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.

"Ben, oui."

"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."

"Oh...that's weird..."


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


Michael Leddy said...

Your conversation with your son reminds me of The Runaway Bunny. : )

I'm reading the book Fish was writing about -- Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors. It's grim.

No Proust?

Emily said...

The upside (and until there is less downside, I have to look there) to the rarity of this dying pool of knowledge that should be taken for granted is the positively fizzy tingle of recognition when you venture some sort of reference and someone actually gets it.

I remember I snagged a long term boyfriend simply because I knew what Bernoulli's Law was in the course of a conversation about planes. :)

T. said...

Michael - I JUST added Proust before seeing your comment. Of COURSE, Proust! (I needed a Madeleine to remind me...) In the car on the way to work I thought, "OMG, Michael's gonna kill me for forgetting Proust!" So before I reported in for call I made sure he was there. :)

BTW, that conversation with my Little Sage reminded me also of "Mama Do You Love Me?" by Joosse. It was really cute.

Would love to hear/see more of your thoughts on Last Professors some time.

Emily - I love that!

AB said...

What a wonderful post!

Though I think I might substitute A Farewell to Arms for For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Mill on the Floss for Middlemarch. And add Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things to the mix. Or maybe just lengthen the list to 103 works of literature. They're all fantastic.

T. said...

AB - I've been dying to read The God of Small Things! I'll have to check it out on my next vacation.

Alisha764 said...

Great list, and great job of narrowing it down. I don't think I could make a list of just 100 titles. I would have to add some zeros to that list.

By the way, I love Graham Green "The Power and the Glory." Glad to see it is on your list. I also really like the author Coetzee. I recommend checking out Coetzee's "Foe" after reading Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe." It was great to read Coetzee's take/expanded version of Robinson Crusoe. It really adds to the story.

TY~ Alisha

Jo said...

The Guardian (UK broadsheet newspaper) has just done a list of the top 1,000 books everyone should read:

They've divided it into different genres, and, whilst I have an issue with quite a chunk of it (why some novels rather than others; why do some authors get a whole series rather than just one book?), it is a good starting point for discussion.

I like your list (and I've read a good proportion of them) - though no Roald Dahl? ;-) I'd also add in The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (and all the other Wyndhams, too, but I think that might be cheating...)

Though I'd have difficulty picking out just 100 books - as a kid / teenager, I was reading up to two books a day (one on the bus on the way to school / unchbreak, and one on the way home from school and after homework) :-)

pickapoison said...

Wow, remember when people still spoke about "The Canon"?

Glad to see you put Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" on your list. It's so rare these days that I put a contemporary book down and say, "That is one of the greatest books I have ever read -- ever ever." (The God of Small Things is wrenching but very good.)

The elitism question is always with us, isn't it? I think it comes down to personal integrity and the "mauvais foi" idea that Sartre wrote about. Do you genuinely delight in the allusion to Kafka or is it part of a pose?

In an earlier life I lived in Cambridge, Mass. and tried to fit in with a self-styled high-octane intellectual set. I left that life once I realized that, deep within my soul, I love "South Park" and hot dogs -- in addition to my Irish poets. I guess it's a journey we all have to make.

As always, thanks for the wonderful post!

-Transor Z

T. said...

Alisha - yes, keeping it to 100 has been hard, and I've already tweaked some as more titles come to mind!

Which is why, Jo, I am thrilled you've clued me in to that 1000-book item at The Guardian. I am so looking forward to browsing through those! (Maybe I'll take on a list of a thousand next...?) No Dahl on this narrow list (though I did enjoy his work as a child); once I learn of someone's egregious anti-Semitism, he goes on my S-list and it's hard for me to put him on a "favorites" list despite unquestionable talent.

Transor Z - plenty of South Park loving, hotdog-eating literature lovers in Cambridge! As for Kafka - these incidents happened very recently, and have been in my mind, so I've written them down here; that's really all. That, and the idea of art and transformed humanity seemed to form an undercurrent to my concerns about education in this society at present. I never premeditate these posts enough - they just come spewing out of my head with whatever's churning around in there at the time!

pickapoison said...

Hmm... I'm pretty sure the People's Republic blocks South Park and Fox News from local cable. ;-) You have to go to Somerville for red meat (mmm, Redbones!) and declasse conversation. Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration...

-Transor Z

T. said...

Transor Z - it's lunch time and now you've made me crave Southern BBQ! :)

Just another lawyer said...

Nice to see A Room with A View, a happy memory of a shared seminar which was most entertaining because of your presence.

T. said...

JustAnotherLawyer - I feel the same about being in that seminar with you! (Not to mention the unforgettable final dinner...though I do wish I had paid more attention to the oboist from our class who played at the dinner that night.)

I was looking up George Eliot's Romola last night, which we supposedly read there too, and do you know, none of it rang a bell? Did I sleep through that part? How is that possible - Renaissance Italy was one of my favorite time periods!

I've had occasion to revisit some of the stuff we read there, as well as in another course I took from that professor, "The Rhetoric of Belief," and you gotta admit, he picks good reading material...

Anonymous said...

If you liked Wild Swans you may want to try Anchee Min's Red Azaleas.

Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geshia was wonderful.

They are probably not "great" literature but they are both good books

Anonymous said...

anon again-
I liked your list, here are some more really good books you may want to try

Dai Sijie: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seam Mistress


Chitra Divikaruni: Sister of my Heart