Yesterday, as I headed north on Broadway toward the 125th street entrance to the West Side Highway in a downpour not seen since, well, last week when gregarious Irene was paying a visit to the entire East Coast, I found myself stopped at a light in front of the main gates of Columbia University, my alma mater. The street was teeming with rain and fresh faced freshmen looking vaguely shellshocked. Watching them hurry to cross the street before the light changed and the homicidal cabbie in the next lane hit the gas, their overstuffed backpacks and grim expressions sent me into a reverie about my long ago school days.
One of the reasons I chose Columbia was its mandatory humanities courses—philosophy, literature, music, and art survey courses composed of the “canon” of great works. As those of you who read this blog regularly know, most of us here at DGLM love a reading list and what better reason to go into thousands of dollars worth of debt than to emerge with a reading list full of masterpieces chosen by…old white guys, reflecting the ideology and intellectual tradition of…old white guys. Wait! Even with the occasional nod to a woman or person of color the canon really was rather limited and limiting in its choice of authors. All these years later, it still is.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved many if not most of those canonical choices, but I wonder what I would have changed in that syllabus for my lit hum class. Instead of the Iliad, perhaps One Thousand and One Nights? Borges instead of Dreiser? Zora Neale Hurston instead of F. Scott Fitzgerald? How about genre literature? I know I would’ve traded a great mystery novel for the millions of pages on whaling by the esteemed Mr. Melville in a heartbeat.
Obviously, there’s no right list of classics, but if the idea is to shape young minds that will then go out and shape the world, what would your reading list include?