Gentleman’s Quarterly has proposed refashioning contemporary culture by unmooring it from the past, a feat that can be accomplished — in part — by updating lists of required reading to fit the modern Zeitgeist.
In their essay titled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read Before You Die,” the editors of GQrecommend rewriting canons of Great Books by swapping out works that are hard to read, dangerously backward, or politically incorrect with more contemporary works that conform to the values and sensibilities of the modern cultural elite.
So, out with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and of course, the Holy Bible, and in with chick-lit, inclusive language, edgy plots, and entertainment purged of traditional values or outdated suppositions about the human person, family, and society.
The Great Books are taken down in one fell swoop. “Some are racist and some are sexist, but most are just really, really boring,” we learn.
First among these “overrated books” is the Bible, for which the GQ editors reserve some particularly choice epithets. It is “repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned,” or, in a nutshell, “certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced.”
As a substitute, why not read Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, the editors suggest, “a marvelous tale of two brothers who have to get along when things get rough.”
Their scorn extends well beyond the Good Book, however.
Pulling no punches, GQ says that the “cowboy mythos” of Lonesome Dove, for example, “with its rigid masculine emotional landscape, glorification of guns and destruction, and misogynistic gender roles, is a major factor in the degradation of America.”
Instead, we are told to read The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, which “acts in many ways as a strong rebuttal to all the old toxic western stereotypes we all need to explode.”
Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, “is without any literary merit whatsoever” and therefore should be replaced by Olivia, the Sapphic story of a British teenage girl who falls in love with her teacher Mademoiselle Julie.
Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves, is definitely out, since it is “incredibly racist.” If one really must read about war, a more sanitized option is Dispatches by Michael Herr — we are told — which properly conveys “the cruelty and violence of modern warfare.”
And so, on and on.
One reads that Ernest Hemingway, with his “masculine bluster and clipped sentences” should give way to kinder, gentler writers. The Old Man and the Sea can be fruitfully substituted by The Summer Book, a “heartwarming” series of vignettes about a grandmother and granddaughter living on a remote Finnish island that “teaches us what it is to be in sync with the world.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gets the axe, of course (“Mark Twain was a racist”), as do The Bible, Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Try reading instead Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, we are told, “in which emotions are so present and sensory they almost hold a physical weight.”
The exercise seems aimed primarily at avoiding contact with antiquated beliefs, racist language, and sexist assumptions.
In keeping with similar crusades on college campuses, it also seeks to bring in many more female writers, which GQ seems to think especially necessary for domesticating its predominantly male readership. Of its original list of 21 “required” works, not one is written by a woman. The new list, on the contrary, is dominated by women authors.
It is also noteworthy than its original list, GQ includes not a single volume from antiquity or even the Renaissance. Unlike the Great Books, here there is no Homer, no Plato, no Greek drama, no Virgil, no Dante, no Cervantes, and no Shakespeare.
Of course, different strokes for different folks. Everyone interested in literature has his own list of favorites that merit wider circulation as well as a similar list of “highly acclaimed” works that could just as well be forgotten. The core of the GQ proposal, however, is the surgical excision of books that serve to keep traditional values alive.
As simple as it is straightforward, GQ’s plan follows the tried-and-true political strategy of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist mastermind who explained in great detail how to overcome a “cultural hegemony” by replacing it with a new one (counter-hegemony).
According to Gramsci, society can only be changed by changing culture, and this can only be accomplished by developing a new cultural hegemony, which is necessarily rooted in folklore, popular culture, and religion.
The brave new world that the cultural left wishes to establish cannot come about as long as “folklore” (which includes art, literature, history, and other sources of national identity) remains rooted in the ideas and values of the Judeo-Christian West.
Only when a new set of values has been adopted and assimilated as a “commonsensical world view” to which any thinking person is expected to spontaneously adhere, can we say that the cultural hegemony has been successfully changed.
The original collection called The Great Books of the Western World, brainchild of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago, was presented at a gala party in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, on April 15, 1952.
In his speech, Robert Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago, spoke glowingly of the project, underscoring its utility for the preservation of the culture of the west.
“This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education,” he said. “Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.”
GQ’s proposal can only be viewed in these terms. It is not about suggesting more “entertaining” literature. It is about changing the cultural hegemony for the generations to come.