Monday, December 12, 2011

The Inspiration

Over the weekend, I happened to see a program on Book TV: a 1996 interview with David Denby, author of Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. The entire interview can be viewed at Book TV's website.

From the Publishers Weekly synopsis of Denby's book:

Does a great books canon exist? Left-wing critics denounce the notion of a canon, while right-wingers often use it to assert unquestioned Western supremacy. This superb book suggests an answer. Denby, the film critic for New York magazine, returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, after 30 years to retake the two core curriculum courses, grapple with the world's classics and regenerate his own lapsed reading habit. It is a heartening portrait of (elite) American education and a substantial, sometimes enthralling, read. His teachers are committed pedagogues, the students a diverse (religious faith separates more than does ethnicity) and thoughtful lot. But the students are young, and the book's richest moments are when the mature Denby engages with the texts. Reading the tragedy of Oedipus Rex, he feels anxious, recognizing the ironic truth "[W]hat we avoid, we become." Hobbes's comments on the state of nature lead Denby to muse on insider trading and the time he was mugged. He contrasts Beauvoir's call for female liberty with the "Take Back the Night" antirape march on campus. Denby steps aside to interview academics and analyze the debate about the canon; he acknowledges that white male critics too long ignored the likes of Virginia Woolf, but resolutely argues for the seeking out of all great books, not merely ones that represent excluded groups. Why? Because the "Western classics were at war with each other," and learning to read Hegel and Marx, or the Bible and Nietzsche, is no lesson in indoctrination but the beginning of "an ethically strenuous education" and "a set of bracing intellectual habits."

In the Denby interview, it was obvious that the author had found the experience extraordinarily challenging and rewarding, which set me to thinking about a worthwhile endeavor that I might undertake in the rapidly approaching new year.

I am someone who loves books and ideas, someone who can't pass by a book shop - or even a shelf of books at a thrift store or flea market - without stopping to peruse the stock. Subsequently, I have accumulated a large and diverse collection of books, so many that I cannot even claim to have read half of them, although of course I intend to.

My reading tastes gravitate toward new and old non-fiction, essays, local history, eclectic philosophies, nature writers, and a wide, wide range of other subjects. I have an omnivorous curiosity, so I'm liable to read almost anything. I don't avoid fiction entirely, but admit that I am often disappointed with the titles I do read. If I invest the time required to read a 500 or 600 page novel, I should be duly compensated for the effort. Too often, especially with modern literary fiction, I have felt let down. On the other hand, I delight in the power of some works of fiction: Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, which I read just this year, does what I want a good novel to do, magically transporting me to a world that I want to explore. I'll confess to being unsophisticated, since I don't gravitate toward the unrelenting nihilism, depravity, ennui and bleakness that seem to be hallmarks of contemporary fiction.

That said, I really don't think of myself as well-read. Although I obtained a masters degree thirty years ago from a respectable program at a respectable university, I don't consider myself well-educated. Clearly, David Denby was on to something with his return to Columbia for a study of the classics. Wouldn't it be worth the effort to do something similar? Do I have any excuse to be something less than well-read and well-educated, when I have all the resources necessary to improve my lot?

As it may be fairly stated at any point in history, "These are challenging times." I believe that ignorance of the past and the loss of shared cultural values result in a great deal of suffering, although some people might disagree. Twenty-five years ago, I went to hear Thomas Berry speak at the University of North Carolina - Asheville. Mr. Berry has had some important things to say, and I have read a couple of his books, but I don't remember much of what he said that evening. I do recall that when he suggested the Bible be put away, and not read for a while, the audience responded with an enthusiastic ovation. I'd like to think I know where Mr. Berry was coming from with his proposal, and I won't fault him for the point that he was making. However, I found the gleeful crowd more troubling, for what seemed to be a celebration of cultural ignorance. Perhaps those liberal New Agers in the audience had more in common with fascist book-burners than they would have been willing to admit.

A quarter of a century later, I'd venture that the Bible has become less known in our culture. Let's set aside the (mis)use of the Bible as a weapon for hateful behavior, or even as scripture for sincere believers, and consider it strictly as a work of literature. Are we really better off without the stories of the Bible as common cultural currency? I have an opinion on that. Somebody else might have a different opinion.

But the same goes for other bedrock works of western civilization. Some people would hail their abandonment as one sign of our liberation from white male oppressors. (I don't feel a need to make that case.) My concerns run in a different direction. Is the absence of cultural touchstones a sign of the "dumbing down" of our society? Take a look at the old McGuffey Readers, aimed at school children of nineteenth century America. If those are any indication, then the grammar schoolers of a century ago knew more about the classics than do the college sudents of today. And according to a survey by the Jenkins Group, 42% of college graduates will never read another book.

My point is that we have lost something that might be worth reclaiming, and I am resolving to do something about it on the only level that I can: starting with myself.

This is a personal journal posted for my own purposes as I proceed with this project. Writing about this project is one way to help me learn what it is I want to learn from it. I'll be scribbling notes of the backs of envelopes while I read, and a blog is one easy way to collect those various scribblings for my own reference and review. I already have some (as yet sketchy) idea of how I will go about this experiment in independent learning, and in subsequent posts will describe my plans for "a year with the great books" in 2012.

For now, some relevant quotes:

The great books speak to us of honor and love and sacrifice; but they do not always speak in familiar phrases. They do not tell us what we already know. Transcending current opinion and fad, through symbol and metaphor they reveal a clear and uncluttered access to the realities that determine our lives.
-Louise Cowan

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy.
-Edward P. Morgan

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.
-P.J. O'Rourke

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