Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of Niall Ferguson and that whole, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m straight and white, and also too I am a Master of Twittering, so I must be on to something” thing he does. Dr. Ferguson is very concerned about The Children, don’t you know, or at least a particular subset of The Children, and how texting makes them stupid. He is not, as you might imagine, arguing that texting makes kids bad or sloppy writers, so it’s a little odd that Vox used him as a jumping off point to argue the opposite. Instead he is arguing that kids spend too much time texting and not enough time reading books:
Half of today’s teenagers don’t read books—except when they’re made to. According to the most recent survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, the proportion of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 who read a book not required at school or at work is now 50.7 percent, the lowest for any adult age group younger than 75, and down from 59 percent 20 years ago.
Back in 2004, when the NEA last looked at younger readers’ habits, it was already the case that fewer than one in three 13-year-olds read for pleasure every day. Especially terrifying to me as a professor is the fact that two thirds of college freshmen read for pleasure for less than an hour per week. A third of seniors don’t read for pleasure at all.
Kids are reading less (and more poorly), it seems, though based on my admittedly anecdotal single example, I blame TV more than texting. But Ferguson has a point; kids should be reading more. I just think maybe they should occasionally read stuff by somebody other than a dead white person:
But the more important reason is that children who don’t read are cut off from the civilization of their ancestors.
So take a look at your bookshelves. Do you have all—better make that any—of the books on the Columbia University undergraduate core curriculum? It’s not perfect, but it’s as good a list of the canon of Western civilization as I know of. Let’s take the 11 books on the syllabus for the spring 2012 semester: (1) Virgil’s Aeneid; (2) Ovid’s Metamorphoses; (3) Saint Augustine’s Confessions; (4) Dante’s The Divine Comedy; (5) Montaigne’s Essays; (6) Shakespeare’s King Lear; (7) Cervantes’s Don Quixote; (8) Goethe’s Faust; (9) Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; (10) Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; (11) Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Step one: Order the ones you haven’t got today. (And get War and Peace, Great Expectations, and Moby-Dick while you’re at it.)
Now, I’m being a little facetious. Augustine was of mixed heritage, and…well, that’s about it. But his writings are clearly within “the canon of Western civilization,” just like everybody else on that list. There’s nothing wrong with the canon of Western civilization, don’t get me wrong. Kids should be reading this stuff, or at least some of it. Augustine and Ovid (arguably) seem more like niche reads (not as much as, say, Civilization: The West and the Rest, but still maybe not for everybody), and I’m not sure why the Aeneid is more or less important than the Iliad or the Odyssey, but whatever works for you.
But, you know, aren’t there things outside “the canon of Western civilization” that a well-rounded human being ought to read? Rumi’s Masnavi, maybe? I know, Rumi is an Iranian dude, but maybe we should give it a chance anyway. What about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? That one probably doesn’t meet Niall’s standards because of the suggestion that European colonialism might not have been the super greatest thing to ever happen to indigenous peoples. Something by Toni Morrison, even? Oh, she implies that slavery wasn’t awesome for the slaves, so that’s probably a bad idea. One of the great Hindu epics, like the Ramayana? I’m sure Niall would say that now I’m just taking the piss or whatever those British folks say.
There must be others. I don’t know, for example, Chinese or Japanese literature at all, but isn’t it possible that somebody in one of those big and fairly important countries wrote something worthwhile once? What about The Tale of Genji, which I have not read, but which Wikipedia tells me is “sometimes called…the first novel still to be considered a classic”? That seems important.
So when I say that Niall is concerned about a particular subset of The Children, I hope it’s clear what I mean. Because whose “ancestors” are we talking about, right?
There’s a lesson here that applies just as well to making lists of must-read books as it does to compiling lists of the most influential people in history: when you finish, if your list is all white, erase it and try again.