Are “The Classics” Bad for You?
By Naomi KanakiaFebruary 8, 2022
Now we’re not talking Homer or Plato here. Usually, people will mention The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye. Sometimes Ethan Frome comes up (deservedly so, it’s one of Wharton’s weakest works). Weirdly, people always bring up Moby-Dick, to which my response is, “What high schools are teaching Moby-Dick? Even most colleges don’t teach it anymore.”
Inevitably these exchanges become heated, as people leap in to defend “classic literature” and the general concept of “reading the Classics.” Sometimes passions really flare, and I have a number of writer-acquaintances who will, in private, shake their heads at these threads and talk about cancel culture and censorship and how you’re not allowed to think improper thoughts anymore.
The whole phenomenon is of particular interest to me for two reasons. The first is that I adore the Classics, and my extensive reading is a major part of my personal identity, so I always have to restrain myself from weighing in.
And the second is that I never did the reading in high school. The last book I remember opening for high school English was Pride and Prejudice in 10th grade, and it was so dull that I threw it across the room and finished my essay using CliffsNotes. For most of college, and even grad school, I didn’t read any of the required texts.
I have since gone back and read most of these books and loved them! I remember laughing out loud at the first page of Pride and Prejudice, which I finally read when I was 26, and wondering how my 10th-grade self could have possibly disliked it.
And yet I still hate doing the required reading. It’s antithetical to the whole spirit of reading, in my view. It’s one reason I no longer accept books for review — the process of having to read a book is simply too grueling. The freedom to read what I want when I want is a critical part of my intellectual life, and I frankly resent whenever someone tries to rob me of that freedom — even when they’re a professor I’m paying to teach me! I know, it’s messed up. The point is: I sympathize with the people who just don’t want to be forced to read books they think are bad.
On the other hand, I know a lot of people, many of them teachers or professors, who are very invested in the idea of forcing other people to read this book or that book. And I understand that, too. They see it not just as beneficial to their students but as a duty that is required of them by their profession. Others may feel a more generalized sense of responsibility to the young people of the world: I remember being shocked when another (quite good) YA writer told me that she never wrote anything that didn’t have some didactic purpose. She saw it as her responsibility to educate and inform young people.
That’s not really how I feel at all. I don’t think the work I do as a writer or a thinker has any broader purpose other than to explore ideas and raise questions. And I’m lucky to be in a field and a life situation where, honestly, nobody cares what I’ve read, and I don’t need to make choices about what other people should read.
But I think that, because I participate in the life of the mind without feeling any concomitant responsibilities toward young people, I can perhaps better see that kicking books out of high school curricula isn’t entirely an abridgment of free speech. To argue that nobody should be allowed to read a book is censorship, and it would be stifling to one’s art. To simply not be taught a book isn’t quite the same thing. I think there is a certain confusion here between the freedom we as writers and thinkers need to feel in our reading — we cannot feel like there’s anything we’re simply not allowed to read — and the wholly separate topic of what books children should be compelled to read.
To my mind, the two are very separate things. A person’s art needs to be free and unrestrained, whereas the development of curricula is a civic problem — it’s a community issue that cannot be resolved without constraint, without loss, and without change.
Now, a person can definitely have opinions about curricula. But they need to accept that their opinions won’t necessarily be privileged. For instance, I often hear other writers, especially in my field, say they don’t have time for that old stuff, especially for books by old white men. Personally, I would never in my life advise a young writer to avoid older books. But it’s not up to me. Every person has to decide for themselves what to read. And, personally, I am very interested in the question of whether a writer who is relentlessly locked into contemporary mindsets can still write thoughtful and nuanced fiction. I doubt it, but they’re the person who will suffer, not me.
In fact, sometimes, the competitive part of me is a little gleeful that so many people ignore our literary history. I think, “Wow, given the amount of talent and brilliance in the world, it would be very difficult for me to produce anything worthwhile if it weren’t for the fact that so many writers are giving themselves a massive disadvantage before they’ve begun.”
Some people try to strike a middle ground here and say, “Well, you don’t have to read white people, but you really ought to read books from before the contemporary era.” Except who are we really talking about? What nonwhite writers specifically? The Indian and Chinese and Latin American writers from before 1900 are usually just as wrapped up in prejudice and exploitation as the white writers.
