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Who Is Well-Read Anymore? The Canon and the Internet Age

Valley News Illustration - Shawn Braley

Valley News Illustration - Shawn Braley

In the interest of self-improvement, it’s time to pose a question that isn’t exactly burning a hole in the nation’s conscience: What does it mean, in the Internet age, to be well-read?

I ask because it’s a question that’s always in the back of my distracted mind. Every day, I drop my son off at school, drive to the newspaper and spend the bulk of my working hours up to my neck in words. I read the day’s paper, I interview people and read back their words in my notebooks, I write; I read, mainly on the Internet, articles that relate to my work and my interests in education, art, film and literature. It can leave me feeling slightly unmoored, caught in a riptide of language pulling me far from the shore of common literacy.

If there is such a thing as common literacy. Long gone, I think, are the days when students spent their high school and college years getting their reading in, swimming for long stretches in the classics, from Plato and Thucydides all the way through Dickens and Melville to, I don’t know, Jonathan Franzen and whoever won the Man Booker Prize this year. I remember in my senior year of college running into a fellow English major who was toting a copy of A.S. Byatt’s voluminous novel, Possession. How, I marveled inwardly, did he find the time?

I still don’t have a good answer, and as the definition of literacy continues to expand and as writing proliferates on the Internet, the opposite question becomes more important: What should I be reading with the little time I have? And while I’m at it, what ought I have read?

For answers I consulted a couple of readers I know and respect and a couple of literature professors. Their responses were reassuring. Indeed, there is a bedrock of literature we all stand on. But above that bedrock, and this is less than reassuring, is such a swirl and churn of material, much of it of real value, that a reader can be pulled under.

“For me, the question of being well-read hasn’t changed all that much,” said Jonathan Crewe, a professor of English and comparative literature at Dartmouth College. Being well-read means reading the classics.

There’s a pervasive idea that all reading is created equal, that as long as someone is reading, the material doesn’t much matter. Crewe doesn’t hold to this view. “You should be reading good things,” he said.

What’s more, the reading of said “good things” should start pretty early in life. “If you don’t get the habit or the knowledge quite young, you’re probably not going to,” he said.

At Dartmouth, he said, incoming students aren’t as well read as they used to be, back in the pre-Internet days. “ People come in less widely read and less proficient than they had 30 or 40 years ago,” Crewe said. “That has a lot to do with the media.”

The question of what one ought to have read is not a simple matter. “There’s sort of a vague consensus about what books someone should have read,” he said. Crewe teaches Shakespeare, and the lobby of the English Department offices in Darmouth’s Sanborn Hall features a carved wooden mantelpiece dedicated to the Bard of Avon and shelves of books, many of them presumably among the list of those a Dartmouth English major ought to have read.

Universities are the codifiers and custodians of the essential reading list. In 1910, longtime Harvard University President Charles William Eliot developed the Harvard Classics, a set of books from classical antiquity through the turn of the last century, that Eliot believed could substitute for a university education. The books take up five feet of shelf space and became known as the Five-Foot Shelf.

The complaint about those books and other versions of a Western literary canon are well known. Pretty much all of the Five-Foot Shelf was penned by old white guys. If one of the points of reading is to be well-informed, one of the counterpoints has to be that reading about people who aren’t like you is essential to understanding the world.

Librarian Jessamyn West, a Randolph resident, keeps a record on her long-running blog of the books she’s read. It’s a way for her to keep track, and to share her views with other librarians, but it’s also a way to be self-critical. What she’s noticed lately isn’t pleasing.

“My reading list tends toward the mainstream white guy,” she said. Correcting this “means reading the stories of people who are different from me.”

Living in Northern New England makes it hard to cultivate diversity in one’s personal life, West said. Books can compensate, and West’s reading list reflects her determination. She reads a book a week, on average, and over the past several months the list has included Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal, by Alice Dreger and Why I Burned My Book, essays on disability by Paul Longmore.

This is the same sort of intentional reading that Crewe extolled regarding the classics. But West was less certain that the classics need to be read, in part because of the way in which they permeate the culture.

“I feel like that’s an idea that’s lessening in importance,” she said of broad engagement with the classics.

