I learned the other night, again, that I don’t know anything about literature.
I was at a reading sponsored by my MFA program. Zadie Smith read from her unpublished novel, and it was gorgeous. Colum McCann, one of my teachers, praised it afterward as one of the best readings he’d heard – “kind of like a prayer,” he said. Afterward, Zadie hung out with us in an empty, carpeted room to chat and take questions over pizza and wine. She was gracious and honest and smart.
One thing she mentioned was that a lot of young writers tend to have avid but shallow reading habits, “reading every good American novel written since 1975.”
(Some context: at the reading, someone asked, “Who are your influences?”, and she replied that the degree she completed – she read English at Cambridge – was on 400 years’ worth of English literature. “So…those are my influences.”)
She was baffled that anyone would try to write fiction without a better grounding in the literature that came before. We read David Foster Wallace and Jeffrey Eugenides and Don DeLillo, apparently without noticing those writers’ debt to the last several centuries of Anglophone writing. She was grave about it, in an English sort of way, with her big sad eyes, her eyebrows knitted down.
I had the sudden wish to press pause on my life, go to England for four years to study English at Oxbridge, come back, and press play again. I thought: I am so, so dumb, sitting here with my plastic cup of wine and greasy pizza-hands.
“You should read the literature of your country,” she said. To Homer and Chaucer and Shakespeare, we American writers should add Whitman, Pound, Hemingway, Faulkner, O’Connor, Morrison. Yes. Yes.
I revisit this feeling sometimes: I’ve read nothing. I know nothing.
To be fair, I’m not alone: I had a so-so public education in a mid-sized American city. Some classes were transcendent; most of them weren’t. I went to a pretty good college, where I spent the majority of my time making tofu scrambles and hanging out in the kitchen of my campus apartment, procrastinating with friends. I was neither a rigorous nor an especially lazy student. I muddled through.
My college didn’t have course requirements – it was a great place for self-motivated people, which I wasn’t – and rather than progress through a sequence of courses in what would ultimately be an English degree, I took a class on 18th century British female playwrights here, a class on representations of masculinity in 20th century media there. My college didn’t have majors, either, so it was more of an English/playwriting/social-studies/photography degree. A tofu-scrambling degree.
In high school, I read some good books, from Shakespeare, Dickens, and Conrad to The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, and The Grapes of Wrath. But it was high school — do you remember the books you read in high school? I don’t know, maybe you do. I didn’t read the last chapters of The Grapes of Wrath or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because…well, because I was a jackass.
Since then, I’ve read some good American novels published after 1975. Not all of them. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, more and more get published every month.
Want to know what I did the next morning? Speed-walking to the subway, I had a pants-on-fire urge to Google “literary canon” and “English literature 1500-1900” on my phone. I was gonna get on this. I was gonna read The Iliad on the way to work and The Canterbury Tales on the way back. (Somewhere along the way, I was going to master Middle English.)
Burning with my mission that evening, I went to the King’s College page on the Cambridge web site. There’s a link for “offer holders,” which is British for “accepted students,” where you can see summer reading lists for specific majors. The English list includes Homer, Ovid, Virgil, the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Beckett (among others, plus criticism). Which Shakespeare, you’re wondering? “As many of [the plays] as possible,” and all of the sonnets. I tried to imagine an American freshman reading this list as he contemplated his summer of waiting tables and getting laid, and I started laughing.
I went to the web site of St. Peter’s College at Oxford and had a look at their reading list. It includes Old English texts, as well as resources for teaching oneself Old English.
“Don’t be put off: by the summer you will be reading these with ease and pleasure! Now seek out a translation of these texts and READ BOTH THE SET TEXTS AND AS MANY OTHERS AS YOU CAN,” they implore warmly.
I sat at my laptop scratching my head. Is it really just extremely smart, well-educated people who attend Cambridge and Oxford? Do mortals even get in?
Last week, I was in my literature class, waiting for the professor, and I mentioned to two of my colleagues from the program that Zadie Smith blew my mind. “I’m going to spend the next decade reading 400 years of English literature,” I announced.
