Tuesday, January 27, 2009


The Classics Question

The question of the role of the classics is hot right now. This issue is not new. As long as there has been literature, the audience has been at odds as to what is worthwhile and what is not. But in time, certain books and certain authors gain canonical influence; we regard them as the standards.

The argument over the classics is without resolve and difficult to bring to application; the facts evade and challenge any easy generalization. Instead of a quantity approach as to how many people read what, let us start from quality, an approach based on admitted observations and values. Here the predisposition is that some books are better than others are, and accordingly, it is better for readers to pay attention to them. Cues come from a couple of authors who are
“classic” in the original sense; they wrote in Latin and came from the first class of citizens.

Cicero, an industrious provincial, so rigorously applied himself to study and self-improvement that he became the most noted Roman orator of his day. In so doing, he gained great political influence and suffered many enemies. In his later years, he labored to preserve the republic against dictatorship and to pass on to his compatriots the learning inherited from the Greeks. Towards the end of On the Orator, he says

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain forever a child. For what is the gain in human existence, unless it be woven into the lives of our ancestors through the records of history? – De Oratore, III, 120 (55 BCE).

Quintillian, an admirer of Cicero, came along a century later. He headed Rome’s foremost school of oratory, the first to be paid at state expense, taught the Emperor Domitian’s grand-
nephews, and received from Emperor Vespasian the designation “Professor of Rhetoric.” In retirement, he wrote The Training of the Orator that is in part a technical work. Of greater value is his declaration on the principles of education, including character formation from earliest
childhood, and reviews of prior Greek and Latin literature.

…I have already said that some profit may be derived from every author. But we must wait till our powers have been developed and established to the full before we turn to these poets. Similarly, at banquets we take our fill of the best fare and then turn to other food that, in spite of its comparative inferiority, is still attractive owing to its variety. …But until we have acquired that assured facility of which I spoke, we must form our minds and develop an appropriate tone by reading that is deep rather than wide – Institutio Oratoria, X, 1, 58-59 (ca. 95 CE).

The values implicit in the classical approach are that each individual lives in the long run of history, shares an inherited culture, and develops in association with the others who surround and interact through everyday life. So to mature into the society and to equip oneself for the fullest opportunity and development, learners will necessarily, as appropriate to them, hone in first on the best sources of the human experience to gain knowledge and understanding. Since young learners have no way to know what is best for them, it is left to their seniors to responsibly lead the way.

You can see that the classical position is based upon an enormous assumption: parents, teachers and other exemplars know their duty and will tend to it. In fact, the upper classes
of Rome often left their children in the hands of unlettered slaves, just as today children are babysat by an indifferent television. And so we must admit that routine reading has always been a minority activity, and intensive reading of the classics, as Quintillian wanted, an activity with an even smaller minority.

We are hard pressed to find any book that is shared among the population as a whole or among any majority of it. The 39 books of the Old Testament canon, a library of varied writing in itself, likely come closest, but even this possibility does not quite fill the bill. When was the last time any random group of people launched into a discussion on the anguish of Job, the bravery of Esther, the tragedies of King David, or the wondrous poetry of the Psalms?

We are so imbued with notions of equality; as educators and librarians we want everyone to have every opportunity and consequent success in equal proportion. We castigate ourselves when we fail at this goal; we hang back from initiatives unless they are going to reach everyone. Yet what can we do in the face of the undeniable realities that daunt us?

Are the classics in decline? Quintillian 1900 years ago thought so then. Yet they do not go away in total. In 1998 an advisory panel to the Modern Library imprint of Random House selected the 100 best English language novels of the Twentieth century. See Newsweek (3August 1998) 64-65. That August I owned 69 of the 100 and my local public library had a comparable number, though a different mix of titles. However, the combined public libraries of the southeast region had all but one. That was Henry Green’s Loving (1945), not a title on the tip of anyone’s tongue.

A standby guide for library acquisitions is The Readers Adviser that over the 20th century grew to 6 volumes comprising approximately 45,000 entries. All of the titles listed in a full range of subjects are judged to be “the best” of their particular field or genre. Another more focused
volume, Literature Lover’s Companion (2001), calls itself “the essential reference to the world’s greatest writers – past and present, popular and classical.” It touts the works of over 1000 authors from Homer, 9th century BCE, to Ben Okri, a Nigerian, born in 1959. Five to eight titles represent most authors. These two guides recommend items for first purchase in greater number than most libraries hold.

We need also to recognize that one influence of the classics is an indirect one, through their effect on the writing of other authors. About twenty years ago, two Minnesota state university professors surveyed entering students at Mankato state as to their favorite authors. Hands down, the favorite was Stephen King. These students as seniors answered the same survey four years later to show how their tastes had changed. And the favorite was Stephen King, a discovery that brought considerable alarm to academics. In 2000, King published “a memoir of the craft” On Writing. In an appendix, he credits his reading of other authors as making him a writer and lists about 100 entertaining books. Most are contemporary to King, but among them are Heart of Darkness (1902), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), As I Lay Dying (1930), Brideshead Revisited (1945), A Death in the Family (1957) and Our Man in Havana (1959).

Currently, Francine Prose, a well-established writer, but no Stephen King as to popularity, harked back to Quintillian’s emphasis on intensive reading by pointing out how a number of classic authors achieved their successes. Her appendix of 115 titles in Reading Like a Writer (2006) is definitely more literary than King’s and shares only two titles with his preferences, Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and Richard Price’s Freedomland. Among the older titles Prose lists are Sophocles’ Oedipus in the Young translation, the medieval Song of Roland in Sayer’s translation, Shakespeare’s King Lear, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Two by Austen, now enjoying a great revival of interest, start off the 19th century – Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Curiously, she also lists Loving, the absent title mentioned above, along with another of Green’s novels, Doting.

That King and Prose have two entirely different takes on reading and writing is typical and highlights the basic situation. We are so overrun with good books that the constant question remains: how do the classics fit in?

While many choices as to title emphasis are possible, I recommend the following overall principles and objectives.

• Everyone should come to understand that relatively few books out of the millions published have lasting influence.

• Books of the past have more than historical importance when they speak to the continuance of human experience; these books continue to affect and change lives.

• These books provide a common ground to understanding ourselves amongst others.

• As works of art, classics are meant for enjoyment, not study, and never picked to pieces.

• Because such books last through time, one can reread them during a lifetime with increased pleasure and greater understanding.

• To whet the appetite for such reading, families, libraries and teachers need to provide, model and encourage quality choices as their charges develop their own personalities, interests and abilities.

• Worthy titles are those that provide readers both enough attainment for satisfaction and additional enticement for more books.

• Everyone should recognize that it takes more than a lifetime to read all the most highly recommended books.

• Everyone should learn how to pursue and obtain more books than are readily or easily available.

I believe that to some extent, we all work towards these ends. The challenge is to do it more consistently, with more resources, and more enthusiasm.
“The Classics Question” appeared in an earlier version in MEMOrandom, v.16 no.4 (January 2007) 6-7, and is here revised.

© 2007, 2009 by Roger Sween.

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