(Ed note: I first read this essay in 1991, when it appeared in The Nation. This essay is as relevant as ever and I'm grateful that Katha has given us permission to post it here. Katha Pollitt's "Subject to Debate" column appears every other week in The Nation. Read her BAP blog posts here. Buy her books of prose and poetry here. You can follow Katha on twitter @KathaPollitt)
For the past couple of years we've all been witness to a furious debate about the literary canon. What books should be assigned to students? What books should critics discuss? What books should the rest of us read, and who are 'we' anyway? Like everyone else, I've given these questions some thought, and when an invitation came my way, I leaped to produce my own manifesto. But to my surprise, when I sat down to write -- in order to discover, as E. M. Forster once said, what I really think -- I found that I agreed with all sides in the debate at once.
Take the conservatives. Now, this rather dour collection of scholars and diatribists -- Allan Bloom, Hilton Kramer, John Silber and so on -- are not a particularly appealing group of people. They are arrogant, they are rude, they are gloomy, they do not suffer fools gladly, and everywhere they look, fools are what they see. All good reasons not to elect them to public office, as Massachusetts voters decided when they rejected Silber's 1990 gubernatorial bid. But what is so terrible, really, about what they are saying? I, too, believe that some books are more profound, more complex, more essential to an understanding of our culture than others; I, too, am appalled to think of students graduating from college not having read Homer, Plato, Virgil, Milton, Tolstoy -- all writers, dead white Western men though they be, whose works have meant a great deal to me. As a teacher of literature and of writing, I too have seen at first hand how ill-educated many students are, and how little aware they are of this important fact about themselves. Last year I taught a graduate seminar in the writing of poetry. None of my students had read more than a smattering of poems by anyone, male or female, published more than ten years ago. Robert Lowell was as far outside their frame of reference as Alexander Pope. When I gently suggested to one student that it might benefit her to read some poetry if she planned to spend her life writing it, she told me that yes, she knew she should read more but when she encountered a really good poem it only made her depressed. That contemporary writing has a history which it profits us to know in some depth, that we ourselves were not born yesterday, seems too obvious even to argue.
But ah, say the liberals, the canon exalted by the conservatives is itself an artifact of history. Sure, some books are more rewarding than others, but why can't we change our minds about which books those are? The canon itself was not always as we know it today: Until the 1920s, Moby-Dick was shelved with the boys' adventure stories. If T. S. Eliot could single-handedly dethrone the Romantic poets in favor of the neglected Metaphysicals and place John Webster alongside Shakespeare, why can't we dip into the sea of stories and fish out Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf? And this position, too, makes a great deal of sense to me. After all, alongside the many good reasons for a book to end up on the required-reading shelf are some rather suspect reasons for its exclusion: because it was written by a woman and therefore presumed to be too slight; because it was written by a black person and therefore presumed to be too unsophisticated or to reflect too special a case. By all means, say the liberals, let's have great books and a shared culture. But let's make sure that all the different kinds of greatness are represented and that the culture we share reflects the true range of human experience.
If we leave the broadening of the canon up to the conservatives, this will never happen, because to them change only means defeat. Look at the recent fuss over the latest edition of the Great Books series published by Encyclopedia Britannica, headed by that old snake-oil salesman Mortimer Adler. Four women have now been added to the series: Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Jane Austen and George Eliot. That's nice, I suppose, but really! Jane Austen has been a certified Great Writer for a hundred years! Lionel Trilling said so! There's something truly absurd about the conservatives earnestly sitting in judgement on the illustrious dead, as though up in Writers' Heaven Jane and George and Willa and Virginia were breathlessly waiting to hear if they'd finally made it into the club, while Henry Fielding, newly dropped from the list, howls in outer darkness and the Brontes, presumably, stamp their feet in frustration and hope for better luck in twenty years, when Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights will suddenly turn out to have qualities of greatness never before detected in their pages. It's like Poets' Corner at Manhattan's Cathedral of St. John theDivine, where mortal men -- and a woman or two -- of letters actually vote on which immortals to honor with a plaque, a process no doubt complete with electoral campaigns, compromise candidates and all the rest of the underside of the literary life. 'No, I'm sorry, I just can't vote for Whitman. I'm a Washington Irving man myself.'
Well, a liberal is not a very exciting thing to be, and so we have the radicals, who attack the concepts of 'greatness', 'shared', 'culture' and 'lists'. (I'm overlooking here the ultraradicals, who attack the 'privileging' of 'texts', as they insist on calling books, and think one might as well spend one's college years deconstructing 'Leave It to Beaver'.) Who is to say, ask the radicals, what is a great book? What's so terrific about complexity, ambiguity, historical centrality and high seriousness? If The Color Purple, say, gets students thinking about their own experience, maybe they ought to read it and forget about ------, and here you can fill in the name of whatever classic work you yourself found dry and tedious and never got around to finishing. For the radicals the notion of a shared culture is a lie, because it means presenting as universally meaningful and politically neutral books that reflect the interests and experiences and values of privileged white men at the expense of those of others -- women, blacks, Latinos, Asians, the working class, whomever. Why not scrap the one-list- for-everyone idea and let people connect with books that are written by people like themselves about people like themselves? It will be a more accurate reflection of a multifaceted and conflict-ridden society, and will do wonders for everyone's self- esteem, except, of course, living white men -- but they have too much self-esteem already.
