25 January 2014

Battle of the Books

Illustration from Jonathan Swift's 'Battle of the Books' (from 'A Tale of a Tub'), 1704.

In my leisurely stroll through Matthew Battles' Library: An Unquiet History, I've just finished the chapter on Swift's fanciful story of the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns-emblematic of the 17th-18th century public debate over whether modern learning had superseded classical tradition. Here we see one era of books jousting against another, as if the two ages of learning could not occupy the same space (notice the spider and the bee in the upper left). While our present age of enlightenment and 'universal tolerance' leaves more room for the coexistence of modernity and antiquity, we still see the creeping edge of plenty contemporary faddishness competing for, and in many cases, displacing, essential parts of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. It is becoming increasingly common for students to progress through high school and college without reading large chunks of Shakespeare, Dante, or even staples of American literary tradition, like Walt Whitman. Sometimes it leaves one to wonder if modernity has indeed won--not for its merits and might but instead because of its novelty.

Read more about Battle of the Books here.

No comments:

Post a Comment