Perpetuating the bookish culture

Last week, while getting to know one of the new IT aides in the Library, books came up in our conversation. When the aide mentioned that they didn’t like To Kill a Mockingbird, the conversation came to a screeching halt. Then I tweeted about it and posted on Facebook. Most of my friends and family had something to say about it. One friend said that this person must not have a soul because they didn’t like it.

A little more recently, I read a pair of essays about books that we should have kids read:

The two stories and the conversation coalesced in my head into a single question: are there books that fall out of the canon* over time?

Years ago, I read The Catcher in the Rye. I didn’t get it. I’ve had the book explained to me numerous times, but the book doesn’t speak to me. I suspect I wasn’t the right kind of teenager for that book. To Kill a Mockingbird, however, seems timeless to me. When I tweeted about the aide’s comments, one of my friends responded with:

The world needs more people like Atticus Finch. How can this person you speak of not be inspired by the goodness and integrity of Atticus and his fight for justice?

But the aide is at least fifteen years younger than I am. I’m more than twenty years younger than To Kill a Mockingbird and more than thirty years younger than The Catcher in the Rye. I am a generation (or two) removed from those books and a generation removed from the aide. Perhaps these books really don’t speak to the aide’s generation?

I have no answer to this question. I am bothered by it, even a week later, because I believe that To Kill a Mockingbird still holds important lessons, even fifty-five years after it was published. But then, I suspect there are teachers and literature professors who feel the same way about Sinclair Lewis** or Ford Madox Ford. Lewis and Ford were big names in their time, but are little read now unless one makes an effort to seek them out.

I’ve long suspected that the canon is as much a matter of culture as it is of quality. School—elementary and higher education—perpetuates the canon by including certain titles on syllabi and excluding others. We read certain books because our teachers told us we had to. We can still fall in love with some of them. Others, however, just don’t click. At that point, teaching The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington, is like teaching kids about fossils. We have to know about them because they influenced what came after, but dinosaur behavior is not relevant to most people.


* I know this is a vexed term. I’m using the word to refer to the nebulous list of “great literature.”
**I knew a librarian who was a huge Lewis fan. He was always trying to get me to read Main Street

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2 thoughts on “Perpetuating the bookish culture

  1. Wow, that’s an interesting question. What you’re asking, I believe, is to know how some books can withstand the test of time and others can’t. At one point, when the amount of required knowledge about historical / cultural / psychological context of a particular book exceeds the universal, basically human emotions that the reading generates, then it falls out of the bandwagon and become remote to readers, what do you think? I do believe it’s a tricky balance between the effort you have to put in to understand the context, and the reward you get by experiencing the feelings.

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  2. Annie

    That’s part of the question. Thinking it over now, I think I’m also asking if it’s okay to let books fall out of the canon when they no longer resonant.

    I also wonder if something like The Catcher in the Rye is so much a product of its time that the further one gets from the 1950s, the less impact it has on new readers.

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