My undergraduate college insisted that all of its students, whether math majors, start up gurus to be, or English nerds, would graduate having the ability to understand and appreciate the “greats” of “Western” literature, philosophy, music and art. I put those in quotations because those terms are so contested and cause a huge fuss on campus. What constitutes “great” is constantly in flux; so, the curriculum is constantly changing. For example, the book Beloved by Toni Morrison was just included in the Literature Humanities syllabus, marking the third book by a woman students read over the course of the year, and the first black woman. I’m all for updating and adapting the Core to make it less of a Dead White Man club. Because really, what the Core’s about is a road map for interpretation, something that helps with all the OTHER texts a person encounters in his or her life. It’s not about the books so much as it’s about the tools you get having read the books, or having analyzed the art.
But this post isn’t about politics. It’s about appreciation.
I’ve found myself in the “real world,” which is also in quotations, because to be honest I have less of an idea of what the real world is than what constitutes the greats of Western art and literature. But I’ll find myself wandering cold city streets of reality and thinking how lovely it is that I have this treasury of great texts behind me. Because the Iliad, the Odyssey, Jane Austen, Dostoevsky–we’re not just talking about authors! We’re talking about the spine of all other literature!
My life has been so tremendously enriched by having read these books and having learned how to understand a work of art. My mind’s in dialogue with centuries of minds before me. Even if modern books are a reaction against the stiff classics, it’s important to have an idea of what the stiff old classics are. It was more than four years of coursework, but a way of going through the world with eyes wide open, and drinking in culture because I was taught how.
So here’s the kicker. I spent four years in an environment where the goal of my life was to discuss things that matter. Now, I’m in a world where other things (ie money and employment) take precedence. But these books are still in me like hard jewels, information congealed into diamond with heat and pressure and thought. I remember the things that matter, and just because there are other concerns now that might be ahead in line of the books I’m reading, I can still safely say: the books matter more.