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Student production of As You Like It , Kenya 1955

Harold Bloom happened to be at Cornell during one of the most famous student protests of the “canon wars,” one in which black students went en masse into the various campus libraries, pulled armfuls of books from the stacks, and threw them down on the circulation desks saying “These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.” Bloom spotted the collected poems of Keats in one young woman’s pile and asked her, “Are you quite sure that the poetry of John Keats is irrelevant to you? Have you read any of the poems of Keats?” She glared back and repeated, “These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.”

Not an appealing argument, but we should not let repulsion send us to the opposite extreme, which says that no one may ever plead indifference to a great book on cultural grounds. Some authors just don’t travel well. Usually it’s because their preoccupations are specific rather than universal—what it means to be an Englishman, what it means to be an empire, what it means to be a frontiersman or a pioneer. Put it this way: To Kill a Mockingbird may be set in the South, but it is about what it means to be a human being; Faulkner could have sent the Compsons to Outer Mongolia and the book would still have been about what it means to be Southern.

Which is fine—people with reasonably inquisitive minds are usually interested in learning about cultures other than their own, and people whose minds are not reasonably inquisitive should not enroll at Cornell. But I must admit that if Harold Bloom’s petulant young friend had disdained to read, say, Sir Henry Newbolt , I would not have been offended.

The trouble is figuring out which books will appeal across cultural boundaries. Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Louis Auchincloss could all be called regional authors, but I wouldn’t want to assume that their appeal is only regional. (Though Philip Roth obviously isn’t a hit in Sweden— yet .) It is difficult to predict whether a book will pall when it leaves its home borders. The only real way to know is to try it.

The novelist James Ngugi (who now goes by his Kikuyu name Ngugi wa Thiong’o) was educated in colonial Kenya, first at a mission school, then a village school, then a British-style boarding school for black students. His memoir of his schooldays, released two months ago , tells of his attempt to read every book in his boarding school library—not a strange ambition for a boy who would grow up to be a Nobel contender . Almost all of the books were written by white European authors. This alienated him in some cases, but by no means all:

Good: Three Men in a Boat ; Wuthering Heights (“the winds of the Yorkshire moors reminded me of the frosty winds in Limuru in July”); Tolstoy’s childhood memoirs; A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“recalls the magic of African oral tradition”); As You Like It (“I could not help comparing the pairs of exiles in Arden to my brother, Good Wallace,” who had run off to join the Mau Mau); Treasure Island ; Sherlock Holmes; Robin Hood; the Grimms; Aesop; Hans Cristian Andersen.

Bad: King Solomon’s Mines (“could not stand without a savage Africa as the background”); With Clive in India ; Biggles in Africa (though the other Biggles books were fine); any poem about flowers and seasons (“in Kenya there was sunshine and green life all year round, and flowers were never a thing of surprise”).

The breadth of his taste is probably disappointing to those who wish he had torn up his library card and proclaimed “These books are irrelevant to me as a black student.” It must also disappoint those who assume that the appeal of great books is always universal. I figured the nature poems of the Romantics would speak to anyone who had ever been outside, so his line about flowers being ho-hum to a Kenyan threw me a bit. But that’s the point—it’s very hard for an outsider to predict what will fall flat and what will resonate. ( Three Men in a Boat ?)

Later in life, Ngugi discovered socialism, embraced Marx and Fanon, and even spent time in the Soviet Union, and his politics forced him to give up some authors that had once been dear to him. He adored Conrad as a student—he wrote his university thesis on Lord Jim and Nostromo and revered Conrad as an example of what non-native speakers of English could do with the language—but he later disavowed him for being too cynical about revolutionary activity. That may well have been the honorable thing to do, if the cause was dear enough to him, but it must have been a sacrifice.

But the opinions in his memoir are those of a teenage boy, which makes them immature but also very honest. He was not thinking of politics, just whether or not a book spoke to him. There are two lessons to be drawn from this: that, contra the canon warriors, sometimes smart people should be taken at their word when they say that a great work of literature just doesn’t speak to their cultural experience; and that this often has very little to do with whether or not the author looks like them.

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