The books above are most of the ones I’ve assigned for my Great Texts of the Twentieth Century course (missing are Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the daily poems I’ll be reading to my students). It’s a pretty heterogeneous group, but taken together these books touch on a great many of the key issues of our time, and those of all times: not just racism, sexism, and colonialism, but also the rise of biological science as First Philosophy, the various ways cultures constitute identity, the furthest reaches of human barbarity, the transformation of culture by electronic media, and the miraculous power of the writings of a first-century Jew to illuminate and interpret modern consciousness. Something to offend everyone, you might say.
And this is the point, or at least one of the chief points. Here at Baylor, I want my students—most but not all of whom are Christians; some are simply unbelievers, some are uncertain and struggling—to encounter the texts, and through those texts the experiences, that served to undermine Christian faith and practice in the twentieth century. But I also want them to encounter Christians (Barth, Merton, Bonhoeffer, Eliot, Auden, Simone Weil in her unique way) for whom the twentieth century’s challenges provided an impetus to re-think and re-live Christianity in fresh ways.
I could, of course, work to protect them from this violent clash of powerful and contradictory ideas; I could—I am free to do this—build a syllabus that focused on Christian writers and perhaps other religious believers and presented anti-religious writers whose work is cartoonish or in other ways simplistic. And perhaps if I did that some of my students would feel safer. But that, I am convinced, would be a false sense of safety, and would leave them underprepared for an adult world in which their ideas and beliefs will receive daily challenges. What kind of teacher would I be if I let that happen?
There is one point on which the crusade for the imposition of trigger warnings is absolutely right. It is not for nothing that reading was always feared throughout history. It is indeed a risky activity: reading possesses the power to capture the imagination, create emotional upheaval and force people towards an existential crisis. Indeed, for many it is the excitement of embarking on a journey into the unknown that leads them to pick up a book in the first place.
Can one read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ‘without experiencing a new infirmity or occasion in the very core of one’s sexual feelings?’ asked the literary critic George Steiner in Language and Silence: Essays 1958–1966. It is precisely because reading catches us unaware and offers an experience that is rarely under our full control that it has played, and continues to play, such an important role in humanity’s search for meaning. That is also why it is so often feared.
And reading should be feared; particular books and authors should be feared. But it is not always—indeed, it is not often—best to flee from what we fear. Better to master the fear, to approach what scares us, but to do so with care and preparation and in an environment where those around you wish you well.
My dear friend Brett Foster, whose death earlier this week hangs over me heavily, wrote a poem that I have been thinking about a great deal. It’s called “Back-to-School Rondeau”, and I think it beautifully describes the fears and excitements of genuine education, the ways the pursuit of knowledge takes up and involves the whole of our being. I’ll leave you with it.
It’s almost time to set aside the waning
distractions of first youth, the life contained
for years at home. What’s home? The place you grow
out of, everything receding slowly,
fading like a chalked sidewalk in the rain.
Leave childish things behind, said a certain
fellow. (Others afterward.) Don’t remain:
the friends gone late in summer let you know
it’s almost time.
Don’t leave behind new clothes, impromptu plans —
they’ll match surroundings well, remind again
of shining coming: new homes to let go
of, too; the best things said; mind’s overflow;
surprising callings; time for love, and pain.
It’s almost time.