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Monday, February 26, 2007

Drinking the Literary Kool-Aid

Leslie wrote a terrific, absolutely searing essay over at, on Peter Ackroyd's book 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Go read Leslie's piece, then return here.

Done? Okay. So now you know that establishing any sort of literary canon - or, as Leslie puts it, "class-based standards for cultural knowledge and participation" - has its downsides, to put it mildly, including exclusion of those folks less well read than thou and the constant repetition of antisocial memes, intentional or not. Having read Harold Bloom's The Western Canon a few years ago - and coming to the same regrettable conclusion as Leslie, that I've read not nearly enough so-called great works to consider myself "well-read" (at least according to the intelligensia) - I'm forced to agree that elitism's snooty hand (snooty snoot?) has created yet another class division humanity can ill afford.

Dividing people into the well-read and the ill-read (read: ill-bred?) is a pernicious act that I've fallen victim to myself, if only in the darkest corners of my mind. It's hard not to be judgmental when few people read for pleasure with any regularity, turning instead to entertainments I disdain.

But then I remind myself that any creative act has value, and so does any act of engaging with that creation. Or at the very least, we have to be open to that possibility. Yes, on the surface of it it seems ridiculous to compare the act of reading a Harlequin romance to that of cracking open Ulysses (if only so that you can say you've read it), but the essential act of communication between artist and reader remains the same. And if the reader's imagination is engaged in both cases...isn't that a good thing? Should we censure people for reading Clive Cussler or a Superman comic on the bus? (Certainly I have no right to judge, having read and enjoyed the Space:1999 novelizations of Michael Butterworth - and far worse!)

On the other hand, when we insist on putting art on a level playing field, do we risk devaluating greatness? What serves the greater good of living, breathing citizens - pop art or high culture?

Hopefully there's still room for both. And room for us to take our noses out of our books once in a while and look to our neighbours to forge more direct connections.

* * *

On the other hand, these "best of" collections are always handy for directing avid readers to new material. So in that spirit, I offer you an article I wrote back in 1999, originally published in The Peak magazine for its turn-of-the-century issue.

1000 Years of Wonder
By Earl J. Woods

1000 years – a blink in the eye of time, but an age to mere mortals. When the last Millennium came, the Chinese were putting the final touches on a new invention called gunpowder. In India, Sridhara was discovering the mathematical significance of the zero. On the Yucatan peninsula, the Mayan civilization was at its peak. Leif Ericson was exploring the shores of what would become, much later, Nova Scotia.

And in Britain, men told the tale of mighty Beowulf and his battle with the demon Grendel, even as Millennial fear of the Last Judgement and the Apocalypse brought terror and worry. Perhaps Beowulf’s heroism and courage inspired them to face those fears.

With Beowulf began a thousand years of wonder – 10 centuries of imagination and argument, the best and the worst that human thought has yet produced. While the sheer volume of literature produced since AD 1000 is far too vast to do justice to, there are certain works that everyone should read – or at least, intend to read. To choose a mere ten books from a thousand years worth of writing is nearly an exercise in arrogance; in my own defence, I can only say that my choices were informed by my own experiences. (For those who are curious, I excluded Shakespeare only because his influence has been so pervasive that it has become almost trite to repeat the assertion. None can dispute that the Bard’s impact continues to be felt every day of our lives, from the movies we watch to the books we read to the catch phrases we use. Ay, there’s the rub.)

13th Century
The Arabian Nights
Though modern Western audiences may find elements of The Arabian Nights misogynistic, the stories themselves remain wondrous escapades. They describe a world of magic, mystery, capricious spirits, witches, fools, warriors, and, of course, the incomparable Shahrazad. One cannot help but admire her beauty, her charm, and her brilliance as she saves herself from a gruesome death by weaving amazing tales to enchant the vengeful king, Shahrayar. Though it is not explicitly stated in the text, tradition has it that Shahrayar was eventually smitten by the magnificent tale-spinner and took her as his queen. The Tales are certainly the most popular and accessible way for Westerners to begin to familiarize themselves with Islamic culture.

Circa 1400
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer
Though Chaucer recanted The Canterbury Tales before he died, his ribald, hilarious tales of a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury continue to enlighten and amuse modern readers – or torture undergraduate English students, depending on one’s point of view. Modern authors are hard-pressed to match the definition of Chaucer’s characters, a diverse group of folk from all classes and many walks of life. Like The Arabian Knights, the tales in Canterbury are told within a framing story – the pilgrimage itself. The stories are spun as the weary travellers stop to rest, prompted by a bartender’s suggestion of a contest. The ensuing anecdotes are as entertaining (and sometimes shocking) to modern audiences as they doubtless were to Chaucer’s contemporaries.

