Years ago, in an Austin bookstore, I heard Yann Martel, the author of the Life of Pi, give a talk—he said that he mailed a novel to his Prime Minister every year. Why, we might wonder, do such a ludicrous thing? He probably did so under the assumption that reading literature is beneficial.
The first objection someone might make to such an assumption is that literature cannot make you good. Yet, do any of us doubt that it could make you better? We might be hesitant to embrace the idea that Stalin would have been a really good guy if he only read more Shakespeare. But there is a reason the Soviets banned Dostoevsky, exiled Solzhenitsyn, and censored Bulgakov. They knew something about the mystery of reading literature that we twenty-first century Americans keep rationalizing away and ignoring to our detriment.
C.S. Lewis proposes in his Experiment in Criticism that good reading has something in common with our moral, intellectual, and emotional formation. “In love we escape from our self into another,” he writes. So too in reading a great book. “In the moral sphere, every act of justice or charity involves putting ourselves in the other person’s place and thus transcending our own competitive particularity.” To move towards just or charitable actions, we must first empathize with another’s perspective of the world. In a culture where we are so trained to be autonomous and selfish by everything else, reading may be a small but necessary antidote to keep us human.
To read a book is much like listening to another person. We close our mouths for hours to hear what they have to say about their experience of the world, whether they are fictional or not. For at least a bracket of time, we are attending to another, emptying ourselves of ourselves to receive the gift of another’s humanity. When the Black Lives Matters protests began in 2020, what immediately happened to the New York Times and Amazon book lists? They overflowed with James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, W. E. B. Du Bois. White people wanted to understand Black rage, the Black experience in America, in ways that they had not previously listened. Something was missing from the white experience of the world, and their initial response was correct: let us see with others’ eyes; we need to read other people’s stories.
The problem has been how to solve this gap in our reading experiences, how to overcome past prejudices. One grass roots organization that has stepped up to counteract our biased reading lists is called Disrupt Texts. For the founders of this movement, the goal is to create “a more representative and equitable language arts curriculum.” This group aims in part to include more women and persons of color in the canon, but this particular organization desires to go further. They want to “center” and “amplify” minority perspectives to “foster community” in the hopes that such “solidarity” will prevent hate and bias in the schools. One of its founders writes, “Creating a more inclusive curriculum is not simply about replacing texts written by ‘dead, white males.’ It is about addressing the racism, sexism, homophobia, and other problematic issues reflected in these texts—and choosing better.”
We should embrace such a mission to expand the canon and invite the best that has been thought and said by women and persons of color into this ongoing conversation that has been too exclusively, male, white, and Western for too long. At our recent meeting of the advisory board for the Classical Learning Test, we debated whether it might be best to relinquish the term “Western Civilization” and focus instead on “The Great Tradition.” In this way, we do not forego the legacy of the West, but we become more hospitable to African, Asian, and South American texts that present universal truth, goodness, and beauty.
Pepperdine University and St. John’s College offer options for a semester of Eastern Texts in their great books programs. The goal should be to discover and promote what is “great,” to pass on, tradere, these texts from generation to generation. We should not be afraid of the adjective “great” as though it smacks of elitism, for there are such things as truth, goodness, and beauty, which some texts reflect more strongly than others. Our blindness has been to seek only these transcendent verities in the work of Western, white, male voices, and I affirm the efforts to reach beyond this canon. However, I want to point out some very definite problems in the aims of some of these movements and perhaps suggest a better way forward.
First, we cannot have our goals be relevancy, usefulness, inclusivity, or even the prevention of hate (The prevention of something is never a good; we must create a good). As to relevancy, by focusing on that determiner, we will increase the fallacy of presentism in our students and readers. Relevance suffers from the same assumptions as relatability: it can never include everyone at every time.
To be relevant one minute will be irrelevant the next; or more likely, to be relevant one year in the curriculum will be irrelevant the next year. Similarly, what might feel relevant from a teacher’s or writer’s perspective may not actually be relevant to the specific persons you are addressing. Who would have thought how reading John Keats would transform the heart of Countee Cullen? Or, how reading The Iliad would have incited Simone Weil to activism in WWII? We cannot prescribe a text based on the too-alterable criteria of relevance any more than we can ensure that one text will be “relatable” to every reader. It is a fool’s errand.
To assign texts that are useful will only guarantee that you have created a hurdle towards students becoming good readers. A useful text such as An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States or Antiracist Baby is so didactic as to prevent readers to think critically for themselves. Moreover, students will only buy into the propaganda as long as it sustains its usefulness; if it becomes useless to be antiracist, then they will turn to racism. For we have taught them to choose whatever is most useful. We have fed the sin inside them that places their selves at the center of the world. They will continue to evaluate texts, media, and even people according to the heretical rubric of use.
If we set “inclusivity” as a motivation for including or excluding certain texts, we make hypocrites of ourselves. Inclusivity is an impossibility as an ultimate end; we must always make choices for what to include and what to exclude. I choose to teach Middlemarch because it is better than Breaking Dawn; I am excluding the latter from my canon. While those at Disrupt Texts insist that they do not cut authors, they remove The Odyssey, Shakespeare, and To Kill a Mockingbird from their classrooms in efforts to center minority voices and choose “better.” But what is the criteria for “better” for these efforts—it is not about the aesthetic or moral merit of the work. “Better,” for this group, means more “inclusive” of nonwhite, female, LGTBQ perspectives. To choose these works over the best that has been thought and said is exclusivist.
