I’ve been working on my website, ClassicBooklists.com, that attempts to identify the best all-time books through comparing recommendation lists and looking for consensus. As a byproduct of this endeavor, I’m reading a lot about classic books. The obvious question comes up: Should I read the old highly-praised books or should I read what everyone else loves to read at the moment? For example, the last two books I bought from Audible.com were The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the new Pulitzer Prize winner by Junot Díaz. If I followed Harold Bloom’s advice, the sage of western lit, the choice is always between known quality writing and untested new stories, but then I’d miss out on one of the most exciting novels I’ve discovered in years. There could be dozens of canon-worthy writers getting published today but we won’t know that for decades, until the academics give us the signal to start reading.
Most books are sold hot off the presses and people love to read the latest books on the bestseller lists. Personally, I consider it great fun to read a book that I can discuss with other bookworms and this usually means keeping up with the new. And I take gleeful pride in my rare discovery of a book before Entertainment Weekly puts it on their The Must List. There is certain pleasure in keeping up with pop culture, and I think people naturally prefer the new in things. And that’s okay. Besides, sometimes a movie or Oprah will make an old book a bestseller again, and throw the past a bone.
If you track such things, most books disappear as they age. Their best shot at finding readers are when they are new. Classic books are like bestsellers of time, but few actually make the hit parade compared to all the titles that slip off into oblivion. Classic titles come and go out of fashion and damn few stay permanently in print. By reading an old book you help keep it on the All Time Bestseller List.
Without the demands of an English teacher, would anybody read the classics? Would anyone be reading James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, and other literary oldies if it wasn’t because they were forced-fed them in high school and college? Jane Austen and William Shakespeare have major fan clubs that keep their stories popular with the public, but how many people discover Milton or Dante on their own?
And why do books get so much academic support over music, dance, paintings and other art forms from history? We’re made to read old books in school but old music and paintings don’t get equal blackboard time. Sure, we force years of English classes on our kids so they will master language, writing and communication for practical reasons, and maybe the English teachers just sneak in as many of their old favorite inspirations as possible, like promoting Catcher in the Rye. How active would university English departments be if they didn’t have technical writing, creative writing, ESL majors, and the basic freshman courses?
Can you imagine what our culture would be like if our schools only taught job skills? Okay, film majors and aspiring writers taking creative writing courses would study old books a bit because it’s practical to recycle the classics occasionally. Brad Pitt was a great action hero in Troy, and Reese Witherspoon showed off a range of acting talent in Vanity Fair, but they did much better job-wise with Oceans Eleven and Legally Blonde. And when Will Smith got people to watch I, Robot, they didn’t bother to film the actual classic SF stories.
And speaking of the movies, how many people read old books because they saw the film first? I know films have gotten me to read several library shelves of books. I have no proof, but I would bet that Hollywood has gotten more kids to read classic books than English teachers. How many people would go out and read James Joyce if HBO converted A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses into several seasons of television with the production quality of The Sopranos?
Movies may be the best salesmen for books, both new and old than any other form of literary promotion, except television. Little Women and Pride and Prejudice get remade almost once a decade. Movies brings the classic words to the screen along with visuals that help us see the classics, and that’s a big sell.
The question is: Do seeing the classics on the big screen equal reading the classics on the little page? You know how I vote, but am I right?
Many people buy new books by their favorite writers, and some writers become superstars of the reading world. Again, I’m not against this because I want my favorite writers to get rich and keep typing out books I love to read. How many millions of us are now anxiously awaiting J. K. Rowing’s first non-Harry Potter novel? And if you haunt bookstores you know there’s always hordes of new writers to discover. But here’s the problem, why waste time taking a chance on a possibly bad book when there are so many Perfect-10 tomes waiting to be read?
Time and waiting helps. If you wait until the end of the year then reviewers will make their best-of lists and if you compare enough lists, the year’s best books will be revealed. If you wait longer, you can catch The Best Books of the Last 25 Years lists, or The Best Books of the Century. But who wants to wait. Most people buy books by following their favorite authors or trying books written by superstar writers that catches the public’s attention..
Harold Bloom came down almighty hard on J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, where he claimed thirty-five million book buyers can be wrong about Harry Potter, and that giving Stephen King a National Book Award tarnishes all the rightful past winners. I’ve read the Harry Potter books twice, and will probably reread them again in the future. I’d hate to have missed out on them. From the long list of Bloom’s Western Canon I hope I can pass on a few classics to have time to enjoy Harry Potter. Of course, the fact is I don’t always know what I’m missing. What if there are old and forgotten books far more exciting than the Harry Potter novels?
The Great Books
I keep throwing out the name Harold Bloom, but that’s only because he’s the point man for the philosophy that believes knowledge of the great books equals quality education. He calls his best-of-list, The Western Canon. That idea has been around a long time, and was especially promoted by Mortimer J. Adler, one of the editors of The Great Books of the Western World put out by the Encyclopedia Britannica. Their theory is simple – knowledge of the great books equals an Ivy league education, and one publisher even produced The Harvard Classics to promote the idea.
