Thursday, December 07, 2023

'Half the Pleasure of Reading New Books'

“[M]ost American boys are hurried into active life so early, that even the few who have the possibility of developing literary taste have scarcely time to do so. Unless they read the great English classics in high school and in college, they never find time to read them.” 

In "Contemporary Literature Again," Willa Cather questions the growing fashion for assigning students to read recently published books – eighty-four years ago. By the time I was in high school some thirty years later, English teachers were routinely adding A Separate Peace and To Kill a Mockingbird (contemporary and mediocre) to the curriculum. Most of us hadn’t yet read Bleak House or Middlemarch.


“By ‘classics,’” Cather writes, “I certainly do not mean rather special things like the works of Sir Thomas Browne or De Quinc[e]y, but the great books that still influence the life and thought and standards of the English-speaking peoples.” She notes how often the journalists of her day borrow lines from Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, with the implication that readers ought to be able to recognize and understand the allusions. Sounds quaint, doesn’t it?


The author of Death Comes for the Archbishop famously disliked cheap editions of her books or editions marketed to students. She didn’t want her novels taught in schools. In other words, she remained consistent in her objection to contemporary books, even her own, being "taught" and "studied." She writes:


“I think we should all, in our school days, be given a chance at Shakespeare, Milton, Fielding, Jane Austen—coming down as late as Thackeray, George Eliot, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy. I don’t mean that Macbeth or The Egoist or Henry Esmond can be ‘taught’ at all. I mean that the students can be ‘exposed,’ so to speak, to the classics. If the germ ‘takes,’ even in very few, it will develop, and give them a great deal of pleasure in life. And those who do not catch the infection will certainly not be at all harmed.”


Cather presciently echoes John Gross in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969; rev. ed. 1991). Gross sings a love song to literature and its inexpert amateur readers:


“Isn’t there a certain basic antagonism between the very nature of a university and the very spirit of literature? The academic mind is cautious, tightly organized, fault-finding, competitive – and above all aware of other academic minds. . . . Think of the whole idea of regarding literature as a discipline. Literature can be strenuous or difficult or deeply disturbing; it can be a hundred things – but a discipline is not one of them. Discipline means compulsion, and an interest in literature thrives on spontaneity, eager curiosity, the anticipation of pleasure; it is unlikely that a reader who comes to a book under duress, or weighed down with a sense of duty, will ever really read it at all, however much he may learn about it. Even the most intensely serious literature needs to be approached with a certain lightness of heart, if it is to yield its full intensity.”


My late friend David Myers suggested, at least half-seriously, that we wait ten years before assessing the lasting worth of a book, and he certainly disapproved of the premature inclusion of books in the classroom. The notion that only new books can “speak to” the concerns of young people or any other readers is silly and insulting. Back to Cather:


“As regards contemporary literature, the work of living authors, I think young people should be allowed to discover for themselves what they like. For young people, half the pleasure of reading new books is in finding them out for themselves. If a boy goes quite wild about a very silly new book, his teacher can never convince him that it is not good. If he finds a really good one out for himself, it counts with him for a great deal more than if he had been told he must read it. No book can be called a ‘classic’ until it is a hundred years old, surely. [Cather published A Lost Lady in September 1923.]”


One of the five finest American novelists, Cather was born 150 years ago, on December 7, 1873, and died in 1947 at age seventy-three.


[Cather’s essay "Contemporary Literature Again" was published in the December 1939 issue of the CEA Critic, a publication of the College English Association.]


Richard Zuelch said...

This is why I much prefer reading the older, pre-critical, pre-academic literary critics - Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, George Saintsbury et al. They wrote about literature because they loved it and thought deeply about it, not because they were pushing whatever the latest academic theory about it.

Tim Guirl said...

I liked To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not, of course, in the same league as Bleak House or Middlemarch, but maybe assigned to high school students because of its shorter length. I've gotten some good advice about writers I might not otherwise have read, for example, Joseph Epstein on Barbara Pym, David Myers on Marilynne Robinson, Patrick Kurp on Auden.

Faze said...

It's interesting that Cather recommends "The Egoist" by George Meredith. Remarkably well-thought of in it's time, "The Egoist" holds the record for the novel I've started the most times without being able to get even halfway through. Meredith was possibly the most highly esteemed literary novelist of his day, as well as an honored poet. His contemporaries would be shocked to learn that posterity thinks so little of him. Today, he's mainly remembered for the scandal of his wife's affair, the subject of a good book by Vivian Gornick.