And plus, every time a person reads it, a nut gets its wings. After finishing the novel, I recalled an entertaining post Michael Bérubé wrote at Crooked Timber, with one of his trademark post titles dropping coy references to hip and current musical groups so that the young people will find it relevant. The post discussed the usual bleatings by Conservative Academics that the Literary Canon is being eroded by the relentless inclusion of writers who have the temerity to be not-white, or not-male, or not-dead-since-before-the-bleaters-were-born, or some combination of the three. It’s an old argument, an evergreen, and yet no matter how many times the argument is made it never gets any more justifiable. Or for that matter more interesting.
I have not yet read Things Fall Apart. I just started Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (I picked The Normal Heart up at random right before I left the country.) I have read The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, unfortunately. And I’m sure we read that Yeats poem at least once; I remember three famous lines from that unit, probably because I’ve seen them quoted hundreds of times since. Oh, and we read The Waste Land. I probably reread it around the time that Chris did. (Now, see what I just did there? Clearly, I’ve been hitting the Pat Barker way too hard.)
I suspect that Things Fall Apart never got onto any of my syllabi because of my staggered education; it was probably lost somewhere between diploma and equivalency track.
Everything Chris has to say about “the canon” is right: it is nonsense to write about literature as though there is a set number of Elect writers. Like Samuel Johnson says (and is quoted in Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler):
So the young author, panting after fame,
And the long honours of a lasting name,
Intrusts his happiness to human kind,
More false, more cruel than the seas or wind!
Toil on, dull crowd! in ecstasies he cries,
For wealth or title, perishable prize;
While I those transitory blessings scorn,
Secure of praise from ages yet unborn.
This thought once form’d, all counsel comes too late,
He flies to press, and hurries on his fate;
Swiftly he sees the imagined laurels spread,
And feels the unfading wreath surround his head.
Warn’d by another’s fate, vain youth be wise,
Those dreams were Settle’s once, and Ogilby’s!
Or, hey, there’s always:
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag—
It’s so elegant
But I’d also like to point out that the Great Books fallacy isn’t just about a belief that certain authors should be treated as interlopers. Achebe–like Shakespeare–is an author who is used to teach students to read in a mature way. What’s a protagonist? What’s an unreliable narrator? What makes for a gripping narrative? What’s this writer trying to say? Why am I turning the pages? His book is meant to teach students that books are useful and interesting, that reading can be enjoyable, and that they can become conscious readers. It’s being used as a lure for literature. If he’s being attacked on the grounds that writers like Jane Austen are by definition more responsible poster models, then he’s also being attacked because his book might create a wider audience for reading.
The gatekeepers aren’t worried that students will read lousier books and suffer from degenerate standards. Those books have protagonists and narratives too, for one thing, and Achebe can’t be confused with Koontz. I can’t see why any high-schooler or college freshman would have a harder time learning about imagery from Beloved, or writing about foreshadowing in The House of the Spirits. No, they’re worried that Achebe will be too good: that his book will fascinate young people, that they will read it and then seek out more books like it, and then read those books and think about them, and then seek out other books and think about them, and so on. The fear is that all these new additions will, if allowed to proliferate unchecked, create an entire class of experienced, demanding, discriminating readers. And that their affection for books might not owe much to that poem about the falconer.