Now, I have to say that I dislike the radicals' vision intensely. How foolish to argue that Chekhov has nothing to say to a black woman -- or, for that matter, to me -- merely because he is Russian, long dead, a man. The notion that one reads to increase one's self-esteem sounds to me like more snake oil. Literature is not an aerobics class or a session at the therapist's. But then I think of myself as a child, leafing through anthologies of poetry for the names of women. I never would have admitted that I needed a role model, even if that awful term had existed back in the prehistory of which I speak, but why was I so excited to find a female name, even when, as was often the case, it was attached to a poem of no interest to me whatsoever? Anna Laetitia Barbauld, author of 'Life! I know not what thou art / But know that thou and I must part!'; Lady Anne Lindsay, writer of plaintive ballads in incomprehensible Scots dialect, and the other minor female poets included by chivalrous Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in the old Oxford Book of English Verse: I have to admit it, just by their presence in that august volume they did something for me. And although it had not much to do with reading or writing, it was an important thing they did.
Now, what are we to make of this spluttering debate, in which charges of imperialism are met by equally passionate accusations of vandalism, in which each side hates the others, and yet each one seems to have its share of reason? Perhaps what we have here is one of those debates in which the opposing sides, unbeknownst to themselves, share a myopia that will turn out to be the most telling feature of the whole discussion: a debate, for instance, like that of our Founding Fathers over the nature of the franchise. Think of all the energy and passion spent pondering the question of property qualifications or direct versus legislative elections, while all along, unmentioned and unimagined, was the fact -- to us so central -- that women, not to mention slaves, were never considered for any kind of vote.
Something is being overlooked: the state of reading, and books, and literature in our country at this time. Why, ask yourself, is everyone so hot under the collar about what to put on the required-reading shelf? It is because while we have been arguing so fiercely about which books make the best medicine, the patient has been slipping deeper and deeper into a coma.
Let us imagine a country in which reading is a popular voluntary activity. There, parents read books for their own edification and pleasure, and are seen by their children at this silent and mysterious pastime. These parents also read to their children, give them books for presents, talk to them about books and underwrite, with their taxes, a public library system that is open all day, every day. In school -- where an attractive library is invariably to be found -- the children study certain books together but also have an active reading life of their own. Years later it may even be hard for them to remember if they read Jane Eyre at home and Judy Blume in class, or the other way around. In college young people continue to be assigned certain books, but far more important are the books they discover for themselves, browsing in the library, in bookstores, on the shelves of friends, one book leading to another, back and forth in history and across languages and cultures. After graduation they continue to read, and in the fullness of time produce a new generation of readers. Oh, happy land! I wish we all lived there.
In that other country of real readers -- voluntary, active, self-determined readers -- a debate like the current one over the canon would not be taking place. Or if it did, it would be as a kind of parlor game: What books would you take to a desert island? Everyone would know that the top-ten list was merely a tiny fraction of the books one would read in a lifetime. It would not seem racist or sexist or hopelessly hidebound to put Hawthorne on the syllabus and not Toni Morrison. It would be more like putting oatmeal and not noodles on the breakfast menu -- a choice part arbitrary, part a nod to the national past, part, dare one say it, a kind of reverse affirmative action: School might frankly be the place where one read the books that are a little off-putting, that have got a little cold, that you might pass over because they do not address, in reader-friendly contemporary fashion, the issues most immediately at stake in modern life, but that, with a little study, turn out to have a great deal to say. Being on the list wouldn't mean so much. It might even add to a writer's cachet not to be on the list, to be in one way or another too heady, too daring, too exciting to be ground up into institutional fodder for teenagers. Generations of high school students have been spoiled for George Eliot by being forced to read Silas Marner at a tender age. One can imagine a whole new readership for her if grown-ups were left to approach Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda with open minds, at their leisure.
Of course, they rarely do. In America today the assumption underlying the canon debate is that the books on the list are the only books that are going to be read, and if the list is dropped no books are going to be read. Becoming a textbook is a book's only chance; all sides take that for granted. And so all agree not to mention certain things that they themselves, as highly educated people and, one assumes, devoted readers, know perfectly well. For example, that if you read only twenty-five, or fifty, or a hundred books, you can't understand them, however well chosen they are. And that if you don't have an independent reading life -- and very few students do -- you won't like reading the books on the list and will forget them the minute you finish them. And that books have, or should have, lives beyond the syllabus -- thus, the totally misguided attempt to put current literature in the classroom. How strange to think that people need professorial help to read John Updike or Alice Walker, writers people actually do read for fun. But all sides agree: If it isn't taught, it doesn't count.
