So take a look at your bookshelves. Do you have all—better make that any—of the books on the Columbia University undergraduate core curriculum? It’s not perfect, but it’s as good a list of the canon of Western civilization as I know of.
Let’s take the 11 books on the syllabus for the spring 2012 semester: (1) Virgil’s Aeneid; (2) Ovid’s Metamorphoses; (3) Saint Augustine’s Confessions; (4) Dante’s The Divine Comedy; (5) Montaigne’s Essays; (6) Shakespeare’s King Lear; (7) Cervantes’s Don Quixote; (8) Goethe’s Faust; (9) Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; (10) Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment; (11) Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Step one: Order the ones you haven’t got today. (And get War and Peace, Great Expectations, and Moby-Dick while you’re at it.)
Step two: When vacation time comes around, tell the teenagers in your life you are taking them to a party. Or to camp. They won’t resist.
Step three: Drive to a remote rural location where there is no cell-phone reception whatsoever.
Step four: Reveal that this is in fact a reading party and that for the next two weeks reading is all you are proposing to do—apart from eating, sleeping, and talking about the books.
Welcome to Book Camp, kids.
Obviously Ferguson is joking about the particulars here — at least I hope so — but his general attitude here is common, lamentable, and just what I was trying to avoid in writing my recent book on reading. This is the eat-your-vegetables-dammit approach to reading with a vengeance, and in my judgment nothing could be better calculated to make people who are now indifferent to reading utterly hostile to it.
Does anyone who pauses to think for ten seconds think that you can take teenagers who rarely read and are addicted to texting, hand them the Aeneid, and sit back and watch them blossom into young intellectuals?
Nothing’s cheaper than positing (even in jest) simplistic solutions to immensely complex social problems — assuming that they are problems. Two questions I’d like to ask Niall Ferguson: What percentage of American teenagers should be expected to read the Aeneid? What percentage should be expected to enjoy it?