Thursday, September 10, 2009

Get Lost. In Books.

The New York Times had an op-ed the other day by Harold Bloom, one of the massive intellects of our time. Today's title is also the one affixed to his short article on September 5. (I might observe that far from getting you lost, great books tend to keep you sane and on the right course.) The basic message is not unfamiliar. Bloom is talking about what undergrads in college should read, but of course, the advice applies to all of us, at any age. It's never too late.

If you want to be a well-rounded person, an educated person, you have to read. It's not an option. You have to read the hard stuff, the classics, what Bloom calls the "indispensible canon." Everybody who, like me, has read the canon, knows who these writers are: Shakespeare, the Bible, Homer, Plato, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Milton. These are the giants, nay, the colossi. The following from the 19th century till the present (just English and American authors), which Bloom concedes are "slightly more arbitrary," could include Brits such as Blake, Wordsworth, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Yeats. Americans: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hawthorne, Faulkner, and poets Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane.

Just like Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, E.D. Hirsch's famous book of 20+ years ago--it's been updated as a dictionary of cultural literacy with definitions that's gone through about 3 or 4 printings --a list like this will have you playing "how many of these have I done"?  OK. I'm going to 'fess up to some horrible sins here: I have not read one of the "indispensables" and two of the following group. And since it's too embarrassing to admit exactly who they are, I just won't. You'll have to guess. I will tell you that two of these three sins are Americans.

There's a lovely little barb at the end of Bloom's piece. We have a literate president now, he observes, but "too many other politicians are devoid of syntax and appear to have read nothing. Aggressive ignorance in aspirants to high office is another dismal consequence of the waning of authentic education."
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