GQ, the magazine formerly known as Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and which began as Apparel Arts in 1931 as a publication for the men’s clothing trade, has of late taken to providing literary advice. It published a provocative article entitled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read.” Each title suggested by various writers and editors for oblivion was offered with another title offered as a replacement. Not surprisingly, the proposition generating the most controversy was the inclusion of The Holy Bible as a book you don’t have to read, with the chosen replacement turning out to be The Notebook by Agota Kristof.
This rather startling idea comes from writer Jesse Ball, who declares confidently, “The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.” Ball, faculty member of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches courses on “lying, ambiguity, dreaming, and walking,” describes The Notebook as “a marvelous tale of two brothers who have to get along when things get rough.” Publisher’s Weekly, reviewing The Notebook, provided a somewhat different description of the brothers, reporting that “they boggle at nothing: not theft, sodomy or murder, which last, when necessary, they manage with insouciance, having become a pair of soulless charmers, unflinching proof that monsters are not born but made.”
Mr. Ball is not specific as to whether he thinks we should never bother reading The Holy Bible or simply not re-read it after our first introduction. If you are a person of faith and believe that The Holy Bible is the Word of God, you already have reasons to read it. But, if not, there are good reasons as well. I shall not offer the theological or moral reasons for doing so. Such reasons can best be provided by people who spend much of their lives spreading this message. But I do wish to address the literary notions raised by GQ magazine in general and Jesse Ball in particular.
The Holy Bible is simply the most influential book in the history of the world. It is impossible to understand the winding paths of world history or those of our nation without being familiar with Scripture. The founding of the United States of America alone was achieved by those who venerated The Holy Bible. Patrick Henry is best known for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death!” But he also said, “The Bible is worth all the other books which ever have been printed.” George Washington said, “It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible.” John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people…so great is my veneration of The Bible, the earlier my children begin to read, the more confident will be my hope that they will prove useful citizens in the country and respectful members of society.”
Biblical words and phrases have become so common in language that to use them without understanding their origin betrays a woeful inability to comprehend their meaning. Author and scholar Michael Macrone has rightfully written that The Bible is “the most important influence on our language, written and spoken.” One cannot know the great works of literature, art, and music without understanding the book that inspired the creators of so many of them. Many of the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach were signed by the composer with the letters S.D.G. (Soli Deo Gloria—“to God alone the glory.”) So apart from all the other reasons for familiarity with The Holy Bible, we should remember that those who follow the advice of Jesse Ball will be forever ignorant not only of a single book but of the building blocks of much of civilization.
The editors of GQ, of course, do not focus only on one book. Also targeted are such works as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, dismissed by GQ executive editor Christopher Cox as a “dreary satire.” The Lord of the Rings by J.R. R. Tolkien, is described by Manuel Gonzales as “barely readable,” and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, according to Jeff VanderMeer, should be tossed away in favor of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, which “teaches us to be in sync with the world.” Hemingway doesn’t fare better with A Farewell to Arms as Rumaan Alam suggests replacing Hemingway’s novels and their “masculine bluster and clipped sentences” with Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire.
The notions espoused in The Gospel According to GQ are hardly new. Back in the 1960s, three British writers, Brigid Brophy, Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne, offered Fifty Works of English Literature We Could Do Without. The British trio were far more expansive than even GQ, dismissing works by Shakespeare, William Congreve, Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, W. Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, to mention only a few. Two classic favorites of children, Barrie’s Peter Pan and Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland also made their list.
I first learned about the work of Brophy and company from one of my musical heroes, the composer Bernard Herrmann and his wife Norma. Brophy, Levey, and Osborne unfortunately also included Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s novel on which Herrmann had based his masterpiece, an opera, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which inspired his cantata, on their list of works to be scrapped. For good measure, they had included Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the film version of which Herrmann had brilliantly scored. The Herrmanns were not amused.
The message of all of these efforts, the literary counterculturists of the past and present, is typically “Out with the old, in with the new.” This is an attitude which is pervasive on college and university campuses around the world. It is being used to attack, trivialize, minimize, and dismiss dozens of works of literature, music, and art. While the circumstances vary from one location and one list to another, the notions that fundamentally underlie these efforts are the same. If you posit the assumption that we need to get rid of the past and its culture, it’s easy to impose a new set of cultural norms to which everyone must acquiesce and which reflect your own biases, preferences, and agenda.
Antonio Gramsci, a one-time Italian theater critic who helped found the Italian Communist party, died at the end of World War II in prison. But he has proven incredibly influential in modern times with his idea of “capturing the culture.” Gramsci called for a “long march through institutions” in which revolutionaries would seize the cultural high ground and impose what he called a “counter-hegemony” which would totally replace tradition in the family, the church, popular culture, and the mass media.
