Going through my library this weekend, I came across an old copy of Harold Bloom’s classic, The Western Canon.
When it was published, Bloom’s book was (and remains today) controversial among educators and academics for its unshrinking advocacy of intellectual elitism and its defense of Western canonical literature. That is, the European literature that most people who went to American public high schools encountered at some point, such as Shakespeare.
His work was a fitting find. I moved to my new apartment some months ago, yet the floor is still strewn with boxes full of books, most of which I still haven’t read. For Bloom (and indeed, his is but one opinion), the fundamental need for a canon of literature stems from our lack of time: “Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read.”
There’s a little more to this than just assembly line efficiency. Even if we did nothing but read, doing any activity always involves a choice, and choices always involve the question “what should we do?” To spend our time is ethical.
To a twenty-something like myself, it also occurs to me that to spend our time is to grow up, though growing isn’t limited to young people. Sometimes we spend years dividing our energies before we find focus; more often, we never find focus.
That society is also “grown up” or “adult”, that we should make those ethical choices collectively and decisively, is an underlying reason why Bloom’s book remains controversial. Beyond the politics of having children read Dead White Males or dismissing the democratization of literary education, there is an assumption that we’re capable of making such decisions; also, an that there is a “we” to speak of.
These are not easy in a postmodern age, where positive absolute assertions about culture and society are to be deconstructed and exposed as frauds.