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Faculty members’ favorite books were on display in Mossey Library in Jan. 2019. Col­legian | Eliz­abeth Bachmann

We were excited to see the sign at the Lansing Mall: Barnes & Noble Book­sellers. My roommate and I, on our spring break excur­sions, were shopping outside the small town of Hillsdale, when we spotted the national book­selling chain. We envi­sioned a long hour of perusing the great books — from Cicero to Tolstoy, Shake­speare to Dickens, Plato to Faulkner. My roommate joked that she never made it out of a book­store without pur­chasing at least one volume.

After walking through a maze of board games, Harry Potter para­pher­nalia, and $10 romance novels, we found the classics section — a barely 10-foot-wide corner where “Hamlet” was shoved up beside “The Catcher in the Rye” in an incon­gruous pile. It was as if the sign at the top could have read — for all the store owners and its patrons cared — “old stuff.” 

Perhaps book­sellers who neglect the classics are merely responding to market demands. Who wants to read those old white guys anyway? Maybe no one does for now, but book­sellers should still put their time and resources towards pre­senting their cus­tomers with the greatest lit­er­ature of the Western world. 

The classics are classics for a reason. Western society didn’t ran­domly decide that certain people, in certain time periods, would write the books stu­dents begrudg­ingly skim for lit class cen­turies later. The classic books — whether from the clas­sical period itself (“The Odyssey”) or written cen­turies later (“Oliver Twist,” “Huck­le­berry Finn”) — say some­thing about humanity itself. Who hasn’t felt the irre­sistible call of the “siren song” and thanked their fore­sight in removing the means to act on that temp­tation, as Ulysses did, when the temp­tation came? In “Huck­le­berry Finn,” Mark Twain exposes the lies of the racist slave-holding South by viewing it through the eyes of a young boy who sees the hypocrisy for what it is. In other words, some­times the renewing force of youth exposes the moral decay of “civ­i­lization.” 

The classic books deal with problems that exist no matter the his­torical cir­cum­stances — feelings of alien­ation, greed, the inevitability of evil and death, and the imper­ative of goodness and eternal life. Not even iPhones can take that away. 

The eternal human lessons dis­cussed in classics are why those books last. Spencer Baum, on Medium.com, writes about the impor­tance of reading classic lit­er­ature. Focusing on the timeless lessons of “Moby-Dick”, Baum puts it well: “After you’ve read ‘Moby-Dick,’ if you took the time to truly grapple with it, you’ll start to rec­ognize Ahab whenever he shows up in your own life.” Ahab is the wounded man who seeks vengeance against the inan­imate forces of nature by suc­cumbing to the fatal promise to “be as gods,” a promise that hearkens to the opening chapters of the bib­lical book of Genesis. 

I remarked to my friend that there was some­thing vin­di­cating about the telling layout of the book­store. In barely five years, all of the books dis­played in places of promi­nence will become irrel­evant. The next book about being a #girlboss or “The Lord of the Rings” fan­fiction will take its place. As Shake­speare himself would say, the popular but tran­sient books will be “hoisted on their own petard.”

But the classics will last. Maybe I’m naïve, but I truly believe we will con­tinue to read “To Kill a Mock­ingbird” for decades, even cen­turies, to come, despite the best efforts of the can­cellers. (Schools have removed the book from their cur­ricula for its sup­posed depiction of Atticus Finch as a “white savior.”) 

Maybe once the truly per­manent nature of the classics is revealed, Barnes & Noble, along with our public con­sciousness, will again give the classics the place of promi­nence they deserve. To quote the now-can­celed Rudyard Kipling, “The gods of the copybook headings will with terror and slaughter return.” 

In the recent Netflix film “Moxie”, a teenage fem­inist ques­tions why “The Great Gatsby” was assigned for summer reading. “Why are we still reading this book?” she asks. “It’s written by some rich white guy, about some rich white guy.” Strictly true, but how sim­plistic! Perhaps if she had removed her fem­inist reading lens, this young radical would have found some­thing worth remem­bering in Fitzgerald’s book. More than a story of a man “obsessed with the only girl he can’t have,” as the student summed it up, “The Great Gatsby” explores the impli­ca­tions of a life lived for pleasure, the promises and failures of the American dream, and the empty refinement of social stratification. 

Indeed, if the activist of “Moxie” wants social rev­o­lution out of her novels, she should read this quote: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and crea­tures and then retreated back into their money or their vast care­lessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” 

Classic!

 

Sarah Weaver is pur­suing a master’s degree at the Van Andel Graduate School of States­manship.