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