Let's look at the canon question from another angle. Instead of asking what books we want others to read, let's ask why we read books ourselves. I think the canon debaters are being a little disingenuous here, are suppressing, in the interest of their own agendas, their personal experience of reading. Sure, we read to understand our American culture and history, and we also read to recover neglected masterpieces, and to learn more about the accomplishments of our subgroup and thereby, as I've admitted about myself, increase our self-esteem. But what about reading for the aesthetic pleasures of language, form, image? What about reading to learn something new, to have a vicarious adventure, to follow the workings of an interesting, if possible skewed, narrow and ill-tempered mind? What about reading for the story? For an expanded sense of sheer human variety? There are a thousand reasons why a book might have a claim on our time and attention other than its canonization. I once infuriated an acquaintance by asserting that Trollope, although in many ways a lesser writer than Dickens, possessed some wonderful qualities Dickens lacked: a more realistic view of women, a more skeptical view of good intentions, a subtler sense of humor, a drier vision of life which I myself found congenial. You'd think I'd advocated throwing Dickens out and replacing him with a toaster. Because Dickens is a certified Great Writer, and Trollope is not.
Am I saying anything different from what Randall Jarrell said in his great 1953 essay 'The Age of Criticism'? Not really, so I'll quote him. Speaking of the literary gatherings of the era, Jarrell wrote:
If, at such parties, you wanted to talk about Ulysses or The Castle or The Brothers Karamazov or The Great Gatsby or Graham Greene's last novel -- Important books -- you were at the right place. (Though you weren't so well off if you wanted to talk about Remembrance of Things Past. Important, but too long.) But if you wanted to talk about Turgenev's novelettes, or The House of the Dead, or Lavengro, or Life on the Mississippi, or The Old Wives' Tale, or The Golovlyov Family, or Cunningham-Grahame's stories, or Saint-Simon's memoirs, or Lost Illusions, or The Beggar's Opera, or Eugen Onegin, or Little Dorrit, or the Burnt Njal Saga, or Persuasion, or The Inspector-General, or Oblomov, or Peer Gynt, or Far from the Madding Crowd, or Out of Africa, or the Parallel Lives, or A Dreary Story, or Debits and Credits, or Arabia Deserta, or Elective Affinities, or Schweik, or -- any of a thousand good or interesting but Unimportant books, you couldn't expect a very ready knowledge or sympathy from most of the readers there. They had looked at the big sights, the current sights, hard, with guides and glasses; and those walks in the country, over unfrequented or thrice-familiar territory, all alone -- those walks from which most of the joy and good of reading come -- were walks that they hadn't gone on very often.
I suspect that most canon debaters have taken those solitary rambles, if only out of boredom -- how many times, after all, can you reread the Aeneid, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Cotton Comes to Harlem (to pick one book from each column)? But those walks don't count, because of another assumption all sides hold in common, which is that the purpose of reading is none of the many varied and delicious satisfactions I've mentioned; it's medicinal. The chief end of reading is to produce a desirable kind of person and a desirable kind of society. A respectful, high-minded citizen of a unified society for the conservatives, an up-to-date and flexible sort for the liberals, a subgroup-identified, robustly confident one for the radicals. How pragmatic, how moralistic, how American! The culture debaters turn out to share a secret suspicion of culture itself, as well as the antipornographer's belief that there is a simple, one-to-one correlation between books and behavior. Read the conservatives' list and produce a nation of sexists and racists -- or a nation of philosopher kings. Read the liberals list and produce a nation of spineless relativists -- or a nation of open-minded world citizens. Read the radicals' list and produce a nation of psychobabblers and ancestor-worshippers -- or a nation of stalwart proud-to-be-me pluralists.
But is there any list of a few dozen books that can have such a magical effect, for good or for ill? Of course not. It's like arguing that a perfectly nutritional breakfast cereal is enough food for the whole day. And so the canon debate is really an argument about what books to cram down the resistant throats of a resentful captive populace of students; and the trick is never to mention the fact that, in such circumstances, one book is as good, or as bad, as another. Because, as the debaters know from their own experience as readers, books are not pills that produce health when ingested in measured doses. Books do not shape character in any simple way -- if, indeed, they do so at all -- or the most literate would be the most virtuous instead of just the ordinary run of humanity with larger vocabularies. Books cannot mold a common national purpose when, in fact, people are honestly divided about what kind of country they want -- and are divided, moreover, for very good and practical reasons, as they always have been.
For these burly and strenuous purposes, books are all but useless. The way books affect us is an altogether more subtle, delicate, wayward and individual, not to say private, affair. And that reading is being made to bear such an inappropriate and simplistic burden speaks to the poverty both of culture and of frank political discussion in our time.
On his deathbed, Dr. Johnson -- once canonical, now more admired than read -- is supposed to have said to a friend who was energetically rearranging his bedclothes, 'Thank you, this will do all that a pillow can do'. One might say that the canon debaters are all asking of their handful of chosen books that it do a great deal more than any handful of books can do.