WILL UNWOUND #603: “Are the Classics Still Important in a Twitterpated World”November 8, 2011
A couple of days ago I made the comment that the one big downside of getting yourself immersed in social media (the 4 Fs – Facebook, Fritter, Friend Feed, and Flickr) is that they take time away from reading War and Peace.
In a way I am sorry I used W&P as the alternative to social media because it unintentionally turned out to be a focal point that diverted attention away from the subject at hand: the value of social media. Inevitably the charges of elitism were raised and so I had to quickly rise and defend my mention of Tolstoy’s much referenced but little read classic.
My intention was to use W&P as a symbol of all the books that I have on my reading bucket list. I didn’t mean to literally suggest that social media sites are bad because they keep you from reading W&P. I meant that social media sites are a tradeoff. Yes, they allow you to keep connected to family and friends but at the expense of taking you away from other activities such as reading, building bird houses, or learning how to play the piano (another item on my “bucket list.”)
Okay, now that that issue has been clarified, how about the issue of elitism? Am I an elitist because W&P is on my reading bucket list? Of course not. I am free to pick and choose what I want to read and I doubt if there is one person in the Tavern who would deny me that right.
What if I proclaimed, however, that War and Peace should be on everyone’s bucket list? Would that be elitist? Probably so. Most people do not want to be dictated to when it comes to reading material especially when the mandatory reading centers around the traditional classics. Not only do we get into the issues of intellectual freedom and personal taste but there’s that whole “dead, white male” bias that some people object to with regards to the “great books of the Western Canon.”
So far so good. Now let’s move the discussion into murkier waters. Should every public and academic library make it a point to acquire fresh, new, attractive editions of the traditional classics especially when new translations appear even though the demand for these books might be minimal compared to the demand for books on the bestseller list? In the 1980s a new philosophy of public librarianship (the mall bookstore model) emerged which said that if The Odyssey was not circulating, it should be weeded. It was a big controversy at the time, but not so much anymore because every ten years or so a new robust translation of The Odyssey comes out that generates new interest in this very old book, which disproves the Biblical injunction against putting new wine into old wineskins (or was it old wine into new wineskins?).
A second murky question centers around readers advisory recommendations. The librarians of my youth were constantly bugging me to upgrade my reading habits from baseball books to something more challenging and literary. Personally, I am glad they did. In fact I will always be thankful to them for motivating me to upgrade to the children’s classics. Always. They enriched my life beyond measure.
It seems to me that the case for the classics is twofold: 1) they (most of them anyway) are wonderfully written books that delve deeply into the very marrow of the human condition, and 2) many of the values and ideals of Western Civilization were derived from these books.
For these reasons I believe strongly that public and academic librarians have a responsibility to keep them alive even in the era of Facebook, Friend Feed, Fritter, and Flickr.
What do you see in these murky waters?