Kulcherel Littorasy, Part Duh

I’d read most of the books on the first half of Jason Jewell’s cultural literacy test, but I predicted I would do worse on the second half.

Turns out I was wrong; the second half is out now, and in fact I did about as well on it as on the first one. But that’s largely because a) it’s heavily weighted toward pre-1945 fiction, and b) the post-1945 stuff includes a high percentage of science fiction. (To the best of my recollection only about three of these books were assigned to me in school.)

Peto - In the LibraryOnce again I have to grump about the cultural-conservative “signing statements.” It would be nice to be given some actual examples of “practically valueless” works that are “praised and showered with awards” by the academic left; I regard this claim as largely a right-wing myth. Certainly many of the left’s beloved race-and-gender writers – W.E.B. Du Bois, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Olive Schreiner (a favourite of Benjamin Tucker’s, by the way), Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, etc. – are damn good writers, and seem to be excluded from this list more for reasons of right-wing political correctness than on the basis of their merits. (Zora Neale Hurston, for example, is another race/gender author who’s popular with the academic left; but because she’s a libertarian she makes it onto Jewell’s list while the others don’t. Now c’mon; socialists kan rite gud too.)

A few more quibbles:

Why on earth is Huckleberry Finn missing? Jewell includes Tom Sawyer, and claims that it’s a frequent target of banning; maybe it is, but Huckleberry Finn is much more so, and is in any case a better book. (I’m almost tempted to think Jewell has confused the two.)

Chesterton is a delightful writer, but The Man Who Was Thursday is one of his least interesting novels. The Ball and the Cross, The Flying Inn, and The Lion of Notting Hill (inanely published as The Napoleon of Notting Hill) are much better.

I find the comparison between Wilde and Proust somewhat baffling; they don’t seem all that much alike to me. Okay, so they’re both turn-of-the-century figures, they’re both gay, and they both write beautifully, but that seems a rather superficial basis for lumping them together: Wilde sketches in quick, brilliant strokes, while Proust is an artist of meticulous detail.

Asimov is good with clever ideas, but he’s not a great writer; if you’re looking for serious literary merit in classic science fiction you’d do better with, say, Bradbury or LeGuin.

The notion that Interview with the Vampire is a “pale imitation” of Dracula is pretty silly (will anyone claim that Stoker is better at characterisation and dialogue than Rice? the only good dialogue in all of Dracula is Van Helsing’s “King Laugh” speech) – as is Jewell’s disapproval of Interview’s “moral ambiguity” (if you’re uncomfortable with moral ambiguity you’re going to have a hard time enjoying much of western literature). (For my own take on Anne Rice’s vampires – and a comparison with Chesterton! – see here and here.)

27 Responses to Kulcherel Littorasy, Part Duh

  1. william April 10, 2009 at 6:15 pm #

    Bradbury’s overrated crap, not to mention an authoritarian, his only relevance was obtained through pandering to the non-SF literary elite as the “good” SF writer, held up in order to hold the rest down. Hackery pure and simple. What little vaguely redeeming he wrote has been absolutely eclipsed since and further, no matter what metric you measure them by you can still find contemporaries of his that wrote such unarguably better (ie Delany).

    • Roderick April 10, 2009 at 9:26 pm #

      Your mileage may vary. Bradbury’s is some of the most hauntingly beautiful writing I’ve read in science fiction (and I’ve read a lot of science fiction).

  2. dennis April 10, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    I thought the idea of Rand’s “strident atheism” being problematic was chuckle-worthy.

    • Roderick April 10, 2009 at 11:07 pm #

      It’s actually a bit like Rand herself (albeit in reverse), who would “warn” her readers about religious content in books she was otherwise recommending.

      If one hopes to get much out of reading classic literature, strong discomfort with either pro-religious or anti-religious content is going to be an obstacle.

    • Robert Paul April 10, 2009 at 11:45 pm #

      Indeed. Sure, right-libertarians, *that* was Rand’s biggest problem.