The influence of the Tales is still felt today - check out Stephen King’s multi-volume “Dark Tower” series.

The Prince
That the term “Machiavellian” still describes a coldly rational, often cruel course of action designed to further one’s self interest is proof that The Prince continues to hold sway over political and even personal discourse to this day, nearly five hundred years after its publication. Machiavelli is often thought of as something of a cad, but perhaps unfairly; he does state, for example, that “a prince must show himself a lover of merit, give preferment to the able and honour those who excel in every art.” However, “A man who wishes to make a profession of goodness in everything must necessarily come to grief among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary…to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case.” Clearly, Machiavelli would have scorned altruism. For all that, Machiavelli genuinely sought to improve the state of his native Italy, and his brutal honesty shines through in his writing.

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes
The image of Cervantes’ hero, Don Quixote is printed indelibly on the Western collective consciousness. A ragged knight, tattered and old but still somehow elegant, charges a field of windmills, lance in hand, believing he is slaying giants. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Quixote refuses to give up the battle, having to be dragged off in the end by his simple but loyal retainer, Sancho Panza. Quixote is a pathetic character, but Cervantes describes his pain in such a captivating manner that we come to cheer him on, to endorse his mad quests though we know they can end only in failure and disillusionment. The term “quixotic” is still used today to describe a hopelessly naïve, though noble, endeavour. Cervantes took a decade to complete Don Quixote – making the writing itself, perhaps, a quixotic task of its own. That Cervantes did indeed finish this monumental work is perhaps a message in itself – that sometimes, naïve nobility pays off.

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
Worldly but still fundamentally decent, Elizabeth Bennet is one of the prototype characters for the modern feisty heroine of the 90s. (Most critical to my own experience: without Elizabeth Bennet, perhaps there never would have been a spunky Lois Lane for Superman to woo.) The story of Lizzy’s love affair with Darcy is full of sly humour and laced with commentary on the values of the times – many of the characters are more concerned with wealth and social status than finding true love. Were Austen alive today, she would no doubt find that courtship, though much changed, still retains some of those fundamental flaws she stabbed at with the keen blade of her wit.

Mary Shelley
One could argue that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been more influential than her more famous husband Percy Shelley’s poetry. Certainly the image of the monster – referred to as the wretch in the novel – has been thoroughly ingrained upon the public consciousness, if not by the novel itself, then by countless movie adaptations, James Whale’s 1931 version chief among them. Boris Karloff’s monster – with towering brow, pathetic moan, and inexplicable bolts at the neck – may not be completely faithful to Shelley’s vision, but it does manage to elicit the correct mixture of sympathy and horror.

The tragic consequences Dr. Frankenstein suffers for daring to usurp the role of God have become a standard for cautionary souls, who often invoke the doomed doctor’s name when crying out against scientific advance. For good or ill, Frankenstein colours the language of scientific debate today – the current battle over genetically engineered crops (called “Frankenfoods” in many circles) is but one example. Cloning, transplant technology, grafting of embryonic tissue – all have been given the Frankenstein label. Doubtless proponents of any controversial procedures of the coming millennium will continue to do battle with Shelley’s prophetic vision.

The Grapes of Wrath
John Steinbeck
More than the ultimate chronicle of the Great Depression in America, The Grapes of Wrath forces its readers to care about the Joads, the simple but genuine clan that abandons the dust bowls of Oklahoma to seek out a better life in the orchards of California. Along the way the book delivers a powerful message about justice – or lack thereof – in an unfettered capitalist system, though it is never pedantic. Most Canadian high school students read Steinbeck’s most popular novel during their teenage years; I read it for the first time only two years ago, and even at the jaded age of 29 I was moved to tears by the unswerving nobility of the Joads in the face of agonizing, dehumanizing conditions. Their dignity continues to inspire in an age of uncertainty. Steinbeck won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for this novel.

George Orwell
Possibly one of the most depressing and wearying novels of all time, Orwell’s dark vision of a world divided into three oppressive totalitarian regimes is nonetheless powerful. Winston Smith’s futile rebellion and ultimate embrace of monolithic dictator Big Brother serve as a chilling warning for any who believe that dictatorships are something that exist only “over there,” in the land of the enemy.

I first read 1984 as a boy of 15 – in, as it turns out, 1984. It was assigned to a select few “gifted” students in our school’s enrichment program for advanced students, and no doubt our teacher had high hopes for our answers to his question: was our world of 1984 at all like Orwell’s dystopian 1984?

