Sunday, February 18, 2007

Where's Terry Eagleton when you need him?

Just finished flipping through, grazing on, and generally musing about last year's collection 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (a companion volume to 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die). If you haven't already seen it, you may want to spend some time with this book.

The collection presents an amalgam of high culture and popular titles, beginning with the ancients and continuing right up to 2005. The pre-nineteenth-century sections are quite thin; the twentieth century forms the essence of the book. It was produced in England and betrays some British favoritism alongside a strong American presence; interestingly, there are very few Canadian, Australian, or postcolonial authors included — there is, as we would have said in the 1980s, a clear Anglo-American axis. The bulk of the authors are male and white, and the listings make routine observations about those inclusions who are not male or white.

I truly wonder about the purpose of a collection such as this. It certainly evokes class-based standards for cultural knowledge and participation. Many of the listings use theoretical and formalist explanations for the selections, suggesting that only a reader with a thorough literary education will be able to appreciate the full meaning of the text. Many texts are glossed with information about their adaptation to the stage or screen — an access point for those unable to cope with the literary apparatus, perhaps? There is certainly more than a whiff of canon building in this book — and aren't we through with that yet?

I have an MA in English, the follow-up to an undergrad honours degree in English. While I'm not exceptionally well read, I had believed I have a reasonable literary background and a fair knowledge of major texts in English and world literature. This book has proved me wrong, wrong, wrong. I have read perhaps twenty percent of the "must-read" titles — and appallingly, I read at least half of those after receiving my MA. While I know where my weakness exists (primarily in concentrating on reading books by women and Canadians), I'd be interested to know how others fare when comparing their prior reading history to this prescription.

But this book has got me thinking. Perhaps one of the reasons I am no longer interested in completing my doctorate in English — why I am in fact completing a doctorate involving the deconstruction of English by way of another faculty — is that the class mechanism of English is simply too obvious for me now. The Department of English at the University of Alberta, my alma mater, is so interested in its self-construction as radical that it rarely stops to consider its own site of privilege or its complicity in oppression. Even decades after telling itself that reading literature doesn't really make us better people, the Department continues to chant the liberal motto of better living through literature. (Well, why not? It's the same bill of goods the rest of the schooling enterprise is selling.) And if you don't have access, you're really not one of us after all, are you? Of course, it's not all high modernism and the Leavises today; now the badge of admission is the mindless iteration of post-colonialism, identity feminism, and theoretical Marxism. Yet the song remains the same.

Where are the working-class poets? Somewhere in China, or Africa, or Southeast Asia, assembling your next DVD player, sewing your new lululemon leggings, or answering your calls at an international call centre. They're not here: the North American working class lives elsewhere now — and that whole notion of class is so out of date anyway!

And what has three decades of identity-based literary criticism given us? A powerful belief that individual identity trumps collective needs every time. A liberal embrace of the marketplace of ideas. A vague sense of dread that can be diffused only by consuming faster and faster the digital enhancements of a mediocre age.

So why should we read those 1001 books? There's no need, really. They'll be coming to you soon enough on Google Books, digested into their essential fibres for those with the means to buy them — or for the truly pixellated (and perhaps the pixillated too), on YouTube. Will civilization as we know it come to a lurch if we all don't stop what we're doing and read? We can only hope so...


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Thought for the day

The people united will never be defeated...

Sunday, February 04, 2007


Made a few changes using the new template system. I'll have to put some thought into it. I used Adobe Lightrooms flash gallery to upload some Rip & Grip images. Have a peek. They are on the iMac at home so don't expect super fast response. Speaking of which I got the iMac back so be sure to swing by and visit I turned the shaw space over to Zak and he's been busily uploading Halo pics. I made him hand code the web pages so they don't have the polish of packaged stuff, but overall pretty darn good...

In other news after viewing this clip, I now suspect EJ Woods has a second career. If ever there was a devious, anti-pet mind that would invent this contraption under guise of being helpful, Mr Woods is such a villian...