Weighing the Classics


"There was a time when only wise books were read,

helping us to bear our pain and misery."

--Czeslaw Milosz


"A classic is a book nobody wants to read and everybody wishes to have read."

--Mark Twain


America's culture war has been fought on many battlefields over the last decade, but few have been as bitterly contested as the question of which books public school students ought to read.

On one side stand arrayed the steely-eyed defenders of the canon, as epitomized by the late Mortimer Adler and his "great books movement." On the other, are the sensitive multiculturalists, firm believers in the relative and tireless seekers of the relevant. But when the partisans of either fraction dissect the California Department of Education's soon-to-be-published recommended reading list--the first such guideline to be issued in more than a decade--what they will find is an imperfect but serious 2,700-book blueprint for "peace with honor" in the cultural conflict.

Like most peace plans, the new list is a series of compromises arrived at by a limited number of negotiators working under the pressure of a deadline. The result is a list that is neither "dumbed down" nor programmatically prescriptive, but which is "idiosyncratic," according to one of its compilers, author Carol Jago, who directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA and teaches English at Santa Monica High School. As such, it is unlikely to satisfy the hard men and women of either camp.

There is, in fact, something beyond coincidence--a symmetry of sorts--suggested by the fact that the 98-year-old Adler died in San Mateo within a day of the California list's completion. Perhaps this century's most successful popularizer of serious philosophy, Adler, a onetime student of John Dewey, directed the compilation of the Encyclopedia Britannica's monumental 54-volume set of the world's 443 "greatest" books and went on to serve as chairman of Britannica's board of editors. It requires little imagination to envision his response and that of his admirers to California's reading list.

In fact, Jago herself has strong reservations. In her view, the list is "incredibly haphazard ....Over time, this list is going to show the lack of a deep knowledge of books."

On it, for example, 19th century American literature--once a staple of the canon--is ill-represented. Thus, no Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper. Walt Whitman's masterpiece, "Leaves of Grass," is nowhere to be found and Emily Dickinson is represented only by a brief collection selected for children. Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne made it, but Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison and Ulysses S. Grant are not included. Among playwrights, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Tennessee Williams are represented, but Eugene O'Neill, the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not. In fact, of the 11 U.S. citizens to win the world's highest literary prize, only seven made the state's recommended list. Among the discarded laureates are Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow and Joseph Brodsky, who just a few years ago was America's Poet Laureate.

Henry David Thoreau made the cut, but his great friend and mentor--Ralph Waldo Emerson--did not. Among modernists, T.S. Eliot is on, but Ezra Pound is off; one Irish Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, is represented by three volumes, while another--William Butler Yeats--is inexplicably absent. Similarly, the contemporary Irish author Roddy Doyle has two books on the list, but Jonathan Swift has none. W.H. Auden is in; Ezra Pound is out.

Serious modern and contemporary literary fiction is well represented--James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Graham Greene and Joan Didion, for example; contemporary poetry scantly so. African American authors are well-selected--Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, for example; contemporary Latin Americans less so. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes, for instance, are in, but Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and Alejo Carpentier are out. So is Cervantes, "Don Quixote" notwithstanding. Asian--as opposed to Asian American--writers are all but invisible, despite the ready availability of superb English translations, many of them by California writers and poets.

Virtually all of William Shakespeare's dramatic corpus is included, but there is no John Donne, Edmund Spenser or William Blake. Chaucer is on; Dante is off. Among the classical authors so numerous on the great books lists, Homer, Sophocles and Aeschylus are recommended, while Euripides and Aristophanes are not. The Latin authors have vanished with the lone exception of Virgil, presumably because he had the shrewd foresight to write a sequel to Homer.

Both Jago and Diane Levin, the "language arts consultant" who directed the revision for the state, insist the new list is very much "a work in progress." Both anticipate that books will be added and deleted in the years ahead, partially in response to users' comments, partly because specified annual prize-winners are to be automatically added. According to Levin, the list's publication on the department's Web site--http://www.cde.ca.gov--will ease that process. (Levin said the list should be available to the public Monday.) A "search engine" included on the site will allow teachers and parents to investigate the volumes by title, author, subject, grade level and genre. An annotated synopsis is provided for each book.

The new list supplants one drafted in 1989, more than half of whose recommended books are out of print, according to Levin. Revision became essential in 1997 when the state board of education adopted its "California English Language Arts Standards," which require students to read books selected from the recommended list. A year later, Levin sent letters to various teachers' groups and educational associations, inviting them to nominate selectors. The compilations of a 20-member working committee then were reviewed electronically by about 200 experts, Levin said.

Another committee of 35 or 40 representatives of major educational organizations was then selected to compile the final list. "We were quite anxious that they would ask us to remove books," she said. "To our surprise, the opposite happened." In fact, in response to criticism, about 40 classics ultimately were restored to the list.

Jago, author of "With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classic to Contemporary Kids," was one of those who urged restoration of books from the traditional canon. She recalled attending one meeting at which she "handed them the list of the Penguin paperback classics and said, 'All these books need to be on the list or we're going to look like morons."'

Different Process for Drafting New Reading List

Those are precisely the sort of reservations on which adherents of the "great books" tradition are likely to focus. The process by which the new recommended reading list was drafted could not be more different than that which produced those classic lists. Though they have been modified over the years, nearly all such compilations derive from those drafted by the late University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, his protege Adler and a small circle of collaborators.

The "great books" of which Adler and Hutchins were the most forceful and eloquent exponents remain widely popular, forming the syllabus for lower division "Hutchins programs" at a variety of state and private colleges, as well as the programs for the discussion groups Adler promoted in later life through the Center for the Study of Great Ideas, which he co-founded with Max Weismann in 1990. A Web site--http://www.great.books.com--continues to provide reading lists based on its standards for people for all ages.

