2011: Canonical literature may feel like bitter medicine, especially when read at an early age. But even after our tastes have been suitably refined, certain books continue to nauseate. When Juliet Lapidos of Slate asked a handful of authors and critics to be honest about their aversion to over-hyped tomes, Elif Batuman offered this comforting response:
Like many people, I enjoy learning which canonical books are unbeloved by which contemporary writers. However, I don't think participants in such surveys ought to blame either themselves (“I'm so lazy/uneducated”) or the canonical books (“Ulysses is so overrated”). My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book. Literature is supposed to be beautiful and/or necessary—so if at a given time you don't either enjoy or need a certain book, then you should read something else, and not feel guilty about it.
Canonical books I did not enjoy include The Iliad and The Sound and the Fury, and, although I did read Ulysses with some degree of technical interest, it wasn't fun for me. I maintain that this doesn't reflect badly on Homer, Faulkner, Joyce, or me.
c. 420 BC: Were he alive today, Plato would no doubt find his own Republic on someone’s list of books that contain “dangerous” ideas or simply bore the mind numb, but his characters share our anxiety about reading the “right” books. In a much-discussed, much-criticized passage, Socrates talks with Plato’s brother Adeimantus about amending the required reading list in their notional city-state:
“Don't you understand,” I said, “that we begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also? And we make use of fable with children before gymnastics.” “That is so.” “That, then, is what I meant by saying that we must take up music before gymnastics.” “You were right,” he said. “Do you not know, then, that the beginning in every task is the chief thing, especially for any creature that is young and tender? For it is then that it is best molded and takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it.” “Quite so.” “Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?” “By no manner of means will we allow it.” “We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship over our storymakers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories far rather than their bodies by their hands. But most of the stories they now tell we must reject.” “What sort of stories?” he said. “The example of the greater stories,” I said, “will show us the lesser also. For surely the pattern must be the same and the greater and the less must have a like tendency. Don't you think so?” “I do,” he said; “but I don't apprehend which you mean by the greater, either.” “Those,” I said, “that Hesiod and Homer and the other poets related. These, methinks, composed false stories which they told and still tell to mankind.” “Of what sort?” he said; “and what in them do you find fault?” “With that,” I said, “which one ought first and chiefly to blame, especially if the lie is not a pretty one.” “What is that?” “When anyone images badly in his speech the true nature of gods and heroes, like a painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to his models.” “It is certainly right to condemn things like that,” he said; “but just what do we mean and what particular things?” “There is, first of all,” I said, “the greatest lie about the things of greatest concernment, which was no pretty invention of him who told how Uranus did what Hesiod says he did to Cronos, and how Cronos in turn took his revenge; and then there are the doings and sufferings of Cronos at the hands of his son. Even if they were true I should not think that they ought to be thus lightly told to thoughtless young persons. But the best way would be to bury them in silence, and if there were some necessity for relating them, that only a very small audience should be admitted under pledge of secrecy and after sacrificing, not a pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim, to the end that as few as possible should have heard these tales.” “Why, yes,” said he, “such stories are hard sayings.” “Yes, and they are not to be told, Adeimantus, in our city "
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