  3. dennis April 10, 2009 at 11:52 pm #

    One wonders if Rand would have revered Hugo and Dostoevsky if she had first encountered them later in life.

  4. Aster April 11, 2009 at 3:15 am #

    This is a list of classics written by a premodernist who supports and defines Western civilisation by Christianity (and his particular cultural, political, and class parochialisms). What would a list of Western classics chosen by the standards of a Hellenic view of humanity look like? (It certainly wouldn’t be a list only of *Western* classics.)

    Jewell thinks literature should instill a known set of intrinsic values and support his social structure, whose order is blessed by the same intrinsicism. I think it should lay out observations and possibilities from which a reader might explore, judge, and learn. This is not relativism- it is a claim that people should learn to think and live and can only do so if they have both the means and the freedom to try alternatives out for themselves. And this kind of approach would probably generate a significantly different list of books.

    As long as libertarians keep these kind of cultural priorities their movement will remain on balance a liability to human progress. The libertarian ideal should have been about Socrates- a perfected and more proud Socrates, as a way of life open to all, and with a perfected set of social conditions fit for him. Today it is (for the most part) instead about Christ- and the social conditions it promises are appropriately Medieval.

    _Ancestral Shadows_ sounds fascinating.

    • Roderick April 11, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

      Today it is (for the most part) instead about Christ

      My impression is that an emphasis on Christianity is still a minority position among libertarians.

    • dennis April 11, 2009 at 11:07 pm #

      I would stake a small sum on the proposition that libertarians are less likely to be Christians or even theists generally than any other political philosophical orientation, even Marxists.

      • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 1:20 am #

        I think they’d rank high on that list, but higher than Marxists? or social anarchists (assuming you’re not including them as libertarians)? I’m skeptical.

        (I realise there are a lot of Marxists who are technically adherents of Catholicism [e.g. in Latin America] or Anglicanism [in England] or Quakerism or Unitarianism [in the U.S.], but in many such cases they are actually atheists and have a nonstandard [well, in the case of Unitarianism it’s no longer nonstandard] understanding of what membership in their denomination means.)

  5. Neil Parille April 11, 2009 at 3:17 pm #

    Prof. Long,

    Have you considered writing a list of the 100 most important books on intellectualy history (at least to libertarians)?

    -Neil Parille

    • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 1:25 am #

      Well, as I said before, I’m not good at constructing “best” or “most” or “favourite” lists. Some Randians might say that’s because my psycho-epistemology is so screwed up that I’m unable or unwilling to identify a proper hierarchy of values. But I prefer to think that that’s because I’m such a good marginalist that I can make sense of rank-ordering a particular unit of diamonds against a particular unit of water in a particular situation, but not diamonds versus water generally. So, e.g., I can say whether I’d rather listen to some Mozart or some Chopin right now, but I have a harder time ranking Mozart against Chopin in the abstract.

      I could probably come up with a list of 100 good books on intellectual history.

  6. Brother Mark, Amen April 11, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    Ha! Lew changed Kinsella’s “LeftLib WIN” to “Corporation-Bashing WIN” 😉


  7. Nick Manley April 11, 2009 at 4:02 pm #

    Yeah, Aster. I agree with Roderick. I barely ever run into a Christian Libertarian.

    Lewrockwell.com may be the most read Libertarian site, but that doesn’t mean everyone who reads it is a cultural conservative. I check it sometimes and am clearly not one.

  8. Tracy Saboe April 11, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    I’m a Christian Libertarian.

    Since the vast majority of people in American at least Nominally call themselves Christian, we need to make sure we’re not antagonistic towards them.

    The early Christians (the 1st 3 centuries or so) were pacifists. war was inherently immoral — even for defensive purposes. St Francis or Accessi, and Thomas Aquanis were both very libertarian, as were the late Spanish Scholastics.

    It’s important to engage these people (like The Acton Institute does) to help show them that Christianity is inherently very anti-state. At least, when you actually read the Bible.

