Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Read Your Enemies

By James Walker Quillette

With the passing of the idea of the canon into the dustbin of history, the notion of a “required reading” list for all humanity has become seen as something quaint. In our “post-postmodern” condition, even the idea of revising the canon, entering new masterpieces from previously unheard voices, has largely been discarded. Instead, it is better to admit that we are all on different intellectual journeys and that no one is to say what is essential literary consumption for another.

This sentiment is partly understandable—we all have but one life to live, and for even the most voracious readers, the feast is too much to consume. At some point, we know where our interests lie and which authors speak to us, so we forgo even great writers for the sake of the limited time we have on this planet. In the academic or professional sense, the need to put limits on oneself manifests itself in specialization. The age of the polymath is over. Paradoxically, the modern world requires us to know more and more about less and less.

But if the specialization and expertise required by the modern world is a blinder over one eye, concealing from us masterpieces that lie outside our immediate interests, then our desire for purity obscures our vision in the other. If the vintner is a wicked man, then it is believed that wine must be poisoned. One who drinks from the cup of Hume risks being polluted by his racism, Heidegger his anti-Semitism, and so on. So we limit ourselves to those texts and thinkers that have been labeled “safe for consumption” by the literary consensus. If we read these intellectual outlaws at all, it is with the least generous of eyes, as required by our sanctimony.

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