From his very first words, Bruce Gans makes it clear that this is not going to be a typical interview where a defender of Great Books bends over backwards making outsize claims of relevance, excitement and engagement. Gans, a Professor of English at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago clearly considers that argument settled. Asked by EdNews.org’s Michael Shaughnessy about the current status of “great books” Gans opens fire: “Do me a favor—lose the scare quotes and the small letters.”
Gans, who has won national attention teaching English and Literature to urban Black, Hispanic and immigrant students, launches immediately into an entertaining and refreshingly unapologetic defense of Great Books:
It is critical that a core of books be identified as Great Books, not because the list is exhaustive and perfect but because it is a falsification of reality to pretend that there is not nor can be certain books which are vastly more profound and influential and beneficial to mankind than practically all others, because people have a right to know and thereby have the opportunity to be personally exposed to such books and in so doing have a greater chance to know themselves and lead an examined life worth living.
Uncomfortable with the idea of saying good, better, best when it comes to works of literature? Gans isn’t. “It is a peculiar perversity of the present time that no one objects to a Hall of Fame for baseball players and rock and roll musicians,” he notes, “but so many do have a problem with a Hall of Fame for books like the Hebrew Bible and the works of Shakespeare.” The idea of Great Books is resisted by ”faculty who in most cases have not read them, often cannot read them, feel threatened at the prospect of having to teach them, whose political prejudices make it impossible for them to consider the merits and benefits of the texts objectively,” he says.
No mere scold, Gans is laugh-out-loud funny on his own children’s reading habits:
My twelve year old twins are both deeply absorbed in a multi volume saga of vampires or wolves or maybe both but which I understand, despite being entirely unable to work up the curiosity to retain the name of these multi million dollar properties, are momentarily of universal interest and have some connection, perhaps merely thematic, to a movie that did quite well concerning a Fabianesque fellow whose role was to I think turn into a vampire and or a wolf. My daughters have his graven image on T-shirts but while he is currently one of the world’s most central human beings his name escapes me. I believe he is from Australia.
(If the term “Fabianesque” doesn’t ring a bell, you’re clearly under 50. I’ll save you the need to tax your 21st century skills by providing a handy link.)
Asked to suggest a list of ten recommended books for summer reading, Gans naturally lists 86, from Don Quixote and The Great Gatsby to Bonfire of the Vanities and The Godfather. He also pushes back on the “universal appeal” of contemporary writers like Stephen King and John Grisham. “Universal appeal is not measured in years but in GENERATIONS,” he says.
His most stirring response, however, is his defense of Mortimer Adler, founder of the Great Books Foundation. “Adler’s central contribution was on the one hand to attempt to gather the most central texts ever written, to organize them according to central questions about the human condition, and then to stand there like Rocky Marciano and absorb all the red faced, hate filled prejudiced, sneering, philistine ravings that the second, third and fourth raters, the professorial paluka weight class throw at him.”
It’s enough to make me want to stop what I’m doing, and run out and buy a copy of Bleak House.
Meanwhile, over at the Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss offers a completely unrelated, but also entertaining defense of the general level of education of the vampire or wolf played by the Fabianesque figure whose name Gans refuses to learn or repeat.