Forthright in their conception of quality, the great books lists themselves can be problematic. In part, the whole notion reflects Adler's lifelong infatuation with the scholastic philosophy of the High Middle Ages, a school renowned for the precision of its distinctions. In its decadence, however, that discretion gave way to a virtual mania for list-making, one that defied formal logic's admonition that ought never to be multiplied beyond necessity.

The best known of Adler's great books lists--the famous Appendix A to the bestselling "How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education," which he coauthored with Charles Van Doren in the mid-1930s--includes among its selections by 137 authors, ranging from Homer to Max Planck, not only Thomas Aquinas' monumental "Summa Theologica," but also four books by the 20th century neo-Thomist, Jaques Maritain.

Readers who seek guidance from Appendix A will find the full panoply of Greek and Roman authors, but no women except Jane Austen and no black, Asian or Spanish-speaking writers other than Miguel de Cervantes. Adler, in fact, once airily dismissed concerns over such absences by insisting that no African or African American ever had written a "great book."

Some contemporary readers will find such sentiments merely quaint; others will judge them sinister. And clearly no such notion was to be found among those who compiled California's reading list. Its problematic aspects are of a different order.

Earnest and obviously well-intentioned, the state's list is nonetheless diffident and so self-evidently tentative in insisting on where quality resides, that it is difficult to deduce the standards applied. It thus raises questions about whether California's public schools may yet produce students who are broadly but not well read, about whether schools now are in the business of transmitting information, but not a common culture.

And behind all these discussions is a gnawing doubt about whether a generation of young teachers, educated in the era of liberal education's general decline are willing or able to teach California students the "classics"--even if we could all agree on what they are.

Critics and commentators are withholding judgment of the California recommended reading list until its publication. But descriptions of its content this week produced some thoughts on its omissions and selections.

Didion, for example, described herself as "astonished" by the inclusion of two of her recent novels, "Democracy" and "The Last Thing He Wanted." Her collection "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," she said "is often taught in high schools, but those two would have been my last guesses," since they require a "pretty sophisticated knowledge of recent American and Central American history."

Max Rudin, publisher of the influential Library of America, is quick to point out that "there is an essential difference between quality and popularity." Thus, he cited even his own publishing house's experience with two authors featured on the California list--Henry James and John Steinbeck. James, he said, "just doesn't sell in large numbers, which I think simply has to do with the increasing reluctance of American readers to engage difficult writers. On the other hand, we do very well with Steinbeck, who, in fact, never has been out of print and never has been particularly popular in the academy."

Rudin, however, is troubled by the increasing absence of many 19th century American writers from California's and similar lists around the country. "There is a compelling argument," he said, "that they must be included because they are essential to our culture's shared vocabulary and intellectual frame of reference. These are books that also explore the issues central to the history and mission of American culture and are similarly essential by virtue of that. James Fenimore Cooper is in that category, for example. His novels are very violent because they are about the battle over who owns the land--Native Americans or the various new immigrants. That's a central and still unresolved issue of American history," Rudin said.

"Lincoln is essential reading because he found the language to discuss and make sense of our terrible civil war. You simply can't know American history or culture without reading those texts. Changing demographics can and should change the literary canon, but we ought to debate it carefully," Rudin said.

Many English teachers up and down the state already are.

"I think kids need two kinds of books," Jago said. "One is a mirror in which characters look like them, can't talk to adults and are interested in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. They also need books that are windows into other worlds, ones that show them universal themes. With a teacher to help, all of us can be on a journey like Ulysses or have great expectations, like Pip.

Though it made the list, "Moby Dick," she pointed out, "is now deemed too hard to teach in high schools. 'The Scarlet Letter' may be the next to go. I think kids can do it, but they need the right teacher and we have a lot of young teachers who simply don't love classical literature. I recently overheard a conversation in our own Santa Monica High School English department in which a young teacher said, 'What's so great about Shakespeare?' "I almost died."

Nancy Penn, an English teacher at Los Angeles' Manual Arts High School, argued that "the main thing in being a good teacher is bringing the classics to [an appropriate] level, "because a lot of your students aren't reading on the correct level." For instance, in teaching "Macbeth," she might begin with a cartoon version of the story, then move on to selected passages, and then try to apply it to the students' everyday lives.

Sometimes, students are frightened off by the language, she said. "You have to explain to them, this is just a man on a power trip who killed these people to get what he wants. You relate it to somebody trying to rise up in a gang situation. They say, oh, that's what it's about." The students then write their own "Macbeth" story using modern characters.

Penn said her students particularly like Luis Rodriguez's "Always Running," an account of 1970s gang life in L.A. (which is not on the list), but "they remember 'Macbeth.' They love 'The Iliad."'

Once she ran into a former student she had taught at Dominguez High School in Compton. "He said, 'Every time I think of you, I remember 'The Great Gatsby."'

Such variety of experience might suggest to some that a core, mandatory reading list might be key to transmitting at the least the basics of a common literary culture.

Many California educators, however, recoil from that suggestion for a variety of reasons. Levin, for example, simply insists "that we are such a diverse state and that there is so much literature out there that a single set of books is too narrowing. Our communities won't accept it." If one were forced upon them, she said, "we would have a lot of very, very, very unhappy people."

Others point to the melancholy example of San Francisco, which attempted to adopt a citywide mandatory reading list three years ago and blundered into a battle over actual numerical quotas on authors' ethnicity and gender. That, said Jago, "is the lowest common denominator for any canon."


Times staff writer Lynn Smith contributed to this story.

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