Skip to comments.When Cheap, Angry Trends Have Died Out, The Classics Will Remain
Posted on 04/30/2021 7:56:06 AM PDT by Kaslin
The classics are classics for a reason and offer valuable, time-worn lessons about humanity itself.
We were excited to see the sign at the Lansing Mall: Barnes and Noble Booksellers. My roommate and I, on our spring break excursions, were shopping in another city when we spotted the national bookselling chain. We envisioned a long hour of perusing the great books — from Cicero to Tolstoy, Shakespeare to Dickens, Plato to Faulkner. My roommate joked she never made it out of a bookstore without purchasing at least one volume.
After walking through a maze of board games, Harry Potter paraphernalia, and $10 romance novels, we found the classics “section” — a barely 10-foot-wide corner where “Hamlet” was shoved up beside “The Catcher in the Rye” in an uneven pile. For all that the store owners and its patrons cared, the sign at the top could have read: “Old Stuff.”
Perhaps booksellers who neglect the classics are merely responding to market demands. Who wants to read those old white guys, anyway? Maybe no one does for now, but booksellers should still put their time and resources towards presenting their customers the greatest literature of the Western world.
Recently, the historically black college Howard University dissolved its classics department as part of “prioritization efforts” at the college. But as Harvard professor of Philosophy Cornel West and CEO of the Classic Learning Test Jeremy Tate said in an op-ed for the Washington Post, “Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.”
In fact, as the op-ed pointed out, many black civil rights leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. have praised and benefited from reading the classics. Indeed, reading and studying the classics is, “How we become our full selves, spiritually free and morally great,” West and Tate write.
The classics are classics for a reason. Western society didn’t randomly decide that certain people, in certain periods, would write the books students would begrudgingly skim for lit class centuries later. The classic books — whether from the classical period itself (“The Odyssey”) or written centuries later (“Oliver Twist,” “Huckleberry Finn”) — say something about humanity itself.
Who hasn’t felt the irresistible call of the “siren song” and thanked his foresight in removing the means to act on that temptation, as Ulysses did? Who hasn’t witnessed the complete failure of government-run charity to actually alleviate poverty? “Oliver Twist” explores the implications of such failure through the life’s story of a young boy living in an infamous London poorhouse.
In “Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain exposes the lies of the racist, slave-holding South by viewing it through the lens of a young boy viewing the hypocrisy for what it is. Sometimes the renewing force of youth exposes the moral decay of “civilization.”
The classic books deal with problems that exist no matter the historical circumstances — feelings of alienation, greed, the inevitability of evil and death, and the imperative of goodness and eternal life. No iPhone can take that away.
The eternal human lessons discussed in the classics are why those books last. On Medium.com, Spencer Baum writes about the importance of reading classic literature. Focusing on the timeless lessons of “Moby-Dick,” Baum puts it well: “After you’ve read ‘Moby-Dick’, if you took the time to truly grapple with it, you’ll start to recognize Ahab whenever he shows up in your own life.”
Ahab is the wounded man who seeks vengeance against the inanimate forces of nature by succumbing to the fatal promise to “be as gods,” a promise that hearkens to the opening chapters of the biblical book of Genesis.
The layout of the bookstore was telling. In barely five years, all of the books displayed in places of prominence will become irrelevant. The next book about being a #girlboss or “The Lord of the Rings” fanfiction will take its place. As Shakespeare himself would say, the popular but transient books will be “hoisted on their own petard.”
When I spoke about this phenomenon with another friend some weeks later, he mentioned a book published in 1970 — “The Greening of America” by Charles Reich — that was massively popular when it came out. I had never heard of it. Indeed, when the author died two years ago obituaries had to remind readers who he was, and why, at one point, his book was important.
Ultimately, it’s not that such books don’t serve a purpose and aren’t even important to write and read, it’s that they almost always don’t warrant the disproportionate attention they receive upon release in comparison to the classics.
The classics will last. Few read “The Greening of America” anymore, but — despite the best efforts of the cancelers — we will continue to read “To Kill a Mockingbird” for decades, even centuries, to come. True, some schools have removed the book from study for supposedly depicting Atticus Finch as a “white savior.” But “To Kill a Mockingbird” is so much deeper than the cancelers make it out to be.
Among other things, “To Kill a Mockingbird” explores the striking contrast between innocence and evil, as Scout confronts the harsh realities of racism in the adult world as a young child. “To Kill a Mockingbird” answers the question: How can one choose to be good in a world where evil runs amok?
Maybe once the truly permanent nature of the classics is revealed, Barnes and Noble, along with our public consciousness, will again give the classics the place of prominence they deserve. To quote the now canceled Rudyard Kipling, “The gods of the copybook headings will with terror and slaughter return.”
