Too often, we forget that fights about what we shouldn’t read are also battles over what we should read. And that every time someone attempts to ban Toni Morrison or Ta-Nehisi Coates, they’re also trying to corral our kids back to Hawthorne and Hemingway, Dante, and Dickens. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that during a flood of book bans, we’re also seeing a fresh effort to rally forces in the defense of the so-called classics. Hence, an article in the National Review claims that great books need a “massive salvage operation.”
Required readings in education are filled exclusively with the dead, white, godly men of Europe, stunned at the extent to which these authors still both fill and structure the national conversation. Last October, the New York Times reported breaking news from the field of Chaucer studies. And the October issue of the New Yorker claims that the 400-year-old John Donne is “more contemporary than ever.” And these are all from just the past month. And we don’t just see the media’s preference for the canon in the content they cover. We see it in the way that Canon structures its coverage.
This hit me most forcefully when I read an otherwise provocative article on literature produced by artificial intelligence. It ends with a series of pieces written by the AI at the request of the author in the style of a variety of well-known writers. Almost every one of them comes straight from an introductory English class taught in 1970: Homer, William Shakespeare, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and George Orwell.
In continuing to privilege the old classics, journalists make it easier to dismiss other voices as less important, and more discardable, all of which plays right into the hands of the book-banning movement. And even without book banning, the standbys we’ve been reading forever still take up too much of the available room. There is so much other literature out there to learn from; why do we stay within the lines of these old white authors? There is so much more to be learned and experienced than just reading the “classics.”