No, everyone who is bored by a classic book isn’t a cultural Marxist; yes, certain books stand the test of time better than others. Of course, each individual has a right to his own taste. But just as you have the right to declare your preference for rap or rock music, your desire to emulate the Kardashians as icons of taste, and your notion that the best books are short, easy to read, and only written within the last two weeks, the rest of us enjoy the privilege of telling you than when you exercise such rights, you are wrong!
There are several reasons to read a book. One, obviously, is for pleasure, for enjoyment, and even erudition. Another is that books affect how we think and what we believe. Henry David Thoreau spoke of putting down a book and living on its hint. Books and stories often send a message. Critics of classics, as described by Anthony Burgess, often confuse “the parade of prejudice with objective appraisal.”
It’s not hard to discern which ideas are regarded as irksome by those who seek a long march through literature. The GQ list also includes Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, is rejected by Lauren Groff for perpetuating the “cowboy mythos, with its rigid masculine emotional landscape, glorification of guns and destruction, and misogynistic gender roles.” The real message here is that the new works being substituted for old should reflect political correctness, fashionable trends as determined by the current academic elite, not under any circumstances glorify the history, traditions, and long-held values of our society. C.S. Lewis suggested that one of the real reasons people often reject biblical passages is that it is easier for them to follow what later became the countercultural motto, “Do your own thing,” if unmoored from all of those “Thou Shalt Nots.” Notre Dame ethics professor Dr. Thomas Williams quite correctly observed that the core of the GQ proposal is the surgical excision of books that serve to keep traditional values alive.
The usual justification for dismissing books and plays previously regarded as classics is that they are racist, sexist, boring, and written by authors who, because they can be arbitrarily grouped into categories that are out of favor, therefore automatically irrelevant in today’s fast-paced, high-tech driven, celebrity culture.
By happenstance, only a few days before reading the GQ list of books to be avoided, I happened to interview Shakespeare authority Gerit Quealy. (Her initials, ironically, are obviously G. Q.) An actress turned scholar and editor, she was a guest on Mark! My Words, to discuss her most recent book, Botanical Shakespeare, an illustrated compendium of all the flowers, fruits, herbs, trees, seeds, and grasses cited by the world’s greatest playwright. (The book is splendidly illustrated by Sumié Hasegawa-Collins and carries a foreword by Dame Helen Mirren.) An advocate of “learning through delight,” a Renaissance concept, Gerit Quealy urges children to be introduced to Shakespeare at a young age, as she was captivated by a performance of Twelfth Night when she was only seven.
This may be more important than you realize, because a great many colleges and universities no longer require courses in Shakespeare, even for future English teachers. A 2007 survey by the American Council of Teachers and Alumni considered the curricula of twenty-five colleges and twenty-five leading universities. ACTA reported that only four of the universities (including just one Ivy League school) and three of the colleges required courses in Shakespeare. At the University of Pennsylvania, students actually took down a portrait of Shakespeare they passed while in the English department and replaced it with a picture of a “more relevant” figure, a black lesbian poet and feminist-activist, Audre Lorde. Such actions exemplify the tendentious argument that “relevance” is determined by membership in a group identified by race, age, gender, or other arbitrary characteristics. The votaries of the “relevance” agenda are misguided. But they benefit from the mistaken notion that the replacement of classic authors, composers, and artists is ineluctable, that critiques of their agenda are merely biased and remnants of the past, and that their triumph is inevitable. If we consider the consequences of accepting their agenda, we must determine to reduce it to wishful thinking on their part. In contrast, we should recall Ben Jonson’s observation that Shakespeare was “not of an Age, but for all Time.”
Instead of studying Shakespeare, Duke University requires English majors to take classes devoted to “other cultures” and even a class in “Cool Theory.” Presumably, those enrolled will emerge with high self-esteem derived from the knowledge that they are “cooler” than those not taking the class. Other institutions offer English majors electives in everything from rock music to “Creepy Kids in Fiction and Film.” My own favorite, offered by Northwestern University, was its course devoted to analysis of the television series “Baywatch.” After watching the exploits of heroic lifeguards who occasionally save lives but always wear provocative bathing suits, male college freshmen and sophomores could not only compare notes on pretty girls but receive college credit for doing so.
Consider the words of Frank Miele, Managing Editor and Columnist for the Northwest Daily Interlake, who asked, “Can you think of any writer alive today who is essential, not to you personally, but to our mutual understanding of what it means to be human?” In accepting his Nobel Prize for Literature, William Faulkner warned his contemporaries and successors not to forget “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking of which any story is ephemeral and doomed—love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” He dismissed writers who wrote, “not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion.”
So what are we to make of the challenge posed by GQ magazine? I suggest we meet the challenge on its own terms. The editors propose that we can do without a list of books and read others instead. Our response should be clear. Don’t accept the literary machinations of GQ magazine. Instead, follow the lead of the other G.Q. as Miss Quealy follows the lead of Cole Porter who said musically, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.”
As for “The Gospel According to GQ” magazine, I will stick with the original, “Thou Shalt Nots” and all.