I React to a Thought-Provoking Essay On Whether Reading ‘the Classics’ Is Good

Naomi Kanakia’s essay, “Are “The Classics” Bad for You?”, provoked many thoughts. I enthusiastically recommend the essay.

This isn’t a coherent reaction essay. Instead, I’m jotting down a train of thought.

Here’s a quote to get me started:

Some people try to strike a middle ground here and say, “Well, you don’t have to read white people, but you really ought to read books from before the contemporary era.” Except who are we really talking about? What nonwhite writers specifically? The Indian and Chinese and Latin American writers from before 1900 are usually just as wrapped up in prejudice and exploitation as the white writers.

I know so little about Latin American literature from before 1900 that I won’t comment. However, based on what I know about Indian and Chinese literature from before 1900… I’m not sure that the statement that Indian and Chinese writer from before 1900 “are usually just as wrapped up in prejudice and exploitation as the white writers” is true. A good-faith argument could be made that the statement is false. However, doing a deep analysis to figure out whether they are just as wrapped up in prejudice and exploitation would be a waste of effort since, ultimately, what benefit would come from settling the question? And to answer the question, one would first need a comprehensive description of ‘prejudice’ and ‘exploitation’ are, and trying to define those things too rigidly would be unfair to people suffering in the edge cases. And the most expansive definitions may find that writers after 1900 are just as ‘wrapped up in prejudice and exploitation.’

A key assumption Kanakia comments upon (I’m not sure whether she agrees with it) is that we are morally superior to previous generations. This is almost tautological—according to our own moral standards, we’re always superior to people with a different morality.

Like Kanakia, I “sympathize with the people who just don’t want to be forced to read books they think are bad.” If someone doesn’t want to read ‘the classics’, then good for them, that’s their choice. However, exposure to other moral systems is a forcing device: it makes us question our own and challenges us to be better.

Take, for example, Ancient Greek literature. Were the Ancient Greeks ‘white’? That’s a tricky question. White supremacists claim them as their own, so yes, if you ask white supremacists, they’ll say the Ancient Greeks were white. But Ancient Greek culture didn’t have the concept of racial categories based on skin color. If you asked an Ancient Greek if they were ‘white’, they would be so confused they would probably say ‘no.’ They had the concept of ethnicity (it’s a word of Greek origin) and they had powerful ethnic prejudices. But it had little to do with skin color. The Ancient Greeks considered the dark-skinned Ethiopians to be culturally superior to the light-skinned Scythians.

A commentary on The Iliad by a white professor in the Jim Crow South expressed confusion over why Homer portrayed Ethiopians in such a favorable way. Homer’s refusal to judge people based on skin color confused this guy with a Jim Crow moral system. Maybe, just maybe, reading the Iliad caused a few white people in the Jim Crow south to question their ideas about race.

It’s easy for us, in the early 21st century, to feel morally superior to adherents of Jim Crow ideology. But are we refusing to confront our own moral failings?

Much, MUCH said in ancient literature is morally repugnant to me, a reader in the 21st century. And yet, some features of some ancient civilizations challenge 21st century moral standards. Take, for example, the ancient moral principle in the Fertile Crescent that ruining people’s lives by loading up with more debt than they could pay off was wrong. That’s why they had frequent jubilees to forgive debts. Compare that to the United States today, where it’s extremely difficult to discharge student loan debt with bankruptcies, and how even non-student-loan debts which legally could be discharged through bankruptcy can still ruin lives. This would make ancient Mesopotamians gasp in horror at how exploitive our society is.

Ah, here’s an important point I didn’t mention: in ancient Mesopotamian civilizations, lenders enslaved debtors who couldn’t pay. Part of the purpose of the jubilees was to free the enslaved. And yet, from an ancient Mesopotamian perspective, would they see the way we treat debtors who can’t pay their debts yet are blocked from bankruptcy as less exploitive than enslavement?

If someone is going to read ‘the Classics’ I urge them to also include some Chinese and Indian classics (and maybe Latin American classics from before 1900 too, perhaps I should read them too). If the purpose of reading ‘classics’ by ‘white men’ is to go beyond what’s popular and socially acceptable among the Anglophone publishing elite today, then including Chinese and Indian classics would serve that purpose even better. To be fair, Kanakia’s argument is different, that reading ‘the classics’ of English-language authors is good for improving one’s writing craft in English. My counterargument is that reading both translations and works in other languages also improves one’s writing craft in English. As a humble blogger, reading other blogs has done the most to develop my blogging craft, but that when it comes to ‘literature,’ literature in languages other than English has taught me as much, or more, than English-language literature.

I suspect Kanakia would agree with this. My argument is not so much with her essay, but with the viewpoint she described.

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