In the recent Netflix film “Moxie,” a teenage feminist questions why “The Great Gatsby” was assigned for summer reading. “Why are we still reading this book?” she asks. “It’s written by some rich white guy, about some rich white guy.” How simplistic.
Perhaps if she had removed her feminist reading lens, this young radical would have found something worth remembering in Fitzgerald’s book. More than a story of a man “obsessed with the only girl he can’t have,” as the student summed it up, “The Great Gatsby” explores the implications of a life lived for pleasure, the promises and failures of the American dream, and the empty refinement of social stratification.
Indeed, if the activist of “Moxie” wants social revolution out of her novels, she should read the following passage from “Gatsby”:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
There’s only one appropriate word for that quote: Classic.
Updated and expanded from an article that originally appeared in the Hillsdale Collegian.
Right now the classic we need to read is ‘1984’.
“Perhaps booksellers who neglect the classics are merely responding to market demands.”
Ya think? They should stock stuff that doesn’t sell at all? That’s what those classics are. The booksellers are keeping stuff on the shelf that doesn’t sell. Good for them.
If the author doesn’t like it the author could start a classics bookstore.
Soon to be named the racist section.
“Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.”
Would those, such as Cornel West, be surprised should they consider that “academia” has been striving for this very outcome for, at least, a hundred years? The dumbing down of the unwashed masses to the place where they can be easily controlled? The end of the middle class?
To quote one of my favorites: Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining!
I far more prefer going to the used bookstore a short distance away from my place than the Chapters which has Bill, Oprah, the Obamas, and such others plastered all over the place. Is it like that at Barnes and Noble and other such venues in the U.S.?
***Right now the classic we need to read is ‘1984’.***
Sadly we are seeing 1984, and BRAVE NEW WORLD unfold before our eyes.
I worry that we’ve lost all momentum.
Previous generations grew up in a general milieu in which people basically knew the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare, and if they had been exposed to Wordsworth, Byron and Tennyson. An evolving trend in movies and television — what has gone before helps illuminate what is in front of us now.
Exposure to a “new” poet like TS Eliot works, if you have a background to understand the allusions in Eliot. Even an author like Tolkien really works best if the reader understands Good and Evil and idyllic country settings threatened by industrialization and where personal freedom is a precious thing threatened by totalitarianism. There is a context that people once had that serves as a foundation for a great deal of art.
I think it is challenging to pickup a “classic novel” and just appreciate it in isolation. The classics are part of the “great conversation” which has been going on for thousands of years. But we broke the line. There is a generation or two who have grown up in relative silence (or worse: rap music) and I think it will be hard for them to suddenly discover and appreciate classic works. It takes more than focus and effort to read a particular work and enjoy it (that’s relatively easy) but to really see why some of these works are worthwhile, you need to have some background to get into the swing of it, as it were. We have no momentum now. People are starting from basically Zero and I’m not sure how workable that really is.
The comment about “The Great Gatsby” shows this to some extent — it’s a book written by a rich white guy, about a rich white guy. That’s a comment that comes from a vacuous mind. So superficial. A classic novel reduced to identity politics and found wanting simply because it seems to lack diversity. A mind like that is hard ground to plow.
Well, Sarah, I might have been a little more impressed with your erudition if you hadn’t misquoted that Kipling line.
I've a much more motley congregation of old titles, but "Catcher in the Rye" is not one of them. After hearing classmates gush about it in high school I never had any desire to read it. The protagonist sounds like a whiney loser, and not a very interesting one like Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman."
Oh, and the Shakespearean phrase is “hoist with his own petard”, not “hoisted with their own petard”.
Nowadays Holden Caulfield would be putting out a lame blog from his mom’s basement.
eventually, the younger generations to come will understand.....
how are things in Ottawa?
I think it was more a comment on the state of society, as opposed to the state of bookstores.
My daughter once told me of a well-degreed academic she knew of who wouldn't read Dickens because his writing was so hard to understand ... he used so many "big" words.
It's a fantastic project, and now they've got most of the classics preserved, they need to go back over them and edit them for the terrible errors caused by OCR scanning.
Partly it is vocabulary related. The other day I was reading a Georgette Heyer novel. Not a classic but a book rich in vocabulary. If you can read Christie, Heyer and Sayers or say, Tolkien, Forester and Gray as a pre-teen you will have the vocabulary to read the classics.
But when I was learning to read if I came across a word I did not know I was expected to either figure it out from the context or to look it up in the dictionary. This is no longer the case.
Children are expected to hold up a finger if they do not understand a word and at five the work is considered too difficult for them and they are given something less challenging to read.
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