Last month the Wall Street Journal reported that a school in Massachusetts has banned teaching The Odyssey and other “classics.” My friend Alan Jacobs, who wrote a whole book about the importance of connecting to the past through old books (but not a defense of the classics), wrote:
My take on this is simple: It is better for a good book not to be taught at all than be taught by the people quoted in that article. Yes! — do, please, refuse to teach Shakespeare, Homer, Hawthorne, whoever. Wag your admonitory finger at them. Let them be cast aside, let them be scorned and mocked. Let them be samizdat. Let them be forbidden fruit.
They will find their readers. They always have — long, long before anyone thought to teach them in schools — and they always will.
I have this romantic vision of some young, unknown artist, somewhere, either now or in the future, binging on the forbidden fruits of our past — all the taboo books and movies you’re not supposed to read or watch or talk about because they’re not appropriate or correct or they were made by the wrong people — and stealing all the right moves from them, the stuff that other young artists won’t get exposed to because they don’t teach it in school or put it on reading lists, and mashing those good bits all together into something new that blows our minds. This artist might not even do it intentionally, but rather, out of ignorance — because they don’t know any “better,” and they don’t have anybody telling them what’s worthy of their attention. I don’t know where they’re supposed to find these materials — hopefully in a library — but maybe they’ll discover them in a trash heap like Wall-E.
It’s happened before. Ever since reading his short stories last October, I have thought a lot about Ray Bradbury, who didn’t have anybody telling him what not to read:
Bradbury never went to college — that’s one reason why he was so original. He was not indoctrinated in the mainstream assumption of the superiority of the realist mode. He educated himself. He read the books that he wanted to — from masterpieces to junk. Then he began to write children’s literature, which is to say, pulp science fiction and fantasy. But he mixed in elements from the realist tradition.
Then something amazing happened. In a 10-year period, Bradbury wrote seven books that changed both American literature and popular culture. They were mostly collections of short stories. Only two were true novels. In these books, for the first time in American literature, an author brought the subtlety and psychological insight of literary fiction into science fiction without losing the genre’s imaginative zest. Bradbury also crafted a particular tone, a mix of bitterness and sweetness that the genre had never seen before.
I’m thinking, too, of someone like Patricia Lockwood, one of the more original voices out there, who never went to college.
I have long felt that your own education is as much about the order in which you come into contact with things as anything else:
…it’s not just the holes, but the order you fill them in. For instance, if you read the canon straight through, from Homer to McCarthy (or whoever), how original would the connections in your mind be? Better to start with one author you love, who speaks to you, and move in every direction, backwards, forwards, sideways…the juxtapositions you see and the connections you make in your brain will be more unique.
For example: Did you know that Herman Melville didn’t read Shakespeare until he was 30 years old? That’s why we have Moby-Dick.
And now we try to teach it to 15-year-olds…