|Nineteenth century artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria |
by the German artist O. Von Corven
Public domain, Wikipedia
In our day, a librarian proposes that she is the one to judge, to do the winnowing: that she knows better than time, and that something more drastic than the library-sale practice of the culling of unread, inessential books is needed. Many applaud. But time winnows all things, and some day it will winnow us, including the librarian and the applauders and the current writers of books. Including me and including you. To usurp the work of time. It sounds fearsome, doesn't it? In fact, it is the work of hubris, a thing many classical works have warned us to avoid. But in striving to make libraries more open to a good cause--more writers of color, say--it appears that welcoming, open library borders swiftly turn into the desire to banish others.
Who needs to read these old white men, long dead? Who in the West needs the heritage passed down for centuries--who needs Ovid or Homer or the KJB or Chaucer or Shakespeare or Milton? All those outdated foundational ideals (not always met, but yet our ideals), like the idea that every single human wandering the face of the earth was made in the likeness of God and so is valuable, no matter the sex or color and however much he or she mars that image... Why, we can send our children to be English majors at fine, much-heralded institutions where they can duck hearing those voices, these days. So who needs them?
I do. Young writers do. And that means young writers of any sex, any color. Do not deprive young writers of the legacy of the past because whether they like or dislike writers like Dickinson and Melville and Shakespeare, they need to climb up on their shoulders. They need to read with freedom, with no holds barred. And that reading should include not just people of color and people from fascinating and far-off countries but also those pesky dead white Western males like Donne and Herbert.
What results from the ability to put words together with high power and beauty is the rightful inheritance of us all, writers and readers alike. Despite the unchosen elements of race and sex that come with birth, writers are joined as one in the love of putting words together in the most stellar order, in striving to make something meaningful and marvelous where nothing was before. That is the work of the creator, to bring truth and beauty out of the welter that surrounds us.