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Weighing the Classics

Whitman and Cervantes are out, but educators say California's new reading list is a serious blueprint for compromise in the culture war.


"There was a time when only wise books were read,

helping us to bear our pain and misery."

--Czeslaw Milosz


"A classic is a book nobody wants to read and everybody wishes to have read."

--Mark Twain


America's culture war has been fought on many battlefields over the last decade, but few have been as bitterly contested as the question of which books public school students ought to read.

On one side stand arrayed the steely-eyed defenders of the canon, as epitomized by the late Mortimer Adler and his "great books movement." On the other, are the sensitive multiculturalists, firm believers in the relative and tireless seekers of the relevant. But when the partisans of either fraction dissect the California Department of Education's soon-to-be-published recommended reading list--the first such guideline to be issued in more than a decade--what they will find is an imperfect but serious 2,700-book blueprint for "peace with honor" in the cultural conflict.

Like most peace plans, the new list is a series of compromises arrived at by a limited number of negotiators working under the pressure of a deadline. The result is a list that is neither "dumbed down" nor programmatically prescriptive, but which is "idiosyncratic," according to one of its compilers, author Carol Jago, who directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA and teaches English at Santa Monica High School. As such, it is unlikely to satisfy the hard men and women of either camp.

There is, in fact, something beyond coincidence--a symmetry of sorts--suggested by the fact that the 98-year-old Adler died in San Mateo within a day of the California list's completion. Perhaps this century's most successful popularizer of serious philosophy, Adler, a onetime student of John Dewey, directed the compilation of the Encyclopedia Britannica's monumental 54-volume set of the world's 443 "greatest" books and went on to serve as chairman of Britannica's board of editors. It requires little imagination to envision his response and that of his admirers to California's reading list.

In fact, Jago herself has strong reservations. In her view, the list is "incredibly haphazard ....Over time, this list is going to show the lack of a deep knowledge of books."

On it, for example, 19th century American literature--once a staple of the canon--is ill-represented. Thus, no Washington Irving or James Fenimore Cooper. Walt Whitman's masterpiece, "Leaves of Grass," is nowhere to be found and Emily Dickinson is represented only by a brief collection selected for children. Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne made it, but Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison and Ulysses S. Grant are not included. Among playwrights, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Tennessee Williams are represented, but Eugene O'Neill, the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not. In fact, of the 11 U.S. citizens to win the world's highest literary prize, only seven made the state's recommended list. Among the discarded laureates are Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow and Joseph Brodsky, who just a few years ago was America's Poet Laureate.

Henry David Thoreau made the cut, but his great friend and mentor--Ralph Waldo Emerson--did not. Among modernists, T.S. Eliot is on, but Ezra Pound is off; one Irish Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, is represented by three volumes, while another--William Butler Yeats--is inexplicably absent. Similarly, the contemporary Irish author Roddy Doyle has two books on the list, but Jonathan Swift has none. W.H. Auden is in; Ezra Pound is out.

Serious modern and contemporary literary fiction is well represented--James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Graham Greene and Joan Didion, for example; contemporary poetry scantly so. African American authors are well-selected--Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, for example; contemporary Latin Americans less so. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes, for instance, are in, but Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz and Alejo Carpentier are out. So is Cervantes, "Don Quixote" notwithstanding. Asian--as opposed to Asian American--writers are all but invisible, despite the ready availability of superb English translations, many of them by California writers and poets.

Virtually all of William Shakespeare's dramatic corpus is included, but there is no John Donne, Edmund Spenser or William Blake. Chaucer is on; Dante is off. Among the classical authors so numerous on the great books lists, Homer, Sophocles and Aeschylus are recommended, while Euripides and Aristophanes are not. The Latin authors have vanished with the lone exception of Virgil, presumably because he had the shrewd foresight to write a sequel to Homer.

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