    What other religion tells a people “You don’t want a King, he’s going to steal your crops, and send your young men to die in war.”

    Has it been coopted by tyrants? Yes. What Religion hasn’t. Is the current establishment of most demoninations currently very statist? Usually. But that’s because they don’t teach and practice what the Bible actually says about many things. It’s important to engage them. Learn how to speak their language. And show them that Christianity doesn’t support coersion.


  9. Nick Manley April 11, 2009 at 9:33 pm #


    I’d like to clarify that I don’t see cultural conservative and Christian Libertarian as interchangeable — although, I would characterize Lewrockwell.com as home to culturally conservative sentiment.

    • Roderick April 11, 2009 at 9:47 pm #

      Ditto. I have no problem with Christianity per se (in fact I think it’s mostly right — as I interpret it, of course!). But I’m not a fan of some of the cultural attitudes that often accompany it. (Of course some of the cultural attitudes that often accompany secularism are no picnic either.)

  10. Anna Morgenstern April 12, 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    Just to add my 2 cents, I think Manalive was Chesterton’s greatest book, but it tends not to be read very often anymore, even by people who read things like Chesterton.
    As for a more modern, but widely accepted as “great”, work, I’d have to add Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which sneaks in a rather Hayekian (ala the “Fatal Conceit”) criticism of WWII and the post-war world, but does so in a pretty subtle way.

    • Roderick April 12, 2009 at 11:45 pm #

      I confess I haven’t read Manalive!

    • Ray Mangum April 16, 2009 at 7:35 pm #

      Pynchon’s massive doorstop books win all the critical praise, but my favorite remains the slim “Crying of Lot 49”.

  11. Matt_R.L. April 12, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    The absence of any Vonnegut (whether to include Slaughterhouse Five [more influential] or Cat’s Cradle [better literature] is worth debating) was striking. That aside, both lists were rather good in my opinion, though the arbitrariness of the number ‘100’ made the second-list a bit self-serving. That is to say, I don’t think many of the books on the second list are really essential for cultural literacy; perhaps 25 of the 50 modern works listed are superfluous, while I feel only 10ish of the traditional works to be so.

  12. Gene April 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm #

    I endorse the poet Kenneth Rexroth’s list:

    The inclusion of Asimov in Jewell’s elicited a hearty laugh. As a writer I can’t help but think craft plays an important role as a criterion in selection!

    • Roderick April 13, 2009 at 11:29 pm #

      One feature of these lists is that I hardly ever see something on one that I think shouldn’t be there. (“Hardly ever,” not “never.”) The problem is almost always what they leave out, not what they include.

      So the best policy is probably to pick several lists from different perspectives (some conservative, some postmodernist, some eurocentric, some multicultural, etc.), and just read lots of stuff from all of them. You’re unlikely to go far wrong.

  13. Ray Mangum April 16, 2009 at 7:44 pm #

    I’m not surprised to see Tolkien on the list, but Lovecraft? Sure, I have a soft spot in my heart for H.P., but I wouldn’t claim anyone needs to read “Herbert West- Reanimator” to be culturally literate. Interesting there’s no caveat about his anti-Christian outlook.

    The postwar section is pretty slim pickings. I know more recent works are more difficult for such a list, but I would definitely put “The Crying of Lot 49”, which I already mentioned, and maybe Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”, definitely some Alan Moore. I doubt many people share this opinion, but personally like “From Hell” at least as much as “Watchmen”. Borges’ “Ficciones” should be on there, as well as Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary” and some of his stories. I better stop, because I could go on and on.

    • Ray Mangum April 16, 2009 at 7:47 pm #

      Let me amend what I said about Lovecraft. If you want to know about 20th century pop culture (and if you want to know something about 20th century culture, you should know a bit about both high modernism and pop culture), youshould know about Lovecraft.

      • Ray Mangum April 16, 2009 at 8:00 pm #

        Also, the “Reanimator” movie is awesome!


  1. The Greatest Libertarian Books — And Other Reading Suggestions - June 27, 2023

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