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Ooh Look, the Culture Wars are Back!

Or at least revisted, via the NYT. (Which, btw, another reason to love the online journal. Cos so far, I've only seen one NYT newspaper box thing.

Reading lists, though, are a zero-sum game: for every writer added, another is dropped. One can debate the changing fortunes of writers on the literary stock market, but it’s clear that today the emphasis is on the recent past — at the expense, some argue, of historical perspective. As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ” — Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria — “but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”


Judt also denounces the balkanization created by interdisciplinary ethnic studies programs. Multiculturalism “created lots and lots of microconstituencies, which universities didn’t have the courage to oppose,” he said. “It’s much more like a supermarket — kids can take pretty much any courses they like: Jewish kids take Jewish studies, gay students gay studies, black students African-American studies. You no longer have a university, but a series of identity constituencies all studying themselves.”

Some say this kind of identity-based thinking is at odds with the true purpose of education — something canon traditionalists can misunderstand as badly as their multiculturalist opponents. “What Americans yearn for in literature is self-recognition,” said Mark Lilla, a professor of political philosophy and religion who just left the University of Chicago for Columbia. “That’s where the conservatives went wrong. The case for the canon itself isn’t a case for book camp and becoming a citizen in the West.” Wrestling with difficult, often inaccessible works is “the most alienating experience possible,” he continued. “When you read Toni Morrison, there’s no alienation. It affirms your Americanism.”

I don't believe in zero-sum, thanks very much. So attests my sad, sad, shelving system. Look, the brilliant think about literature is that, like history, it repeats itself. Pick your narrative basis and then pick your novel: like the Bare Naked Ladies sing, it's all been done before.

I don't think everyone needs to read Paradise Lost, though maybe they should. It has great fight sequences and the characters talk about sex a lot. There isn't a book that will tell you the Secret of Everything (and it's especially not The Secret no matter what Oprah says). I'm sure there are people who will say it's an alienating experience, because there unfamiliar words and it's poetry. But if you read it aloud, it's lots of conversations about things not being fair, the problems married couples have, and some in-your-face Jesusiness. Doesn't that usually re-affirm Americanism?

Top 10/20/50/100 lists aside, there really is no "you have to read this before you die to understand the world" (though if there was, I'm sure The Sandman would be the thing to choose). There are lots and lots and lots of insanely good works out there. Deal.


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