There was a serious backlash to this idea because these canonical books were mostly written by old white men. And many people didn’t cotton to this reading list because the books were old and musty – and just not much fun to read. But is reading old books like eating spinach and broccoli, and reading J. K. Rowling like eating Ben and Jerry’s? If you want your mind to grow up strong and fit, should you put so many old titles into your reading diet?
Are the seven plays by Sophocles really that much more deserving of my reading time than the seven Harry Potter books? Bloom thinks our culture is going down the drain, and if you’ve ever seen the Jay Leno skit, Jaywalking, you’ll probably agree. If people actually tried to study Bloom’s Western Canon they’d have little time for any other kind of reading, and publishers should just as well stop cranking out new books. But what if Bloom is right? Would America be better educated if CBS, NBC and ABC only showed Shakespearean plays and other dramas from the Western Canon?
Hell, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting idea, but that’s all it will ever be, just an idea, because our culture will never exchange pop culture for classic culture. Maybe it shouldn’t even be an either or thing. If all you ever read is fantasy and science fiction, you’ll never know much about contemporary culture, or history. But if all you read is the Greek and Roman classics, then you’ll still be ignorant of contemporary culture and speculation about the future and the creative universe of fantasy ideas. Also, there might even be value in reading bad writing. How can you understand the American West without knowing about the dime novel?
The obvious answer is to be well-rounded in your reading, and read from all time periods. But do the hard core classics of The Great Books get equal time with the latest Charlie Stross novel or the latest YA fad like the Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series? And what if you flat out hate the classics? Should you be forced to read them like taking bad tasting medicine, telling yourself that it’s good for you cultural health? Recently I tried reading The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, a title on Bloom’s list, but I found it unbearable. And how many people really want to read Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for fun?
My reply requires an analogy, and one many people might not even be familiar with, but I will try anyway because I think it’s very apt. Throughout the twentieth century we have found places in the world where tribes of primitive people still live. It happened just recently in the Amazon. Anthropologists do not like it when we pollute their pristine lost cultures with modern ideas because it usually shatters these lost tribe’s psyches. The green jungle folk who have hidden out from civilization know so little of history and science compared to us modern folk who live in concrete jungles. But do we really know that much more?
But this is a perfect analogy to cultural literacy because the half-ass educated of our population have primitive minds compared to those who are well educated. And it is no less mind-shattering to the tiny world view souls living in the big modern society to be hammered by mind-blowing ideas of a bigger universe. Why do you think fundamentalists of any religion act the way they do?
No one living in America believes they are ignorant and backward, because how can that be when we’ve got five hundred TV channels and the Internet stuffing our minds? As long as you just read pop genres like science fiction and mysteries, your knowledge of the larger world of literature is no bigger than believers in cargo cults. Most science fiction readers and computer geeks like to think they are Slans, but what if that’s the blue pill path, and the Western Canon is the red pill? A twisty bit of weirdness for sure.
Remember those aborigines? Just because we read books doesn’t mean our brothers and sisters living in nature have empty minds – yes, they would have a hard time surviving in our cities, but we’d have a hard time surviving in their habitats. Reading in the Western Canon doesn’t make you a superior person. Classics do not provide superior forms of fun and entertainment. They aren’t even the best way to study history. All they provide is a multiplex view so whether you’re a cool cat from Manhattan who hangs at the trendiest drinking holes, or a nature man living in the Amazon knowing all the best watering holes to hunt dinner, you’ll have a sense of perspective.
Knowledge comes in all flavors. There’s scientific knowledge, which tests reality systematically, and historical knowledge that evolves over time, and engineering knowledge that comes from necessity. Artistic knowledge is one person’s inner view of how things work in reality. All the old books are really is a series of people over time giving their opinions. It becomes a collective view of reality. Artistic knowledge isn’t like scientific knowledge – and one of the many weaknesses of the Western Canon is it doesn’t include paintings, dance, sculpture, fashion, music, and other crafts and cultural artifacts of the times. And more than that, it doesn’t collect the knowledge from cultures outside of the Western world.
Reading the old books isn’t easy. Many are boring to the modern mind, and some are almost impossible to read. You can’t just jump into Paradise Lost and get hooked on the story like you can with the TV show Lost. It can be hard to identify with what’s going on in an old book. I’m sure, to some kids reading To Kill A Mockingbird it’s too far a jump into the past to grok. I love the book King Dork because the protagonist makes fun of all his teachers who believe the secrets of adolescence are in The Catcher in the Rye and try to force it on their students. It’s like Dorothy Parker’s classic definition of horticulture, “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.”
Hell, I know plenty of kids from the youngest two generations that can’t watch a black and white movie, and it’s no wonder they can’t answer Jay Leno’s basic cultural history questions. More than once I’ve heard a young person say they love old movies, and I’ll ask them to name a few, and they will throw out titles like Caddyshack (1980) and Back to the Future (1985) with great nostalgia. Is it any wonder they can’t fathom Grand Hotel (1932) much less The General (1927). Reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen is probably like trying to read a book in a foreign language to these kids.
