Thursday, February 19, 2009
For the Love of Humanity Please "Waste" Your Time on Dead Languages
Kitchen moment with my son, a week or two ago:
"Mommy, what's your least favorite bug?"
I have a horror of bugs. I have many "least favorites."
"Why do you ask, sweetie?"
"If I turned into your least favorite bug, would you still love me?"
Brief mental image. Try not to grimace. Look at adorable son. Heart melts within.
"Have you been reading Kafka?"
"Of course I would still love you. You would still be you, wouldn't you?"
"But how would you know?"
"I'm your mommy."
Son smiles contentedly and walks away with glass of milk.
A French-speaking surgeon I work with was frustrated about an exchange he had had with another doctor over a surgical specimen.
"I send it to him and he doesn't even examine it. He brings it back to me, and it's all cut up. Unrecognizable. C'est la metamorphose," he complained. "I might as well have woken up flat on my back this morning."
"With your legs in the air," I said behind the drape that separated us.
"Unable to turnover," I continued, giggling at the mental picture.
"Mais exactement! It's the theater of the absurd in here sometimes. Did you hear that conversation? One moment he says 'suspicious,' the next, 'nothing definitive!' How am I supposed to continue?"
After a pause another person in the room spoke up. "I'm sorry - WHAT are you guys TALKING about?"
"That last specimen that went out," I said.
"No, all that 'legs in the air' bit."
"Oh, you know, Kafka?"
Uncomprehending expression. "What?"
"The Metamorphosis." Blank look. "Kafka? Metamorphosis?"
The surgeon completed a suture and explained, "A man wakes up one morning and finds he has turned into a giant insect."
Why is it considered "elitist" to value music, art, literature, the humanities - indeed, a good education?
I've been thinking a lot about education. As a mother I'm concerned about the deficiencies I see in American schools. My own town's high school is thinking of cutting all after-school programs except varsity athletics. At a meeting one parent objected to the support of an elite squad of sports participants at the expense of many others who are engaged, truly engaged, in enriching activities in other athletic programs as well as in their very strong performing arts activities. Another parent then took issue with her use of the word "elite" and demonstrated his lack of understanding of the difference between "elite" and "elitist" in his counter-criticism of students who enjoy the arts. There's a tremendous reluctance to see, or inability to comprehend, the great value of the arts and humanities in American schools and society. WHY?
It's been going on for decades, this emphasis on utility over "luxury learning," as Stanley Fish's New York Times piece last January sadly pointed out. He quoted Carnegie congratulating business school graduates for concentrating on useful learning and not "wasting time on dead languages." He also quoted Richard Teller Crane, who famously said [No one who has] "a taste for literature has the right to be happy" [because] "the only men entitled to happiness...are those who are useful."
Yet it's not necessarily useful things in themselves that make human beings happy but rather those things that define and perfect our humanity - stories, music, works of art, relationship. One might even argue that the invention and act of reading and writing themselves help define our humanity. Books are in our collective human intellect and soul. What gives? Even the dung beetle (or whatever it is) in Kafka's story learns to appreciate the arts in the end - making him more human than his own metamorphosed family, who are dehumanized by their ostracizing behavior.
Recently on Facebook a meme has been floating around - "The BBC Pretentious (and intellectually snobbish) Book Meme." All my friends and I, before we understood the true origin of this list, cried out, "But they left out this author and that author and this book and that book! What kind of list is that?!" The truth is, I don't think the BBC really conceived of this list as the meme that's being distributed around Facebook; in fact, I'm sure it's not a list of the 100 books they'd consider must-reads for all readers. According to their website, in April of 2003 they took a survey of people's favorite books in an effort to find the nation's best-loved novel, and when all the nominations came in, they came up with this list of 100 books loved by the Brits. So of course it's a very Brit-centered list.
But the meme got me thinking...what would I consider to be 100 must-reads (because of the writing, or content, or both) for a "good education" in the English-speaking world?
I started to make a list, but it got longer and longer as I thought of a host of non-fiction material that just had to go on it. So I decided I would make the list specifically a list of works of fiction, as Time magazine did when they made their version of the 100-books list. Apart from my list of individual must-read literary books, I would set aside such tomes as the Bible, the Koran, the Baghavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, Wild Swans by Jung Chang, Bonhoeffer's Letters from Prison, maybe Chesterton's life of St. Francis of Assisi and Gandhi's The Story of My Experiments with Truth, a lot of history books, and a good primer on the philosophies and/or works of Plato / Aristotle / Augustine / Aquinas / Hobbes / Descartes / Spinoza / Locke / Hume / Rousseau / Kant / Schopenhauer / Nietzsche et al.
