GQ magazine has news for us. Among the countless collections of ingenious tomes you absolutely, definitely must crack open before you expire, there are also, the editors tell us, “21 Books You Don’t Need to Read Before You Die.” The Great Books, it turns out, are largely “racist,” “sexist,” and “incredibly boring,” and the “un-boring” editors at GQ aren’t putting up with it anymore.
Now, on its face, tossing out undeserving “Great Books” is…well, great. Some things can safely be left in the dustbin of history. But if it is a sin to trash recyclables, it is likewise a sin to toss out Great Books before we’re certain they’re useless.
GQ, just as they’ve redesigned and redesigned their magazine, are ready to redesign “the classics,” hoping to attract men who favor critical theory over Christian theology and Play-Doh over Plato. Who, in the era of young Turks and old racial scores, wants to slog through some translator’s mangling of Lucretius, after all?
So say the intelligentsia of GQ, whose memory apparently extends no further than 1960. Besides Marx, most anything before then is “problematic.” But a look at the books the magazine disdains—and the replacements they recommend—betrays the lacunae in their postmodernist script.
“We’ve been told all our lives that we can only call ourselves well-read once we’ve read the Great Books. We tried.” Thus opens the latest salvo in the ongoing Dresdenization of history. “We got halfway through the SparkNotes on Finnegans Wake,” it continues, in a literary proclamation that appears to be the work of a lazy eighth grader.
I say if we’re going to excise anything from our culture, then let it be SparkNotes.
A similar lack of depth plagues their critiques. Among the first is Catcher in the Rye. When forced to read this strange little book in high school, I proclaimed to my English class that all Holden Caulfield needed was a good punch in the face. But I cannot deny that it was a powerful read. Dorothy Stratchey, on the other hand, says, “I have never been able to fathom why Catcher in the Rye is such a canonical novel…. Now, looking back, I find that it is without any literary merit.” Appealing to her own authority, she has no need of evidence.
She goes on to detail, likewise without evidence, what “ought” to replace it: Olivia, the tale of an aseptic Sappho and the female teacher for whom she lusts. No one ever “takes a wrong step,” says Stratchey, but “there are signs for those who know how to read them.” (I was told this list would extirpate the “boring” elements from literature.) A story in which, apparently, nothing happens might be the most boring plot idea of all time.
Ernest Hemingway is next to ascend the pillory. Specifically, author Jeff VanderMeer goes after The Old Man and the Sea. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that Hemingway, who said “[t]here are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games,” might not be especially popular anymore. His ethic of manhood is a little too macho for the soy boys of today. Though it might seem that guys raised on video games would appreciate the simplicity and heroism in Hemingway, Mr. VanderMeer reports that he, at least, “kept hoping the fish would get away without too much damage.” Perhaps this is not the man we should consult for books about fishing.
Forswear all that brooding on shotguns and whiskey, VanderMeer says; instead, read Tove Jansson, whose “heartwarming,” “beautiful and humane” “series of vignettes about a grandmother and granddaughter living on a remote Finnish island” “teaches us what it is to be in sync with the world.”
I’m guessing the two women get their food not from the sea, but from the local grocery store. They’re certainly not hunting. That’d hardly be heartwarming. In this enlightened age, hunting is not a career, but rather the pastime of wealthy sociopaths. Never mind any notions of metaphorical hunting—VanderMeer is throwing down his rod and laying down the law: “Thou shalt only read ‘beautiful’ and ‘humane’ books,” commands the man afraid to fish.
It goes on in much the same tone. Most of the commentary is predictably puerile. That is, until GQ decides in its infinite bibliophilia that we need no longer worry about reading the Bible.
One of the bestselling books in human history, the Bible is everywhere—there’s hardly a troglodyte left who hasn’t at least been handed one by a passing Gideon. Even in post-Christian society, Biblical notions of equality, of altruism, of individual value, all survive. But GQ is content to say glibly, “Those who have read [the Bible] know that there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that humanity has ever produced.” “Foolish” and “ill-intentioned” are among their choicest epithets. Fortunately, the faithful have withstood spinier barbs from wilier detractors than these.
