In the past few days, Twitter has once again been roiled by a debate over old books. We culture-invested posters find ourselves asking important questions: Do we need a literary canon? If so, should it be the one dominated by the dead white guys? What kinds of books should teenagers read in high school, anyway?
One of our most astute cultural critics has answered the call and penned a rousing broadside in defense of the canon:
Of all the disputes agitating the American campus, the one that seems to me especially significant is that over “the canon.” What should be taught in the humanities and social sciences, especially in introductory courses? What is the place of the classics? How shall we respond to those professors who attack “Eurocentrism” and advocate “multiculturalism”?
OK, I fibbed. Those words were written almost three decades ago by the late Irving Howe, one of the fabled New York Intellectuals and an early member of the lately revivified Democratic Socialists of America. His essay is worth reading in full. I mostly agree with it. I use it to frame my own meditations because it helps us see that people have been having more or less these exact arguments for my entire lifetime.
I do have some sympathy for people who get mad at the canon here at the dreary end of 2020. Almost everything you might ever want feels ever scarcer. Cultural capital is no exception, nor is simply feeling good about the books you’ve read. So when you’re made to feel insecure about how you’ve gone about reading, even though you’re a person who loves to read and maybe even writes books? That can feel like adding insult to injury. It’s not Moby Dick’s fault that rent in your provincial college town has doubled over the last decade, but yelling at sanctified books can be a satisfying facsimile of yelling at people and institutions with actual power.
There are an increasing number of (disturbingly popular) Substack newsletters devoted to lengthy declaiming about something the writer saw on Twitter. I’m not here to do that. I’ve given you a theory, and now I’m going to tell you a story.
Back in the late summer of 2005, I was not yet 15 years old. I was a sophomore at Laramie High School in Laramie, Wyoming. The Iraq War was at its worst and no one was interested in talking about it. The Black Parade wouldn’t drop for another year. I had a helmet of blonde hair and wore zip-off cargo pants so baggy that the cuffs got whipped around by the constant high-desert wind.
I was having a bad time, which is standard for people who are about to turn 15. My particular bad time had to do with realizing I cared about reading and writing and not knowing what to do about. I’d basically stopped reading for pleasure a few years earlier, and now I didn’t know where to go. Books for adults felt distant and forbidding, like a country I knew I’d have to emigrate to despite not knowing the language, or even how to get there.
I at least knew that I needed an English class that would look OK on college applications, so I took something called “mythology.”
Mr. Hetler was a grizzled man with a mane of silver hair. He worked as a bricklayer in the summers, something he had done full-time before going back to school in his forties, where he had been known as a gifted writer among my professor mother and her colleagues. He wore Navajo-print shirts and work boots, and drank coffee by the gallon. He was more sardonic and anarchic than other teachers, and hinted at a relationship with the school’s true authority figures that wasn’t so different from our own. When it was eventually time to decamp for Christmas, he read us dark riffs on Santa by Neil Gaiman. I loved him right away.
We read some “mythology” in his class, like The Epic of Gilgamesh. Mostly we read things that would be typically construed more as “classics,” including Beowulf. What I remember most was reading The Iliad. I had heard of Homer, of course, and had every reason to believe I would find him boring and interminable. Mr. Hetler had other plans. His readings of Homer opened us up to the sillinesses and idiosyncrasies of the text. Why did we need to give so many lines to Achaean and Trojan warriors shit-talking each other? Why did the gods interfere so capriciously in the drama, derailing promising plotlines? Most importantly of all, why were these legendary warriors—Achilles in particular—such whiny babies?
If I were to trace my interest in the confounding complexity of fictional characters back to a single origin, it would be to Mr. Hetler’s analysis of Achilles. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember beginning to understand that the archetypes and expectations I had absorbed through mass culture weren’t going to be enough. I was going to have to go deeper. I was going to have to read a lot more if I ever wanted to understand why perhaps the most famous hero of history turned out to be a neurotic mess.
Beginning to read the classics didn’t settle anything for me. It unsettled me. It was a starting point on a journey I’ll never complete. I began to understand that I could never read enough, and that this wasn’t a shortcoming—it was the only honest way to engage with literature. To read was to fail. I started to be drawn to books I could never fully understand, like Wuthering Heights and Never Let Me Go.
If we’re lucky, our reading might make us more comfortable with what we don’t understand, what we haven’t experienced, what we don’t know. Reading the best books may sometimes lead to affirmation for what we are and what we’ve done, but it’s also a way of serenely inhabiting our ignorance. For everything we learn, we catch glimpses of something we may never get to learn. I’m still not even close to understanding everything I read in Mr. Hetler’s mythology class. I wish I could go back to his oddly shaped corner classroom in that sprawling Atomic-Age shambles of a building, and listen to him talk about the under-appreciated élan of Diomedes.
It’s not for me to give anyone permission to read or not read something, but I do hope you all find your own Mr. Hetler.
Calvin and Hobbes Corner
Feels like a good time to start a new multi-strip arc:
This one is going to go some places, but we’re starting somewhere mundane: An annoying homework assignment. I still get angry thinking about similar assignments I got as a kid. There’s been a lot of pedagogical work lately on whether homework should exist at all. I can safely say that kids shouldn’t have to do elaborate projects that will require them to get someone to drive them to the store or to a copy center or whatever.
Mostly what we have here is preamble. We’re setting up the saga, so there’s only time for one easy joke at the end. Hobbes is passively receptive, which is a common mode for him, but one that leaves his potential on the table. Hobbes is at his best when he has his own agenda, but he often starts a storyline as merely a sounding board for Calvin.
It says something about Calvin that he never thinks to solve his academic problems with collaboration—or with anything other than resistance until such time as that becomes futile. I sympathize, but it can be painful to read. Just do what needs doing, Calvin.
Geoffrey Hill is reading the classics in a stressful setting