The timing of “greatness”

Our family has had some fairly long drives recently, and my husband and I have been enjoying listening to National Review‘s The Great Books Podcast in the car, hosted out of Hillsdale College in Michigan by John J. Miller. Every week Miller hosts a guest — generally a professor of English from somewhere or other — and they talk about one of the great books of the Western Canon. We’ve listened to podcasts on Beowulf, Pride and Prejudice, Augustine’s City of God, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, The Aeneid, and many others. As far as tech/sound goes, there are occasional volume-balance issues, particularly when Miller is being joined via telephone, but overall it’s been a pretty enjoyable listen. I’ve made mental notes of books that I’ve never gotten around to but would now like to pick up, as well as some, like Farenheit 451, that I read long ago and didn’t enjoy — but which would probably read very differently to me fifteen years on. It’s definitely spurred some great conversations, and we will often pause the podcast to discuss a guest’s interpretation of a work versus our own. I dig it.

The whole thing, though, has made me think about the idea of a “great book” or a canon of literature, both of which seem to have fallen rather out of fashion. I had an English teacher in high school who railed against the very existence of a Western Canon — “It’s nothing but dead white men!” — as well as the idea that we should be studying it with any seriousness. It is true that The Western Canon as we have inherited it is overwhelmingly the words of said dead white men. Do we regret the lost voices and perspectives from the years when they were either going unplublished, or not receiving enough reader traction to have survived the intervening years? Of course. But to my mind, that makes the canon a candidate for supplementation rather than destruction; if it is a shame to have lost those other, unknown voices then surely it would be a shame to lose the ones we still have. We don’t need to stop reading The Odyssey just because we also want to read Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But what most interests me is the charge of being dead. Well, the poor dears can’t help that, can they? Death may have snuck up on them decades or centuries or eons ago, but they were all living and writing on the razor-thin edge between their present and the future, just as we are now. Refusing to read authors simply because they lived before we did strikes me as particularly foolish, and smacking of what C. S. Lewis and Owen Barfield called chronological snobbery. In effect, it is the assumption that the past is inferior to the present simply because it is the past. It is easy to look at the ideas and assumptions of the past and think ourselves well past all that — and in many cases, we may be right. But if we assume that the present isĀ always superior to the past, we end up in the intellectual weeds. Lewis writes,

Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them. (Surprised by Joy, ch. 13)

Miller opens every podcast with the same question: “So, Professor So-and-So, what makes XYZ a ‘great book’?” Naturally, the answers vary, although there are some common themes: the books highlighted on the podcast have something profound to say about the universal human condition, or give us a clear window into a particular time and place, or were influential on another author or a country or a movement, or what have you.

(Aside: Giving us a window into a particular time and place is not always seen as a positive quality; many books are challenged and pulled from library shelves because they are seen as too different from our more enlightened age, too rooted in their contemporary mores. The American Library Assosciation recently struck Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s book award because her books contain “dated cultural attitudes” — nevermind that Wilder’s portrayal of the conflict between American Indians and white settlers is a nuanced once, overwhelmingly steered by Pa’s good-hearted acceptance. Chronological snobbery has won that particular battle. End of aside.)

But a great book isn’t a Great Book just because it shows us something about humans or influenced a movement — there’s a larger link between them, which is that these books have all stood the test of time. Something about them means that they have stayed in print, that readers are still buying and reading and enjoying them, and not just because they can be found on university syllabi (although I’m sure that helps!). Despite their temporal and cultural remove from us, there is something compelling about them, some quality that has ensured their survival even while other books from the same periods have been lost. They have survived the literary sorting contest that, over decades and centuries, removes the dross from the gold.

Above all, greatness takes time. I read a lot of books that have been published within the last decade or two, many of which have been bestsellers. Will they become Great Books, in time? Some will; many won’t; popularity today does not mean popularity tomorrow, never mind in 50 or 100 or 250 years. I love John Grisham’s novels. Will people be reading John Grisham in 2218? I don’t know, but I bet they’ll still be reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen and Dante and Homer. I certainly hope they’ll still be reading Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the ALA’s recent smackdown. We certainly shouldn’t abandon all contemporary reading in favour of exclusively browsing the past (that’s the other side of chronological snobbery, the fetishization of what’s gone before), but neither should we abandon these older books. Instead of challenging them, let us allow them to challenge us — to illuminate the unquestioned mores of our own age even as they expose their own. To do otherwise is to lose a great deal of our ability to understand the world in which we live today (as well as to understand the past), and that would be to lose something very precious indeed.