Nothing ruins a book faster than a teacher who insists it is important. Scholars with the best argument against the existence of a literary canon use some form of this truism. Tim Parks works along this line in his recent piece for The New York Review of Books about reading and forgetting, and his argument deserves a reply.
Parks begins by recalling one of those exhilarating instances, during a scattered professional reading life, where multiple texts converge on a single subject. Cruising the internet, he noticed a Nabokov quote about literature: “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Then opening the Dutch writer Douwe Draaisma’s new book Forgetting: Myths, Perils, and Compensations, he read we are foolish if we “…imagine memory as the ability to preserve something…wholly intact.” The subject of both observations, Parks asserts, is how we remember what we read. The conclusions couldn’t be more different.
Nabokov’s sentiment sounds familiar: after we initially encounter a text, re-reading lets us view it whole—in Parks’ words “out of time.” This is the difference between watching a ship emerge slowly from a tunnel and seeing it later, anchored at harbor, where from shore we appreciate its intricate rigging.
Teachers and academics, Parks points out, draw comfort from this notion that only multiple encounters produce deep insights. The nature of their business forces them into circular but avowedly productive reading patterns. Yet backed by Draaisma’s work, Parks challenges this view. “Words in general,” he writes, “have a vocation for…fixing experience in a way that can be communicated across…time.” Be that as it may, he notes we seldom properly remember those words we calibrate to preserve experience. The precise arrangement that gives great literary style its impact is the first thing forgotten. What we possess of literature, unless we are cursed with photographic memory, comes to us in flying scraps at a high wind: we snatch what we can from entropy.
Slowly, Parks’ crosshairs drift toward the literary canon. He concludes that a culture which celebrates re-reading as the best reading devalues “our [first] reactions to a book” as “irrelevant.” For Parks, this is the trouble with the canon. The riveting freshness that makes a new work memorable to us suffers, it would seem, when a hovering professor declares the “real delights” still lie beyond our grasp.
Decades earlier than Parks, the Cuban-born Italian novelist Italo Calvino wrote a piece for the very same New York Review which initially seems to back him up. True to his experimental style, Calvino’s article “Why Read the Classics?” is a shifting series of definitions for the same term. Arguing himself into corners then playfully escaping his own traps, Calvino defines and redefines “a classic” fourteen times. This could be read as proof that, as Parks implies, a classic does not exist except on an individual scale. But Calvino writes beyond that definition, arriving next at the principle that “every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.” Calvino’s critical touch is playful, but what he’s holding is a razor one that cuts Parks’ elevation of first readings into tatters. We detect the presence of a classic or canonical book, argues Calvino, “when it establishes a personal rapport” with us. “If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school.”
Truly, the problem of the canon lives in schools. While literate adults would produce a canon on their own through conversation and experience, schools are where we deploy the texts we feel responsible for passing on. But unless a bad or careless teacher ruins a book for us in advance, all great reading experiences are fresh. There is no such thing as “reading from the canon” in the negative sense that Park bemoans unless teachers tell us a text is important before they tell us why it is wonderful.
Parks’ motives are pure. So were those of Reformation Protestants who threw their holy bricks through the stained-glass windows of so many cathedrals. The reformers wanted a return to the Old Testament and Acts’ supposedly unmediated prayer, a raw encounter with God undiffused by liturgy. But their more brainless devotees thought that smashing Catholic art was the same as stripping the Church’s artifice. Yet iconographic beauty was never the problem, as Knox or Luther would have told them, but how we approach the subject of prayer: the way an encounter with the holy is guided; the wonder and reverence cultivated in ourselves. Parks’ mistake is similar, though on a less dramatic scale: justifiably insisting that our best experiences with books are individual and subjective, he hastily throws out the whole idea of an objective literary canon.
The canon exists not in spite of those thrilling first readings, but because of them–because canonicity means freshness. If Homer’s gruesome elegance and knack for capturing the emotional moment didn’t continue to arrest us, we would stop reading him. And no amount of professorial insistence could create that prerequisite pleasure. Only great literature can do it; one of its chief pleasures being that regardless of context or historical remove, it always feels immediate. Hector’s helmet frightens his infant son, and with careful clumsiness, he removes it before he takes the child from his wife’s arms. A professor can prime a classroom to appreciate the full artistry of that exchange, but even an oaf is moved by it.
Parks is right to observe, like Proust, that our memories of books or whatever else are “as fugitive, alas, as the years;” isolated from us by time’s accumulating complexities and distances. But most literature’s object isn’t to be remembered verbatim. It is to draw us back to itself by its capacity to enrich experience. Compared with the compounded thrill of reading Chaucer over again, to remember The Canterbury Tales word for word would be a burden. Better to commit the opening eighteen lines to memory and keep the rest a precipitating vagueness, begging to be solidified.