Friday, January 21, 2011

Great Books Movement...



Do you, or anyone you know have a set of hardbound "classics"? My Father has some that he inherited from his Father, beautiful red cloth bound with gold letters, all nestled in the long read box they came in, still mint and probably unread. I have been given some pre-loved leather bound ones, and they are the kind of thing I ogle in secondhand bookstores, when I inevitably have cheap paperback copies of said books already on my dusty shelves.

When I was in Sydney for the "Republic of Letters" conference, the key note address was delivered by Professor Joan Shelley Rubin from the University of Rochester. She was a wonderful speaker and her paper "Literary Community, Cultural Hierarchy and Twentieth-Century American Readers" was both entertaining and enlightening. She spoke on various hotly debated topics like "what constitutes 'good reading'" and "reader response" theory, as well as providing an overview of the "Great Books Movement" in America.

The first thing that came to mind for me was my first literature course at uni, which was called invariably "Great Books", where we studied Homer, Beowulf, Montaigne, Shakespeare etc etc. Well that course was a legacy of a much greater movement that had its origins at Columbia University early last century. A list of 75 "great" books was complied, as to be essential undergraduate training, that included Dante, Plato, Virgil etc etc. According to Rubin, the classes were structured around lectures and tutorials, where tutors were told not to teach, but to facilitate learning through leading questions and discussions. Hmmm... sounds familiar.

However, this new reader autonomy became incredibly popular even outside of universities. Columbian graduates branched off and started their own adult education classes and a Great Books Foundation was established to cater for this growing field (it still exists). By the 1940s enrollment had reached 80 000 and publishers of course knew that this was a "great" thing (bad pun). They aided in the ideal of providing "culture for the non-expert", book clubs and book mail outs were soon established. You could buy (and still can actually) your Britannica Great Books Set (all 54 books) and join the conversation. Books were marketed at those who would feel the bite of social isolation if they found themselves the only one in a room of people who hadn't read "this months book".

Of course people argue that this Great Books movement diminished critical authority and laid waste to traditional canons, especially when publishers devised their own lists of "classics" and "contemporary classics". Rubin said that overall, these lists tended to reinforce a "Western Humanist tradition" of high art and avoid "Modernist experimentation". But anyone who was anyone had to have read their fair share of "great books" and as the market opened out into more contemporary authors, publishers argued in their advertising that for the first time, people were actively engaged with "the thought of the day" and seeing it "actually taking shape and participating". Sounds too good to be true.

But there was an overarching ideal behind all this, that reading good books would make you a better person. A better citizen, better armed to face the world with reflection, critical thinking and active participation. I have read a few books on the virtues of reading, some argue that it helps create well-rounded individuals (whatever they are), some argued that it (reading/culture) is the way forward for the lower classes (Matthew Arnold), others were worried about the working classes getting their grubby little hands on (books, culture, the middle classes etc). The biggest changes seemed to come about with the erosion of high and low culture boundaries and the idea that a football game was as valid a cultural artifact as an opera, and deserved to be studied accordingly. Hence why you can now study comics and The Simpsons at University, I am not saying it is wrong, just food for thought.

So what is the "purpose" of reading now? Is it to better oneself? Provide entertainment? Be able to pontificate at dinner parties? Did the Great Books Movement change lives? What remnants of that highly popular movement remain beyond first year classes and beautifully bound (expensive) boxed sets? Care to share your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. I think the purpose of reading is all those things (to look smart at dinner parties, entertainment, moral instruction, to better oneself, aesthetic awe, emotional catharsis, understanding of cultural history, etc.). I don't think there is one answer. I suppose referring to it as moral instruction is a bit of an oversimplification unless we're talking about extremely didactic literature such as Aesop's Fables.

    I tend to think of literature as providing a dramatic presentation dealing with relevant philosophical problems and core issues at the center of human existence and civilization. It deals with the same questions as philosophy, but explores them through a dramatic presentation usually with some sort of problem at its core that grabs us through our emotions and our identification with the characters as they try to deal with the problem or grow or succumb to it.

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