Who’s Elitist?

Book_shopIn a blog post entitled Is Our Concept of “Well-Read” Elitist? Morgan Jerkins asks what one should read in order to be considered well-read. I read through the list of books she names in her post and found that I have read them all. She discusses the canon and rehearses the old argument that the canon is a collection of works written by white male authors and, therefore, somehow an evil influence on our notion of what it means to be a well-read person.

Two things about the argument always bother me. First, it assumes that it is a bad thing to read canonized authors who are white and male. The history of literature being what it is, there are a lot of white male authors in the canon. Whatever you think of white males, they have written some of the greatest literary works in history and they should be read. The quality of the literature they have produced is not diminished by their ethnicity or gender. Second, this particular argument against the canon has not been true for a long time. The canon, whatever it is, is a beautiful living thing. It allows us to select from an incredible range of literature that is being updated all the time. Books are discovered, forgotten and rediscovered. There is no grand list of works we can consult, no clergy, no real hierarchy, no real restrictions. The closest one can get to scripture is to look at college reading lists and the like. There is no reason to blame others for your own ignorance anymore.

There is also a false dichotomy in Jerkins’s premise. The fact that one has read the classics does not mean that one has no interest in weird stuff that nobody else reads. The opposite is probably the case. A person who has read his or her classics is likely to have all kinds of odd and even marginal tastes that have to be satisfied after the more mainstream classics have been dealt with. Besides, the classics are usually the weirdest of the bunch. That is what makes them lasting canonical works of literature. It sounds strange, but the most bizarre stuff can be found on shelves that house established canonical classics. If you still thirst for the strange after reading Milton or Shakespeare, I doff my cap to you.

I am an elitist when it comes to literature, because I love language and literature. I love books, ebooks and audiobooks, old books and new ones, canonical works and books nobody has never heard of. I am not a big fan of authors. I remember reading Beckett’s biography and feeling rather disappointed with the man. Celebrity authors are often rather crass and vulgar, even if their prose or poetry is fantastic. One exception to this in my case is John Dryden, a seventeenth-century poet and critic. But even he, the dear old elitist, is interesting mostly because he saw literature as the creation and distillation of language into something greater than it previously was. This brings me to my final point.

I confess I have large gaps in my reading when it comes to the Russian and Japanese literature Jerkins mentions. In the case of Japanese literature the gap is a deep dark chasm of ignorance. A lot of it has to do with the unfortunate fact that I do not read Russian or Japanese. The Greek and Roman classics I have read have been translated and adapted for me by mostly Enlightenment writers, though I hope my language studies will help me enjoy the originals in the future. But that is not the point I want to make. Mostly, my reading has been directed by what I will call my love of literature. Teachers have played a part in all this, sure, but I like to think I have become aware of my own tastes, desires and loves by now. It is old-fashioned and sappy to call it love, but there is no better word for it. If my love makes me an elitist, so be it. Literature is a wonderful lover even to an elitist. It gives you the world and all it asks for in return is a little time.

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