As for my list, 100+ Must-Read Works of Fiction (and no, I haven't read them all, so my education must continue!)...
Here it is (subject to adjustment/change, of course):
Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart
Sholom Aleichem - Wandering Stars
Jean Anouilh - Becket (ideally, alongside T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral)
Natalie Babbitt - Tuck Everlasting
Georges Bernanos - The Diary of a Counrty Priest
Ray Bradbury - Farenheit 451
Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights
Frances Hodgson Burnett - A Little Princess
Albert Camus - The Stranger
Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
Willa Cather - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Miguel de Cervantes - Don Quixote
Geoffrey Chaucer - The Canterbury Tales
Anton Chekov - Collected Short Stories
Kate Chopin - Desiree's Baby and other stories
J.M. Coetzee - Disgrace
Wilkie Collins - The Woman in White
A.J. Cronin - The Citadel
Dante - Inferno
Charles Dickens - Bleak House
Charles Dickens - A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens - David Copperfield
Fyodor Dostoevsky - The Brothers Karamazov
Arthur Conan Doyle - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
George Eliot - Middlemarch
Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man
Shusako Endo - Silence
Euripides - Medea
William Faulkner - As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner - Light in August
William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury
F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
E.M. Forster - A Room with a View
Michael Frayn - Copenhagen
Ernest G. Gaines - A Lesson Before Dying
William Golding - The Lord of the Flies
Nadine Gordimer - July's People
Graham Greene - The Power and the Glory
Thomas Hardy - Jude the Obscure
Joel Chandler Harris - Br'er Rabbit stories
Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Scarlet Letter
Seamus Heaney (transl.) - Beowulf
Ernest Hemingway - For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ernest Hemingway - The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
Victor Hugo - Les Miserables
Victor Hugo - Notre Dame de Paris
Zora Neale Hurston - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley - Brave New World
Kahsuo Ishiguro - The Remains of the Day
James Joyce - Ulysses
Franz Kafka - The Metamorphosis
Nikos Kazantzakis - The Last Temptation of Christ
Ken Kesey - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Yasmina Khadra - The Swallows of Kabul
Barbara Kingsolver - Prodigal Summer
John Knowles - A Separate Peace
Jhumpa Lahiri - The Namesake
Lawrence and Lee - Inherit the Wind
Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
Primo Levi - The Periodic Table
C.S. Lewis - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
Gabriel Garcia Marquez - 100 Years of Solitude
Cormac McCarthy - The Road
Herman Melville - Moby Dick
Arthur Miller - The Crucible
John Milton - Paradise Lost
Thomas More - Utopia
Toni Morrison - Beloved
Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita
George Orwell - Animal Farm
Orhan Pamuk - Snow
Chaim Potok - The Chosen
Marcel Proust - In Search of Lost Time
Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged
Jose Rizal - Noli Me Tangere
Marilynne Robinson - Gilead
J.D. Salinger - Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare - Complete Works
George Bernard Shaw - Saint Joan
Murasaki Shikibu - The Tale of Genji
Alexander Solzhenitsyn - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Muriel Spark - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
John Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath
Irving Stone - The Agony and the Ecstasy
W.M. Thackeray- Vanity Fair
J.R.R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings
Leo Tolstory - War and Peace
Mark Twain - Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain - The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Sigrid Undset - Christine Lavransdatter
Voltaire - Candide
Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse Five
Evelyn Waugh - Brideshead Revisited
Eudora Welty - The Optimist's Daughter
Edith Wharton - Ethan Frome
Elie Wiesel - Night
Oscar Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Virginia Woolf - To the Lighthouse
So many authors from childhood that I've left off but wanted to include - Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, Madeleine L'Engle...I guess I'l have to make a separate children's book list of 100 must-reads!
Additions/revisions suggested by readers/friends:
J.M. Coetzee - Foe
Charles Dickens - Great Expectations
George Eliot - The Mill on the Floss
Ernest Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms
Sinclair Lewis - Arrowsmith
Sinclair Lewis - Main Street
Vladimir Nabokov - Pale Fire
Arundhati Roy - The God of Small Things
John Wyndham - The Chrysalids