The Cultural Time Barrier
Could it be, for some readers, maybe even most readers, just enjoying books from their own time is a good enough form of literacy? To many parents, just getting their kids to read anything is a triumph. Our own times are rich and diverse. We know so much more about the universe now than people did fifty years ago, much less five hundred or five thousand years ago. It is rather interesting that so many people can enjoy The Bible, a collection of stories that span centuries of pre-history but they won’t try to make up the gap between the first century and the twenty-first.
History is a boring subject for most people, and if you can’t enjoy a Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn screwball comedy from the 1930s, it’s doubtful you’ll see the humor in The Pickwick Papers from the 1830s. Maybe there’s a cultural time barrier like the old sound barrier and it takes a certain speed to break on through. Why do so many young women today love Jane Austen when so many others don’t?
There’s always the theory that trying to force feed the classics on children when they are in school destroys any chance of those kids ever enjoying reading a book. But has the Harry Potter fad ever proven to create a new generation of bookworms? There are those who believe that books are a dead art form, and movies are the new art crown of creation for the masses. Or maybe the bookworm gene only shows up in a small percentage of the population anyway.
None of this answers the question: Should we read old books. And should we believe Harold Bloom when he says certain books are far superior to modern reading fare and we shouldn’t waste our time on crappy writing? Except for the first Harry Potter book, I couldn’t find any comments from Bloom on the later entries. I thought J. K. Rowling’s writing improved with each new book. I also have to ask if Bloom’s dislike of Harry Potter reflects a failure on his part to come forward in time and enjoy the current pop culture.
I could believe that Harold Bloom is right and that J. K. Rowling is a bad writer, except that there are books on the Western Canon list that I consider bad writing for one reason or another. I thought The Crying of Lot 49 was particularly weak on characterization, plot and emotional conflict. Bloom’s main nail to hammer regarding Rowling was her use of cliché phrases, but there are plenty of books on his list that would be guilty of that fault too. Bloom likes to focus on word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph writing quality, but I think he forgets that storytelling always trumps writing ability. I’d even say characterization trumps writing ability. Shakespeare turned some catchy phrases but that wasn’t his skill that kept people coming to see his plays all these years.
Really great stories are timeless, just look how often ancient tales are recycled for modern movies. The classic science fiction novel Dune is set in the far future, but the characters feel like people Homer knew, and I don’t mean that cartoon Homer. The reason why so many young women love Jane Austen is because she tapped into the psychology of women at a level unaffected by time. The reason why Charles Dickens can even make atheists feel teary-eyed over Christmas is because he could play his readers’ emotions like a Geek playing Halo. Ditto for J. K. Rowling and Stephen King. I think that’s a skill that Bloom doesn’t credit enough in his tally of writing talents.
And this may hint at why most people can’t read outside of their time. The writing reflected in the works of the Western Canon represent great feats of intellect, but they communicate little emotionally to the modern reader. To enjoy reading older books requires emotionally resonating with people from the past, and that’s not easy.
If your goal in picking up a book is to escape the worries of daily life, then it doesn’t matter when the book you select comes from. If you have a lineup of favorite mystery writers that consistently keeps your mind off things then why try anything new? For pure entertainment, contemporary writers can’t be beat. I feel the best new writers have distilled the writing techniques from the past and have truly honed the art of storytelling to baroque levels of diversion. Many of these writers are using all of history for their storytelling canvas. Some even have the writing chops that would impress Harold Bloom. Both in creative writing and creative non-fiction, some of the best writers are surfing the breaking waves of literature. There is always more great contemporary writing, both literary and genre, than any bookworm yet born can handle.
I bet you didn’t think I’d say that? I’m trying to be real and honest here while promoting the reading of old books. I’d go so far as to say if you’re only going to read a few books, try and read the best contemporary books first, even if they’re just escapist nonsense as long as they get you to read for fun. It’s my theory that learning to read for fun is more important than reading for an education. If you get hooked on books it will be like other drugs, eventually you’ll crave the harder stuff.
Most people do not want to be English professors and turn their fun hobby into ghoulish book autopsies. However, many readers often enjoy becoming amateur scholars on pet subjects. If you’re a fan of mysteries you might eventually want to learn how they evolved starting with Edgar Allan Poe. I have had a lot of fun learning about the Classics of Science Fiction. If you enjoy Masterpiece Theater on PBS, it’s easy to take up the study of the English novel. If you like to argue then studying the Greeks and rhetoric will help you win more verbal battles with your friends. You have to have zero curiosity about life not to wonder how various ideas and practices got started.
Take the current oil crisis. Our society is shifting from cheap energy to expensive energy, and hopefully renewable energy, but it’s a stressful time, and we may have to experience a terrible economic downturn. Surely, there must be other times in history where people had to endure quick economic and social change – so how did their society handle it? Try reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Or read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser for a story about someone trying to shift from simple rural life to living a new life in the big city.
The thing about studying the past, even for fun, is that it teaches a lot about living in the present. Read the Old Testament, it was never about religion, that’s a later interpretation, but about nation building and the psychology of creating an organized society. The history of books is about mankind striving to get somewhere, and that somewhere is now.