Brian Morton, who is the director of the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of Starting Out in the Evening, has a useful essay in the New York Times. In it, he considers the problem of young people who refuse to read or engage with great works of literature because they morally disapprove of the authors. He begins with the story of a college student, professing to be a writer of fiction, who throws The House of Mirth into the trash because he cannot abide the anti-Semitism he detects in its pages. Morton writes:
I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.
As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.
I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.
Wise words. But is it a “misunderstanding”?
Morton may be too kind to think it — and may be be professionally incapable of saying it — but it also is the case that some young people are stupid, have no heart for literature, and are not worth the effort of trying to educate in that subject, being better suited for other studies such as law or dog-sitting. Assuming this college student is not eleven years old, that he should be shocked to learn that people 114 years ago sometimes saw things differently indicates deficiencies in intelligence and imagination. It indicates that he is a tiny-minded hectoring prude and a bore — and the kindest thing a teacher could do would be to tell him as much while he is still young enough to improve. A little focused brutality in education can be a blessing.
We invest a great deal in educating students in self-esteem and diversity — both understood in the shallowest terms. (Our “multiculturalism” is paella, not Don Quixote.) In practice, the less interesting young person’s esteem for his own particularities, however banal, reliably trumps his appreciation for the most meaningful particularities of others; it is beyond his understanding that diversity across time is more consequential and more profound than the diversity that distinguishes a black 47-year-old Princeton-educated $800,000-a-year investment banker in Greenwich from a white 47-year-old Princeton-educated $800,000-a-year investment banker in Greenwich.
As the proverb goes: There are books you read, and there are books that read you. Some of them read you and find you wanting. Reading Edith Wharton, the young man said, “I don’t want anyone like that in my house.”
But who ever told him it was his house? That person did him a disservice.