Great Awful Books

Better ideas.
Oct. 17 1996 3:30 AM

Great Awful Books

Literature isn't about bad books, but history frequently is.

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Great books went on video parade last month: The Learning Channel devoted a round-the-clock weekend of programming to 13 works, ranging from The Odyssey to Catch-22, that the shows suggested have not only resonated through time, but, in many cases, have changed history. Given that the culture of reading appears increasingly marginalized, expressive books and their authors need whatever pop support they can get; two cheers, then, for such cable salons.

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One cheer has been deducted for leaving out the important trash. Sure, such TLC-spotlighted thinkers as Machiavelli and Freud have obviously influenced history. And yes indeed, Ralph Ellison's InvisibleMan and Richard Wright's NativeSon helped prepare the way for the civil-rights struggle, just as was suggested at the Library of Congress reception for the series, and reported in the WashingtonPost.

But this sort of "Great Books" focus on literature and history misses much of the point of how culture works; it distorts the past by elevating aesthetics over history. At its worst, canonization can become highbrow kitsch by conflating history with taste.

Great writers have certainly enlightened their readership with their eloquence and insight, and set mankind on a better path. More glory to them; let's read their stuff. But we are just as much the intellectual and cultural heirs of authors we've forgotten about and probably wouldn't be caught dead reading. As a public service, we offer a handful of these, should anyone wish to counter-program the Western Canon, on cable or elsewhere.

What I Believe and The Forged Coupon, by Leo Tolstoy

Yes, Tolstoy. Not, certainly, the Tolstoy of AnnaKarenina and War and Peace; those works, for all their power, represent a prelude to the later Tolstoy, who actually changed history. Depending on your point of view, the "mature" Tolstoy was either a saint or a crank; his family leaned toward the latter opinion, especially after the count renounced his royalties. This Tolstoy reinterpreted the Bible, postured as a peasant, sought to dissuade people from having sex, supported nudist cults, denounced high literary activity, and wrote such things as The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Why Men Stupefy Themselves, works that today would be found on the self-help shelves, if they could be found at all.

But Tolstoy's reinvention of morality was to have a huge impact. For example, he propounded the concept of nonresistance to evil (discovering it in the work of a Massachusetts utopian), which deeply impressed his numerous followers. Among the texts that teach this lesson are What I Believe and the artful--if slight--posthumous novella The Forged Coupon, in which Tolstoy dramatizes how small acts of evil must lead eventually to ever-greater evil by others. These are "minor" works in the Tolstoy canon, to put it mildly, and certainly not to be compared to the man's great romans-fleuves.

Still, his doctrines drew converts--they actually made him a presence in the fiction of other Russian authors--and have survived him. Among the readers who have given them careful thought was the young Mohandas Gandhi. Indeed, literary historian Martin Green has argued persuasively that in a number of significant ways, Gandhi turned his life into an imitation of Tolstoy's. Gandhi, of course, has had his own intellectual heirs, among them the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Insisting on a connection between great events and great literature not only obscures the truth of who is influenced by whom, but it also illustrates a fallacy: that great effects must require great causes.

Biarritz, by Sir John Retcliffe (Hermann Goedsche)

If the problem with canonization lay merely in underestimating "minor" works, we wouldn't have much of a problem at all: It is a pleasure to discover that ever more hands have helped shape mankind's better moments. The larger truth is that awful writers have shaped history, too; that to the degree that history is a nightmare, many of our worst dreams have been induced by literature.

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