For example, “I should know more about The Odyssey than I do,” she said, but she has seen O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ 2000 film based on The Odyssey. The ability to carry on a high level conversation about The Odyssey isn’t as important as an understanding of the ideas involved, the hero’s journey and the homecoming from war, she said.

“My favorite example is Hamlet ,” said Thomas Kealy, a humanities professor at Colby-Sawyer College, who called the play “a text that kind of exists in our culture as a point of reference that no one’s read.”

“I think it would be helpful for people to encounter the literature itself,” he added. Homer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, “they’re our neighbors, even if we haven’t gone to visit them.”

Crewe said readers have to pick and choose the works they need to understand. “I don’t think the goal is necessarily to be literate in all these fields,” Crewe said. “I think people will tend to acquire the type of literacy that’s important to them.”

Sheldon Novick, the author of well-received biographies of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Henry James , said that even the well-read among us are fragmented into smaller groups based on their interests.

“What’s happened is that there are different cultures that consider themselves well-read,” Novick said. Fifty years ago, the idea of the Great Books was in full force. (They still are, to a degree, thanks to examinations of them by the cultural critic David Denby and E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, which extols the virtues of the Western canon.)

Novick, who also teaches at Vermont Law School, had recently been to a talk at Dartmouth by the legal scholar Cass Sunstein and asked a question after the talk. It didn’t connect.

“I put my question in a way that I don’t think meant anything to him,” he said. Even among the well-read, and Novick and Sunstein certainly fit that description, “there is also this phenomenon of fragmentation and just all sorts of different ways of looking at the world,” Novick said.

The Internet, which promises to put so much knowledge at our fingertips, is both an aid in accessing the classics and a hindrance, said West, whose experience with the Internet is as deep as her experience with books.

Through Open Library, readers can find and read any book beyond copyright protection, currently anything published before 1927. “People are finding these books in areas where there’s less access to print materials,” she said.

But that’s not how many of us use the web. “I think a lot of us are content-grazers on the Internet,” West said. It’s easier to pretend to be well-informed. “Post 9/11, I think people use the word ‘research’ as ‘looked up a lot of stuff on the Internet,’ ” she said.

New online tools are going to change reading further, she noted. Google won a lawsuit brought by the Author’s Guild over the Internet search company’s digitization of books under copyright. It will be easier to search in books for specific ideas.

“I think that makes everybody’s idea of what books can do for you a lot richer,” she said.

Sheldon Novick also sees the Internet as transformative. He touched on many of the themes West brought up, but from a perspective more like Crewe’s, a pre-Internet vision of reading and knowledge.

“When I wrote about Oliver Wendell Holmes, I went and sat in the attic of the Harvard Law School library for days on end, turning over very brittle pages of his letters,” he said. With the web, he can stay home and push a button to the same effect.

“There’s too much information, but it’s great,” he added.

Over lunch at Novick’s Norwich home, we were joined by his son, Michael, a college grad in his 20s.

Sheldon’s definition of well-read is both universal and personal. “I think you are well-read if you’ve read enough for you and me to have a conversation about serious matters,” he said. “I think it’s pretty hard to converse unless you have a shared vocabulary.”

Michael defined it more broadly: “Part of being well read is just reading a lot.” Eventually, you’ll read something worthwhile, he added.

Both of them had read recently Nate Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail, but Some Don’t, which led to a discussion about classics being written now, books that define our time and seem likely to last. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time falls into that category, in part because he follows in a direct line from Isaac Newton through Albert Einstein.

“There’s a lot of new stuff that’s amazing,” Sheldon said.

Talking with the Novicks made clear that there was no clear answer to my question. “This is kind of a limitless thing that you’ve walked into,” Sheldon told me.

But Michael summed it up in a way that a literature professor could appreciate: “There are some of us who have inherited from our teachers or our parents, one, an appreciation for books, and two, this notion that we should read them. And that there’s some of them that you read, the books that have stood the test of time, because they’re better than the books that have not.”

What this means is that being well-read in the present day means what it has always meant. It means taking on the serious works and ideas, both of the past and of the present day. It doesn’t have to be done in some systematic way, but the ideas and themes, and in many cases the language itself, are inescapable if we are to grapple with life on its terms. Being well-read is both a destination and a place to start.

“That list of really important books is important to start with,” said Kealy. But “you can’t spend the rest of your life reading those things.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.