The influential website Campusbooks displays a roster of “Popular Classics Textbooks” in fiction. The list offers an aperture into the minds of University English departments:
- Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- The Rum Diary by Hunter S.Thompson
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
- Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
- Maus by Art Spiegelman
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R.R.Tolkien
- The Stranger by Albert Camus
Of these, a third can be considered true classics, morally challenging works that stimulate the mind: 1, 2, 3, 12 and 14. The Rum Diary is the customary alcoholic spillage from a gonzo journalist who recently left the stage; Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, A Separate Peace, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are either coming-of-age tales or mythic adventures for the wide-eyed. All are highly appropriate for the bright high-school sophomore, but hardly the stuff of stimulating college courses. Neither, for that matter, are those favorites of the 1960’s, Kurt Vonnegut’s easily understood novels and the pot-scented work of Herman Hesse.
Whatever happened to the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov ? The stories of Chekhov? Or for that matter the stories of Twain? Or Hemingway? Or Faulkner? Or John Cheever? What about The Great Gatsby?
The subject of the Holocaust is worthy of study, but Maus, after all, is a picture book. What about Elie Wiesel’s eyewitness Night or William Styron’s painful Sophie’s Choice?
The answer is all too clear. If this list reflects class assignments, then it means Professors, or more likely their department heads, don’t want to challenge the adolescent mind. They want to make things CliffsNotes-simple for their students. That way the A’s and B-pluses pile up, the sheepskins are given out, the alumni have the feeling that they have been truly educated, and no one loses—except perhaps those who know the value of literature. Mark Twain once defined a classic as a book that people praise and don’t read. Little did he know it would happen to Huckleberry Finn.
Stefan Kanfer is a contributing editor for City Journal and author of Somebody, a biography of Marlon Brando.