have no idea how poor Harold Bloom got dragged in here as a straw-man), I am just saying that one doesn't need to choose, and that choosing not to read "the classics" seems to me to be choosing to cut oneself off from what is essentially the central nervous system of our civilization.

    I do very much agree that reading actively and thoughtfully, and discussing what one reads with others, is probably essential: as Mortimer Adler (another straw-man for "the canon," if you're looking for one) once memorably noted, "reading alone is like drinking alone." (The existence of groups like RARA AVIS suggests he may have been on to something.) But, please, much as I love Goodis, I can't take seriously an argument that says that reading Goodis or McCarthy is somehow a substitute for reading Shakespeare or Homer. Why not read all of them, and dabble widely?

    Mark Nevins Who wonders if the occasional anti-academic tone on this List is symptomatic of something even deeper . . .

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