At the urging of a friend, I finally moved Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to the top of my reading list, and then read it in a few hours this week. People had been recommending for some time that I read it, and, well, there are just too many damn good books in the world, so I didn’t get to it until now.
If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s lovely prose, spare and driven, and with complexity beneath the surface that I’ll be exploring in subsequent readings.
And plus, every time a person reads it, a nut gets its wings. After finishing the novel, I recalled an entertaining post Michael Bérubé wrote at Crooked Timber, with one of his trademark post titles dropping coy references to hip and current musical groups so that the young people will find it relevant. The post discussed the usual bleatings by Conservative Academics that the Literary Canon is being eroded by the relentless inclusion of writers who have the temerity to be not-white, or not-male, or not-dead-since-before-the-bleaters-were-born, or some combination of the three. It’s an old argument, an evergreen, and yet no matter how many times the argument is made it never gets any more justifiable. Or for that matter more interesting.
Michael quotes someone quoting someone, a two-level quotation, in this case Rachel Donadio, in the New York Times Sunday Book Review on September 16, quoting Boston College PoliSci professor Alan Wolfe:
One can debate the changing fortunes of writers on the literary stock market, but it’s clear that today the emphasis is on the recent past— at the expense, some argue, of historical perspective. As Alan Wolfe puts it, “Everyone’s read ‘Things Fall Apart’ ”—Chinua Achebe’s novel about postcolonial Nigeria—“but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”
Michael goes on to advance a very good argument that the Canon is not a zero-sum enterprise, not a bookshelf of fixed length onto which one can pile only so many Great Books without worthy ones falling off the edges, as is usually the case at my house. And then follows a thread of 139 comments from Crooked Timber’s very well-read commentariat, a couple of which argue with Michael that their kids won’t read any book they’re not forced to on pain of failing grades, seeming to thus imply that this is a failing of the school.
I went back to that article this afternoon and read it, all 139 comments of it, and came away shaking my head. Because Donadio’s passage right there contains the seeds of its own irrefutable rebuttal, and no one there caught it.
Consider a better-known bit of Canon fodder. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is part of the Literary Canon, in most listings of the Canon I have seen. It is a rich retelling of the Mississippi-River-rafting adventures of the title character and his companion, Jim, during the time of the Great Depression, replete with metaphor and visceral imagery and dialect rendered with an expert ear. And because Huck Finn is part of the Canon, almost everyone reading this will either have read it or pretended to in order not to have felt left out of a conversation. Most people in the US at least have an idea of what the book is about.
Thus anyone reading this post with a tiny bit of attention to detail will likely be scratching her head at the thing I just said about the Great Depression, because the novel is set at least 70 years earlier, before the Civil War and Emancipation. The time frame is, in fact, crucial to the plot of the book, seeing as Jim is on the lam (or, spoiler alert! at least thinks he is) from what in these days of heightened sensitivity to the plight of the rich and evil are probably more correctly called the slave-owning community.
One could read a couple of interesting levels of meaning, were one inclined to make compost of Freudian slips, into Donadio’s epenthetic explanation that Achebe’s novel is set in “postcolonial Nigeria.” To the imperialists, Things probably did seem to Fall Apart when Nigeria achieved Home Rule in 1960. But the book is in fact set at the very beginning of the British colonization of Nigeria, in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Donadio made approximately the same magnitude of error as would be required to assert that Jim and Huck were running away to join the fight against Franco.
No one reasonably expects your typical American to know the dates of conquest or liberation of African countries. You’d have more luck heading to the hardware store, buying a pound of roofing nails, and then coaxing the nails to discuss Mamet. But the plot of Achebe’s book— or the second half of it, anyway — revolves around the dissolution of culture ways caused by the British Invasion.
To allege that the book covers “postcolonial Nigeria” is to say you have not read the book.
My point here is not to make light of Michael for missing that note. No, I am saving that for later, over coffee perhaps, preferably with an appreciative live audience involved. Nor am I chiding the Crooked Timber commenters for failing to pick up on Donadio’s mistake. Really, catching that kind of thing is more like proofreading than criticism, and some of the commenters in that thread could out-erudite me right into the ground on most topics.
But the editors of the New York Times Sunday Book Review would never have let that pass, had they read the book. And they did, for two weeks, if one believes the correction at the base of the article. It’s clear the correction was made as a result of hearing from the readership.
Thus I infer that no one on the Sunday Book Review’s editorial staff had read the book.
Thus I conclude that Things Fall Apart is not, in fact, being widely taught as part of an oppressive left-wing literary junta occupying what was once a free and august Canon of Great Works.
But it ought to be. Even if it knocks John Knowles off the other end of that all-too-short shelf.