This becomes especially comforting when we learn what’s to replace the Bible: The Notebook, by Ágota Kristóf. I know what you’re thinking: even Christopher Hitchens at his drunkest and snarkiest could never have denied the Bible’s influence. GQ cannot be suggesting The Notebook serve in its stead, can they? For the sake of civilization, let’s hope not. Quoted in a Guardian review of Kristóf’s book are these lines:
“Don’t move. Keep sleeping.”
“We want to urinate. We have to go.”
“Don’t go. Do it here.”
We ask: “Where?”
He says: “On me. Yes. Don’t be afraid. Piss! On my face.”
We do it, then we go out into the garden, because the bed is all wet.
I know a golden calf when I see one.
Also among the condemned is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which, in addition to inspiring a large portion of Led Zeppelin’s discography and a large portion of fantasy writing since then (George R. R. Martin, anyone?), has since the 1950s given awkward middle-schoolers the means to be part-time heroes. GQ complains that Tolkien was too focused on filling in his fantasy world—too much nerdiness and not enough urinating, I suppose.
Joseph Heller’s military satire Catch-22, by the standards of the quarterly gentlemen, “fails to capture the absurdities and impossible conflicts of war.” This despite the fact that the English expression for “absurd, impossible conflict” is “catch-22.”
Slaughterhouse-Five contains no female diversity hires, and so likewise fails to pass muster. “When men on dating apps list a book, they invariably list Slaughterhouse-Five.” This is intended as an indictment, but author Nadja Spiegelman speaks too soon: the problem more probably lies not with literature, but with her dating app. If she were still allowed to read the Bible, she might have known to remove the beam from her own eye first.
On and on the list goes, itself a slaughterhouse of familiar names and titles from high school and college, the resulting carcass to be replaced with a tofu Oprah wielding a “humane,” “beautiful,” and utterly lifeless book list. No feelings get hurt when no feelings are felt.
Magazines like GQ cater to surface trends. That’s where they exist, so they can hardly do anything else if they like paychecks. Their readers were never going to enjoy the classics, except as long as enjoying them—or saying you enjoyed them—was required in rarefied circles. But today, it seems, a condemnation of classic Western literature (imperialist edifice!) is the password for the novus homo entering the “élite.”
But where, for example, did we get the idea that everyone is equal? If you don’t believe history begins with Martin Luther King, Jr., you know the religious roots of “equality” as a concept. The Christian origin of civil rights leaves its imprimatur even in Dr. King’s first two names: without Martin Luther, the good Doctor is merely another King.
The great works survive because each successive generation finds in them something to revere. The fact that GQ thinks we’d be better off without them is not evidence of modern wisdom and ancient idiocy. Rather, it shows a naïve self-confidence, like a teenage emperor.
The good news is that we’ve weathered bad emperors before. But one bad emperor after another, and the canon, stripped of defenses, cannot anon stop illiterate hordes from crossing the Rhine to reap an intellectual harvest they did not sow. We’re happy to strip-mine history in the name of profits—but imagine if we had to throw out not only our ancestors’ cultural ideas, but their technological innovations as well? It would be insanity to suggest that because the Kendrick Lamar of the age gets the paycheck and the Pulitzer, the Van Gogh of the age is worth nothing.
There are Van Goghs out there today, panhandling for art supplies while Kendrick Lamar drowns in dollars. And this gives me hope. For while the sensitive editors of Girlyman’s Monthly will no doubt perish, those who speak truth will remain relevant when every 2018 fad has long passed—they will, in other words, endure. Thus, I prophesy with confidence that the 21 books castigated in the increasingly unread pages of GQ will withstand these slings and arrows. Future generations will thank us for not kowtowing to this week’s Ministry of Truth.
In the 21st century, reading books is an act of cultural warfare. Read on, therefore, that our achievements might not perish under the clubs of the ignorant. There will come a day when we realize the true value of what they’ve tried to destroy, and those of us who still draw wisdom from the ancients will be relevant again.
S. Patrick Cunningham is the editor-in-chief of The Constitute Voice, dedicated to promoting free thought, radical honesty, and common sense in politics and in culture. He also writes under the pen name Socrates the Younger.