“I went to Cambridge and got an English degree,” one of them said. I stared at her, my mouth hanging open. Here was an actual human person, someone I’d had beers with, who’d read all that Aelfric and Chaucer and Milton with her own eyes. “I found it really suffocating,” she said.
Suffocating? No! Her education had been everything mine wasn’t. In high school, she did the IB (international baccalaureate); she’d read English at Cambridge as an undergrad; she’d just completed her doctorate at Harvard in comparative literature. I’ve built a significant chunk of my identity on feeling inferior to such people. I got a degree in tofu scrambling! What do you mean, suffocating?
“It was like – their attitude was that nothing else had ever been written. I wanted to do my thesis on Ralph Ellison, and my advisor literally couldn’t find anyone who knew enough about him to supervise it. And, you know, my major was post-colonial literature.” It seems the emphasis was more on the colonial, less on the post-.
“At my college, all we read was post-colonial literature,” I joked.
Last night, I was reading an article on T.S. Eliot in The New Yorker. I’ve never read T.S. Eliot, not even “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (which I didn’t know was written by him until last night). The writer of the article, Louis Menand, distills Eliot’s idea about what he called “the tradition,” i.e., the western canon:
[When I read a poem] I relate it to all the other poems I have read [and]…to all the poems that have ever been written. Past poems condition my response to any new poem. And the really new poem conditions my response to all the poems that preceded it. After “Prufrock,” the Inferno is, ever so slightly, a different poem. After I see a house by Marcel Breuer, my own house looks, ever so slightly, different.
Eliot argued that, since this is the case whether a poet is conscious of the tradition or not, he or she might as well be conscious of it. The more complete the poet’s saturation in the whole of literature, the more genuinely new that poet’s work is likely to be – that is, the more powerfully it is likely to affect the old.
Ah: here it is. I think this is why Zadie’s message sunk in. I always knew I wasn’t very well-read or well-educated, and I also knew there were plenty of people who knew less, had read less than I, and none of us was a worse person for it. Reading Beowulf doesn’t make you a better person. There are infinite things to be an expert on, and I’ll never be an expert on 99.9% of those things; neither will most people. But I am a writer. I’ve always been a writer, but it’s only recently, in the last few years, that I’ve committed myself to the task of fiction. And I think T.S. Eliot and Zadie Smith have a point: the deeper a writer’s “saturation in the whole of literature,” or even in “the literature of your country,” or the literature your favorite writers call home – the better you know it, the more “genuinely new” your work can be. It isn’t about the western canon, per se. It’s about a canon –it’s about what came before you. And it influences your writing whether you’re aware of it or not.
Tonight, in class, Colum asked one of my colleagues if he felt trapped by the canon. “No,” he said, “I feel liberated by the canon. Knowing it is the only way to be a writer of your time.” There’s something knowingly provocative and absolute about this statement, but I agree.
Roots are good. Acknowledging debt is good, and so is gratitude. Honoring history is a way to avoid being history’s fool.
In this spirit, I’ve decided to spend my thirties (what’s left of them) on what I’m calling the Zadie Smith Reading Programme. Obviously, I won’t stop reading when I’m 40, but deadlines have a way of lighting a fire at your heel.
I’m sending away for the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Odyssey this week. I don’t even have The Odyssey lying around, how embarrassing! (I did read it in seventh grade, but that was almost 20 years ago.) I’m also ordering Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, per the suggestion of the lovely people of the English department at King’s College, Cambridge. Knowing me – I’m kind of a dumb reader – I may have to borrow some DVDs from the library with those taped lectures from professors on the classics, especially when I get to Shakespeare and the Bible (gulp).
Look, I made a spreadsheet:
All my notes about which editions to read are from the Cambridge and Oxford web sites. If you have suggestions about preferred editions, or titles to add, bring ’em on in the comments! And if you think this is all a lot of nonsense, feel free to weigh in, too.
Note: This post has been edited slightly from its original version. (01/15/12)