I think reading white people is important, too. I would be surprised if someone writing in English could write at their best without reading any white writers. Our language and its literary history are largely a product, until relatively late in the game, of white people. A great many of those white people had terrible and reprobate political views. I wish that wasn’t the case. I wish that there were Indian writers who were writing in English in the 19th century who could’ve played the role in the development of the English language that Dickens did, but there weren’t. Instead, we have Indian writers who came fresh to the language as a result of colonialism, and in order to fully possess and work with the language, they had to read writers like Dickens. That’s not true to the same extent today — you can write fairly well in English without reading white writers — but there are still vast parts of the English literary tradition that are inaccessible if you don’t read white writers.
Others, of course, see the situation quite differently. In their opinion, Dickens is poisoned by his faults (the horrendous antisemitism of Oliver Twist comes to mind), and they can’t bear to read him, much less make him a literary model. And that’s fine. They’ll be judged, as I am, not by their reading but by their work. And many of those people are much more critically and commercially successful than I am! So, I am sure they’re laughing at me right now.
In these times, it doesn’t really serve a writer or a thinker to become too possessive of their culture or their reading. We have to put our work first and engage in actions that support our work.
I’ve been reading a lot of Kant lately, and I found it amusing that in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” he says a society can only achieve Enlightenment if it allows “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” After saying this, however, he immediately backtracks, twisting himself in knots trying to explain that, by “public use,” he only means “that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public.” He contrasts this with the private use of reason, which is the use “a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him.” (Yes, I know, he’s using public and private in exactly the opposite way we would use them today.) Sometimes, he argues, the same job involves both the public and the private use of a person’s reason. The private use is constrained, while the public use must be free. An example is a minister who is bound to preach the doctrines of his church to his congregation even though, as a scholar, he openly disagrees with those same doctrines.
Kant took care to make this distinction because he lived in 18th-century Prussia — a militarized, autocratic society where people clearly were not free to do as they wished. The Prussian state is nobody’s idea of a society conducive to freedom. But it allowed Kant to think freely and to communicate with other thoughtful people.
I think, similarly, we are entering a time when many academics and teachers will have to confront the difference between their public and private characters. And, for a lot of people who are used to their narrative being the dominant one, this will be an unfamiliar experience. Unlike me, they work in fields that have given them status and prestige because of their reading and their expertise in what they regard as the Classics. And they’ve been free to impose their viewpoints on other people, particularly their students.
But now they will experience what, frankly, many marginalized people have always experienced: a sense of disjunction, a sense of working within an institution whose values are at odds with their own. And they will experience the need to subject their views to the marketplace of ideas and to risk being shouted down or vilified.
I am glad I am not in charge of creating a curriculum for young writers. I have loved many writers who wrote things that a modern young person would find intolerable. I’m thinking of the ableism of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity (1939), for instance; the bizarre phobia about lesbians in Proust; or the participation of the ancient Greeks and Romans in a vicious slave economy. As a trans woman, I have many times encountered transphobic jokes and remarks in works I’ve read and enjoyed, including some from as recently as the last 15 years (off the top of my head, I can name episodes of Bob’s Burgers, How I Met Your Mother, and 30 Rock). If I only read writers who thought that trans people were full human beings worthy of respect, I would have a very limited set of texts to read.
Nonetheless, that set would still be larger than any human being could ever read in a lifetime. And if a writer wanted to limit themselves to that group, then I would understand the principle behind it. But if they asked me, in my professional opinion, whether that would be conducive to them writing beautiful and nuanced literature — the sort of thing that can stand with the best that’s ever been thought or written — I would have to say, “You’re really hindering yourself. And given the difficulty of your goal, you should be aiming to shed hindrances, not take them on.”
Luckily, nobody asks me that! I’m not a professor. I’m not a teacher. I don’t design curricula. But let’s say that I were, and let’s say my student responded, quite earnestly, by saying, “I’ve heard what you have to say, and I must report that these books are harmful to me, and I believe with the core of my being that I shouldn’t be asked to read them.”
Well … you can ignore one such student. Or two. Maybe even 10. But eventually the voice becomes too loud, and the only practical thing is to say, “I think you’re wrong, but have it your way. Let’s find some overlap between what I can teach and what you’re willing to learn.”
Naomi Kanakia is the author of three novels, out and forthcoming from Little, Brown and Harper, and of a guide to the publishing industry.
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