Unfortunately, our status as gifted children did not necessarily imply advanced wisdom. To us, the world of 1984 seemed far too bleak, too nightmarish to bear any resemblance to the comfortable surroundings we enjoyed. But in an era when news and opinion sources are being concentrated into the hands of fewer and fewer multinational conglomerates, how long before the truth becomes the exclusive domain of a powerful few? How long before Orwell’s doublethink-the acceptance of contradictory ideas (like “fight for peace”) as absolute reality - becomes so ingrained in our minds that we cease to notice it?

…or has it happened already?

Joseph Heller
An anti-war novel for the ages, Catch-22 captures the utter insanity of war through humour that is as likely to induce weeping as laughter. Yossarian is a combat airman, doomed to fly a set number of deadly missions over German territory before he will be rotated out of the service. Each time he returns from another bombing run, he is one mission closer to rotation back to the United States, to freedom. But even as he dutifully throws himself into the path of Nazi antiaircraft fire, the generals keep increasing the minimum number of missions – so that no one can ever go home. Eventually, Yossarian decides that he’ll never get out if he continues to play fair, so he tries whatever he can to find another way. He attempts to convince the powers that be that he is crazy, and therefore unfit for duty:

“From now on I’m thinking only of me.”

Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way?”

“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

Unfortunately, a catch prevents Yossarian’s insanity ploy from working. To wit: you have to be insane to be allowed to leave the service. Indeed, the air force is required to ground anyone who is crazy. But going insane in order to leave is an inherently sane action, since to stay means almost certain death. Or as Doc Daneeka, the base psychiatrist puts it, “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.”

Yossarian’s struggles to avoid combat duty, to escape the insanity of the Second World War, are pathetic, wretched, and heartbreaking, and certainly the inspiration for the movie and TV series M*A*S*H, not to mention inspiring countless numbers of American students to question the war in Vietnam.

Silent Spring
Rachel Carson
US Vice President Al Gore calls Silent Spring “a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history. Without this book, theenvironmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.”

The book was initially met with fierce resistance from groups and corporations who benefited from the continuance of the status quo, and many continue to label Carson’s landmark ecological work “hysterical” and “extremist.” But with well-reasoned arguments and research, Carson called the attention of the world to an increasingly fragile ecosystem. She died of breast cancer only two years after the publication of the book, and now no one can say if she would have been proud of its effects, or devastated at how far humans have yet to go in rebuilding their damaged environment.

One wonders what these authors would have thought of the year 2000, with its hurtling spacecraft, bewilderingly complex politics, fractured social structures, unequalled wealth, and spirit-crushing squalor. Whatever their feelings, they all helped shape the world we live in. Their legacy informs our thoughts, our actions, and our future.

As the world’s information continues to expand logarithmically, chances are that the authors of the coming millennium will find it much more difficult to have a strong impact on human consciousness. Though print runs are higher, so is the sheer volume of works published, and the number of books people have read in common will diminish. In some ways, the explosion of literature is a boon; more books on more subjects than ever before are available to any who can read. There are hundreds of thousands of excellent books being published today. But excellence may become irrelevant. The days when large groups of people will have read a particular author may be vanishing quickly. In an era when there seems to be an author to suit any taste, books that retain their greatness while appealing to mass audiences may be in short supply. Will the books of the Third Millennium inspire future generations to greatness, or will they be lost in the infinite slush pile of history?

Only time will tell.

Ten More of the Greats
1000: The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagan
1350: “The Chalk Circle,” Li Hsing Tao
1759: Candide, Voltaire
1812: Fairy Tales, The Brothers Grimm
1859: On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection, Charles Darwin
1859: A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
1898: War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
1953: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
1957: The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss
1988: A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking


Anonymous said...

I bet it would be fun in a "let's keep talking throught the entire movie, damn the rest of the audience" sort of way, to go to a Quentin Tarentino movie festival with you and Leslie.

Earl J. Woods said...

I don't think Leslie has the stomach for QT's films...though I agree it would be fun, if only to watch her trying not to vomit during the gory parts.

Actually Jackie Brown wasn't that violent, come to think of it.

Sean Woods said...

I was going to mention this earlier (heh, EARLier), but I'm quite happy to see that you're posting stories from your archives.

Obviously I'm a bit biased, but I really enjoy reading them.

Liam J. said...

This was a good list. However, I have to disagree with you on your "Machavelian" and "Quixotic" statements. I think they point to people wanting to sound obscure and intelligent coupled with the carelessness with which people toss around words, rather than the lasting effect that these books have.

That said, it takes nothing away from the impact that these books DID have.

I remember hearing an abbreviated version of Don Quixote when I was a kid and thinking it was funny. Now I just really want to read it.

I'll post my thoughts on it on my blog.