Airplane Books, Junk Literature, and the Western Canon

All Novels Are Lies, Some Lies Are Better

by Kelly Roberts

3 September 2009

Mort de Francesca de Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta, by
Alexandre Cabanel [c.1870] 

When Curricula Collide

When Curricula Collide

The year is 1933, and astronomers have made a terrifying, apocalyptic discovery. Two planets, after breaking loose from a star millions of years ago and far, far away, are now hurtling towards our solar system. One of the planets, the smaller one, is going to pass by our world and take up orbit around the sun. But the big one… is going to smash the Earth into atoms! This is the set up of When Worlds Collide, an unabashedly sensational, speculative sci-fi novel that has been ripped off so many times that you already know what happens next. A brilliant American scientist, his daughter, and the two manly men vying for her affections take charge of a super-secret operation to build a rocket (called the Ark) that will transport a few hundred human beings, animals collected two by two, and all the necessities of civilization to the smaller of the rogue planets, which, naturally, supports life as we know it. The poet-diarist of the crew ruminates on the precious cargo:

What our ships contain might well be samples of our civilization collected wholesale by some curious visitors from another world and taken home in order that their weird fellows might look upon the wisdom, the genius, the entertainment and the interests of men.


Books—of course I was dying to know what made the cut—are mentioned only in passing. We find out that “an enormous and complete library” is stashed on board as insulating material, stuffed between layers of asbestos—“a first edition of Shelley” is the only volume (or volumes) singled out by name. Suppose that we were in the same situation today, and suppose that we didn’t have our digital technology. What books would we bring to the New World to nourish our transplanted civilization? Obviously any and all tomes on engineering, agriculture, medicine, etc. would take precedence, with fictions coming in dead last. And suppose that drama and poetry has been taken care of, leaving only the novel. Think of it as an extension of the Desert Island Classics thought experiment: Instead of deciding which 100 or 200 novels you would choose for your own sake, you have to decide which 100 or 200 you would choose for everyone’s sake. As much as I love When Worlds Collide, it would not be on that rocket—nor, I hope, would anything written by Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, J.K. Rowling, or Cormac McCarthy. Madame Bovary and Frankenstein, on the other hand…

Our Western curricula today, despite the abysmal reality that many will never have access to it, should be designed with that Ark in mind. Has the work endured? Would it endure if it weren’t required reading? Among the hundreds or thousands of outstanding candidates, does it best represent the wisdom, the genius, the entertainment, and the interests of our shared culture—“the best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold famously defined it? If yes, then put it on the list. There are, of course, vastly different ideas about what exactly the best is, especially now that moneyed white males are no longer the exclusive beneficiaries and administrators of formal education.

Having said that, and granting that determinations of this nature must be the result of intelligent deliberation, isn’t it posturing on some level to deny that the 400-year-old Don Quixote, considered by many to be the first novel, is also one of the best, and that it has earned its irrevocable spot in the stars? Or that Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, nasty colonialist warts and all, are representative classics and touchstones of Western culture? Whether they like it or not (I did not), the kids in the local secondary school need to be taught how to read Great Expectations so that they have the means to comprehend irony and satire and motif and allusion, and the ability to negotiate the languages and manners and prejudices of the past, all of which prepares them to read not just one kind but every kind of literature. The truth is that, no matter how charming and irrepressible Harry Potter is, it simply doesn’t do or require the same level of work.

Despite his bursts of insufferable rhetoric, Harold Bloom is right about what’s most important: We should be challenging ourselves as readers, even when we’re no longer required to do so, especially when we’re no longer required to do so. In The Western Canon, he repeatedly insists that “reading deeply in the Canon… will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen,” but in the same breath he insists that reading Shakespeare and company will “augment one’s own growing inner self,” will “enrich mind or spirit or personality.” Well, how exactly does the enrichment and augmentation of our inner selves not make us better people? Reading deeply and widely—from Stephen King to Walter Mosley to Jane Austen to James Joyce—at the very least makes us less dull and more patient, and it happens to be the only way to make informed, qualitative judgments within and across genres.

We will never have time to read everything we want to read—Bloom is poignantly elegiac about that fact—but in today’s general rush to deliver and receive as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, while dismissing the notion that anything thoughtful or meaningful has to be done with it, and with all this wretched talk of post-literate societies in the face of lingering illiteracy, we sure as hell need to try.

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