03 Oct 1994 12:01

In ``Canon to the Right of Me,'' Katha Pollitt correctly points out that one reason the canon debate in America is so heated is that (by and large) college students won't read books unless they are assigned. (She also claims that this makes the canon debate somewhat pointless: ``If you never read anything but twenty or a hundred books, there's no way you can understand them, or be shaped by them.'' [From memory.] That one won't understand the books, I readily grant, but I'm afraid it would be all too easy to be influenced by twenty books: one book would be even more effective. We have, as they say, ``been there, done that.'' By the time the kids hit college, however, they are probably too set in their thoughts to be really transformed by mere literature: especially if they don't care much about books in the first place. Onwards.)

It can't honestly be said that literature was very important to most people for most of the civilized past, because most people couldn't read. Indeed, as late as the 1840s, we have John Stuart Mill reporting in On Liberty that Englishmen were being ostracized for reading. But literature used to be of great importance to the educated classes, and seems to be less so now than, say, in Mill's time. Either the classes themselves have changed (they have), or literature has been wedged-out (it has), or literature itself has changed (it has). How has all this interacted?