A sequel of sorts to the previous post, prompted by a piece in the Globe and Mail. Ignore for a moment that the author begins his narrative while he’s doing a poo and focus on his argument for the resistance that his students display to reading long books:
English teachers have held on to the 19th- and 20th-century novel with grasping, wrenching fingers. I’ve been one of them, and truthfully I’m not sure why. The novel is a distinctly Western convention, and a new one at that – it arrived two centuries after the printing press. The Industrial Revolution increased leisure time, so longer pieces became more attractive – and writers benefited from being paid by the word. While a teen’s reading material 100 years ago might have been as narrow as a few books on a bedroom shelf, a student in my class today has an endless range of possibilities.
All true; and moreover, the notion that novels written in English could be the subject of serious academic study, on a par with Greek and Latin classics, is even newer. But if its period of cultural ascendancy is at an end, we have the problem of a period of transition. Older people will hold that knowledge of Austen, Dickens and Updike is a crucial part of our culture, even if they haven’t actually read them; the young can’t even be bothered to pretend. I don’t know if Hirsch has a prescribed list of novelists that must be “known”, but this does again suggest that by the time anyone has identified such a canon, the goalposts will have moved.