Surveying this year’s “best books” lists to see which ones I’d read (none, it turns out), I was reminded of a long-ago conversation.
When I was teaching English in Mexico, one of my students was a businessman whose concentration on engineering meant that his education in the liberal arts was largely self-taught. Being an intellectually curious man bent on self-improvement, he told me he only read the classics, which he defined as books at least fifty years old. The ones, he said, that had stood the test of time.
When there is so much great literature to show us how we got where we are, why, he asked, waste time with contemporary stuff, most of which will be forgotten five or ten years out?
Although he didn’t use the phrase, he was arguing in favor of the Western Canon.
For years my own reading tended toward the classics. Like the Mexican engineer, I wanted to understand the currents of thought that run through Western literature—the philosophical and cultural ideas that shape our history and reflect our humanity (often captured in language of unmatched beauty). I think that’s why I became an English major.
Yet, as enriching as the great books are, concentrating on the classics to the exclusion of the contemporary sometimes left me feeling an emotion opposite to the joy of shared humanity. I felt more like an outsider or an anachronism, the same way I feel when I pick up an edition of People magazine and don’t know nine-tenths of the celebrities mentioned.
What good is it to know the origin of a phrase like “all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye,” when most people don’t know and don’t care, and they really just want to talk about J.K. Rowling’s new book about muggles? Focusing on the canon may connect me to countless generations past, but it disassociates me with my own.
I have friends who haven’t read a classic since college freshman English. They read, but they prefer contemporary books—often New York Times bestsellers or one of the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winners. They read for entertainment, for the thrill of discovery, and to share in the lively buzz about books that have currency in the public’s consciousness and conversation.
Nothing wrong with that, but focusing on the contemporary to the exclusion of the classics seems as sad as the other extreme; it leaves me feeling regret for what is lost—how much deeper the conversation might be with some shared knowledge of the canon.
Judging from the “to-be-read” lists on sites like goodreads.com, most readers seem to prefer contemporary books to the classics. If you are one of them, the year-end “best of” lists will help you find books that may stand the test of time; they may even spare you from reading this year’s chaff. But if you are a reader willing to go off the popular path, why not try a book that has already passed that test?
So then, tell me, which classic are you going to read next year? And if you say Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, my heart will glow!