Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Great Books?

On The Chronicle of Higher Education website, there's an article by W.A. Pannapacker titled Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor. He reminisces about his working class upbringing with parents who valued 'high culture'. The had a set of "Great Books of the Western World, in 54 leatherette volumes", which he loved. His reminiscences are in response to a recent book by Alex Beam titled A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books.

He has a lot to say about 'Great Books' and about 'strivers' (people who are trying to move up in status). He appreciates what reading those books did for his mind. I get that. But I found the comments pretty one-dimensional, and didn't see any real critique of the notion of a canon inherent in the idea of some particular set of books being the ones called 'Great Books'. My comment there was pretty long, and could have been longer. Here it is, with minor changes:

A previous commenter wrote:
What has to be stressed is that the books comprising the "Great Books" set are, indeed, great books--and that the vociferous critics of the very idea of a great book who have infested academic life in recent decades aren't capable of producing even modestly good books.

I enjoyed most of the comments here, but please don't push the pendulum back the other way, folks. I suppose I'm middlebrow (I hadn't heard the term before), but not at all in the way the author described. My dad was the first in his family to go to college, my mom never did finish college. They're both big readers. They may care about status, but I never did much. I read voraciously because it was what I liked to do.

I went to the University of Michigan in 74, and their honors program included a course in Great Books for entering students. (It started with the Bible, included lots of Greeks, and ended with Dante and Faust. Nothing originally in English, which my higher-brow roommate pointed out.) I had just spent the previous year reading every feminist book I could get my hands on, and was pretty disgusted at all the male heroics. I think I would have liked The Iliad and the Odyssey more when I was young and reading The Arabian Nights. The professor would talk about universal themes, and I'd sit there thinking about how the themes felt pretty male to me. (In a lecture hall of hundreds it wasn't easy to comment.) My favorite semi-universal theme is overcoming oppression, and I didn't see much of that in the books we read.

How about Oprah's pushing of great books? No capitals here; I'll bet she doesn't think of her choices as a canon. (I wouldn't know for sure, as I don't watch TV. I just hear people who do talking about her books.) She has gotten lots of people (many you'd call lowbrow, I think) reading, and discussing, better books.

I think it's possible to have a respect for great literature that doesn't include the notion of a canon. Instead of alleged universal themes that don't include me (as a woman, or as a lesbian) or my friends of color, let's think together about what might be universal themes, and how differently they might be expressed in different works.

My degrees are in math, but I considered a second masters in literature. It won't happen, though - too much pretension in lit courses, and I can't stand being graded on my thoughts.

My personal canon includes The Color Purple, The Salt Eaters (Bamabara), The Yellow Wallpaper (Gilman), The Bean Trees (Kingsolver), and The Word for World is Forest (LeGuin). I'd love to hear what books others think of as 'great books', that aren't in the traditional canon.

One last bit: I was intrigued to see this side of Virginia Woolf. The side of her I know best is displayed in A Room of One's Own, where she dissects sexism by looking at books on Woman in the British Library. (Her upper-class perspective did show in her notion of genteel poverty being someone with a small inheritance.)


  1. Argumentum ad Hominem

    The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

    Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

    As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

    If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

    Max Weismann,
    President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
    Chairman, The Great Books Academy (3,000+ students)

  2. Max, I'm wondering if you read my post at all, or if you just send this out as an automatic comment to any posts that refer to that book. I don't subscribe to the notion of a set group of 'Great Books', for the reasons I gave above.

  3. My cannon changes with time. I also include books that are current "social objects" for young people - such as "Harry Potter" or "Hunger games" "Twilight" - even if I don't believe they will survive the ten-year popularity test.

    Here are a few great books from my personal list, in no particular order:

    - Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars
    - Cryptonomicon
    - Tribes
    - The glass bead game
    - Faust
    - Monday starts on Saturday

    My test is, basically, how many times I re-read the thing or quote it.

  4. >My test is, basically, how many times I re-read the thing or quote it.

    That was my test for the books I listed for my post back in May (Some Books I Love), which came out of a facebook meme. But maybe I have strange tastes. I've re-read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress 20 times, even though it's badly written (stilted dialogue, for one) and sexist. It makes me think, and I like that. But I'm not sure it would move most folks.

    I imagined the people reading the post I was responding to to be a bit snobbier than me, so I picked books I've loved that I thought would conform to their ideas of great literature. It's funny, I haven't re-read The Salt Eaters, but maybe that's because it's not on my bookshelves. (OK, I just went over to paperbackswap and ordered it.) I know that that books comes to mind often, and that I loved how it was written like a quilt is made.

    The list in this post is all books that I think it would be fun to study together in a class, or discuss in a reading group. I guess I can imagine a group of scifi fans discussing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and getting deep, but they wouldn't be talking about symbolism...

    I've read The Glass Bead Game, and I remember liking it. If I were going to read one of the others on your list, which do you think I'd like best?