O let my books be then the eloquence
And dumb presagers of my speaking breast,
Who plead for love, and look for recompense
More than that tongue that more hath more expressed.
Oh! learn to read what silent love hath writ:
To hear with eyes belongs to love’s fine wit.
These last six lines of Sonnet XXIII sound one of the major themes of Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence: the power of the written word to guard the lover, his beloved, and his love itself against the ravages of time. Throughout the sonnets, poems, tablets, whole books are distillations of the author’s person and powers.
This idea – books are persons by proxy – was an important if under-explored concept in the canon wars of the 1980s. The idea that a reading list represented not merely a set of ideas but a set of people, a set of identities played a crucial role in student demands for curricular change at Stanford. The desire of students to see themselves, their own identities, reflected in the books on a syllabus was dismissed by many defenders of the “core reading list” as narcissistic and naïve. The point of reading lists, the point of college, was to expose people to other identities besides their own. Besides, the core’s defenders argued, the greatness of the books on the reading list transcended the particular times and places and even people who wrote them; they spoke to all times and places.
But that idea – that truly great works of literature are those that transcend the particularities of their origins and sound “universal” themes – was woefully underexamined by those who staunchly defended it. (I would note that, as far as I can tell, none of the professors who defended that idea hailed from the history department. However, it was something of an article of faith among the many professors in the English department.) But that idea was certainly challenged by those advocates for curricular change who argued that the reading list was an identitarian relic of a very particular worldview: “dead white European males.” The claim to universalism for these texts was a way of preserving the authority of a white Western patriarchy.
Interestingly, defenders of the reading list offered many counter-arguments pushing back against the “whiteness” or the “Europeanness” of the reading list – Augustine was an African! the Bible’s origins lie in the Middle East! And of course they claimed that the “maleness” of the authors was merely coincidental – unmarked, leaving no mark that could not be covered and subsumed in “humanity” more generally. But no one took up what seems to me to be the more interesting modifier: “dead.” That word spoke against the claim of transcendence, spoke against the claim that books – or, at least, those books — were stand-ins for living people, repositories of still-living voices that might speak from their pages. Yet this critique came from the same students who wanted to read books that reflected or spoke to or somehow represented their own lives and experiences as non-white and non-European and, much less emphasized, non-male.
What strikes me now, looking at both sides of this debate, is the idea of books as proxies for particular people or particular kinds of people, including the kind of person who can write something “great” or “transcendent.”
That notion of representation – the presence of this book represents my presence here in the university – was a basic assumption driving this debate. It was an explicit assumption of the critics of the reading list. Can I argue that it was an explicit assumption of the defenders of the reading list? Did they know the work that words like “universalism” and “humanity” and “transcendence” were doing to protect their presence and position in the university? Does it matter whether they knew that or not?
Books as (material?) stand-ins for the particular lives of their authors and their readers: this is the underlying assumption that I must treat as utterly strange.