In determining our canon, we should focus on addition rather than subtraction. There is room at the table for everyone worthy to be there (we will discuss more how to assess merit in a moment). Instead of substituting Homer with YA literature that is more relevant, useful and inclusive, can we teach readers how to approach these ancient texts? In An Experiment in Criticism Lewis advises us not to expect the medieval knight to step into our world, but rather our job as readers is to put on the knight’s armor and walk around in his metal shoes. Likewise, Alan Jacobs recommends viewing Homer and such writers not as guests at our table but that we are guests at his. Such a reversal of perspectives refrains from judging Homer by all the ways he is not a twenty-first century American writer; instead, we learn about what it meant to be an Ancient Greek.
If we are to learn how to be more inclusive and empathetic of other viewpoints, how better than to step thousands of years backwards in time, to a world that makes us uncomfortable, seems immoral from our post-Christian standpoint, and is difficult to comprehend? Will we not learn so much more from listening to this ancient voice than to the teenage narrator of a Brooklyn novel? Such an approach to reading demands virtue of the reader. Rather than coddling them and bulldozing obstacles out of their way, we teach students to discern truth from mendacity. Women should not be war prizes. But then listen to Andromache’s mourning and its beauty. Listen to Cassandra’s voice and its wisdom. Perhaps Homer is not as misogynist as the rest of his culture? Lewis writes, “One of the chief operations of art is to remove our gaze from that mirrored face, to deliver us from that solitude . . . entering fully into the opinions, and therefore all the attitudes, feelings, and total experience of other [people]” (85). Through teaching these seemingly unrelatable, irrelevant and useless texts, we might strengthen our readers into characters that can overcome the prejudices they may face.
Since we cannot silence every book that has misrepresented any group of people, where would be our finish line once we began this effort to remove from the reading lists all the offensive texts? Lewis warns, “The use of the guillotine becomes an addiction . . . Under vigilant criticism a new head falls nearly every month. The list of approved authors grows absurdly small. No one is safe.” The move to cancel Homer because of his misogyny or Shakespeare because of his antisemitism removes from reading the very practice of humility, charity, generosity, and empathy that the act seeks to inculcate.
When Lewis writes of these books, he sounds as though he is describing people, for he nearly conflates the two. If we imagine books as people, perhaps we will approach them with more virtue. We know that people are not perfect and suffer faults, so we bear with them. People are imperfect beings under construction, moving hopefully ever towards the good. We do not throw out W. E. B. DuBois’s legacy because some of his views on Black people sound questionable to today’s ears. Rather, as we do with friends and strangers alike, we converse with them, hear them out, and tell them when they are wrong from our perspective.
The person who approaches a book as though it has nothing but faults will be likely to find them in plentitude. “If you already distrust the man you are going to meet, everything he says or does will seem to confirm your suspicions,” Lewis writes. “We can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good. We must empty our minds and lay ourselves open” (116). The person who opens herself to a book, assuming that the line dividing good and evil may run between its heart as well, may learn something about herself.
How then to choose good literature—what to read? Lewis recommends we read books that make us good readers. “If all went ideally well, we should end by defining good literature as that which permits, invites, or even compels good reading; and bad, as that which does the same for bad reading” (104). Good reading is that which demands our attention. You get lost in the book and forget that you are reading. Everyone has had the experience in a movie theater when you cannot stop judging every acting choice, casting, badly shot scene, etc. Similarly, the bad book is one where the reader gets distracted, jumps from paragraph to paragraph, wants to put it down after a few minutes. A good book will absorb you until you have lost track of the hour. If we choose books according to this initial criteria, we avoid the fallacies of relevancy, usefulness, and inclusivity. For modes of reading, says Lewis, are timeless and universal; they will not be swayed by the trends of the moment.
To read with this level of attention is to practice the necessary selflessness that reading demands. Just as we do with persons, “we must treat the reception of the work we are reading as an end in itself” (130). Books, no more than persons, are to be means towards other ends. In other words, they are not useful. They are to be loved. When students ask why they should read, I want to respond with Lewis’s words, “What is the good of listening to what anyone says?” (131). Books are like people; to read is to make friends. And, sometimes enemies, but ones you know better than your worst troll on social media. In reading great books, you take the other perspective seriously. You know how to respond well, in love, because you have first practiced the virtue of attention.
In this current time and place, we would do well to choose books that are not only great but that diverge from our own experience. If you are a contemporary American, you might read Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle to see what happens when only a few people control what may be said, thought, or known in a culture. If you are white, pick up Anna Julia Cooper’s essays and celebrate how a woman born a slave argues for the necessity of universal liberal education; Cooper received her Ph.D from the Sorbonne in her sixties. If you are a man, what might you learn from reading Kristin Lavransdatter, a behemoth trilogy about one woman’s Augustinian struggle between her own will and God’s? While I read a lot of twentieth-century fiction by habit of my specialty, I also teach great books, old books, and we all can learn from Athanasius, Boethius, Julian of Norwich, Shakespeare, and Douglass. We all need to see with more than our own eyes.
Too often we presume our eyes are the only ones that matter. Lewis says such an attitude will lead us to inhabit a tiny world, likened to a prison. But, in reading great literature, Lewis writes, “I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the sky in the Greek poem, I see with myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.” We need books as much as we need other people, for we are all part of each other’s stories. Not one of us is the author of her own tale, so we should not pretend to be the only character.