- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Summer traditionally is the time for light, vacation reading, but Max Rudin is betting Americans will spend days at the beach — and other times, too — doing some serious reading.
Mr. Rudin is the publisher of Library of America, a nonprofit, Manhattan-based advocate of the classics that ensures such timeless works as William Faulkners "Absalom, Absalom!" and Herman Melvilles "Moby Dick" stay in print.
"Whats interesting is there are certain subjects that people will go back to," he said. Certain periods of American history — the Civil War and World Wars I and II — "are always inexhaustibly interesting and important. You cant understand who we are without understanding them."
Since its founding in 1979, the Library of America has published more than 130 "authoritative texts" of classic works — meaning texts as the authors originally intended for them to be read. The organization sells about 250,000 volumes a year, mostly to individual readers, although libraries and universities are also customers. The hardback books retail for $30 to $45 and are printed on acid-free paper to survive for generations.
But who reads history and the classics these days? Apparently many do.
The New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list brims with historically themed books.
David McCulloughs "John Adams," a biography of the second president, is at the top, followed by Hampton Sides "Ghost Soldiers," a story of U.S. Army soldiers attempting to rescue prisoners of war in the Philippines in 1945. Several other titles focus on events surrounding the Great Depression, the Civil War and World War II.
"John Adams" ranks high among Amazon.coms best sellers, along with J.R.R. Tolkiens "Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit."
Brad Wilson, the executive director of the National Association of Scholars, says classics must be preserved, revered and read because they speak to the most fundamental issues of humanity.
"The classics invite the reader into a world in which the perennial issues of human life are most deeply considered, where the fundamental human alternatives are ferreted out," he said, "where the most important question for human beings — 'What is the nature of the good life? — is most thoroughly explored and revealed."
Winfield Myers of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who previously taught in the Great Books Program for the University of Michigans Honors College, says classics take readers outside the confines of their time, allowing them to benefit from the knowledge of those who came before us.
"The classics release us from our own small worlds by exposing us to superior minds and talents," he says. "They are the only escape, intellectually, from the tyranny of provincialism — from the shortsightedness and self-absorption that result from not being aware of how little we know."
Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson says, "Young people are hardly reading at all" and most definitely not the classics.
He is especially worried that colleges and universities are dumbing down curricula. A 1987 study by his National Association of Scholars showed that just four of the 25 schools polled still required English majors to take a course in Shakespeare. In 1964, the association found that 12 of the schools required courses on the Bard.
A similar study commissioned in 1996 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni shows that of 70 major colleges and universities studied, 23 still had a Shakespeare requirement for English majors.
Not all reprints of the classics are created equal. Plans to rewrite C.S. Lewis "Chronicles of Narnia," stripped of all Christian references, have raised the ire of Lewis scholars and fans who say Christianity is integral to the original works. The publisher, HarperCollins, wants to profit from the rich market for childrens fantasy created by the Harry Potter books, but says the Christian references have to go in order to expand the market. New Narnia novels will be written by unidentified authors to "fill in the gaps" between previous Narnia books, and will be marketed alongside new plush toys, said the National Post, a Toronto newspaper.
Nevertheless, Dale Allender, associate executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, says the classics arent "anywhere close to dying out."
"Whats more important than reading one particular classic is reading very, very widely," he said. "We should dabble in [the classics], but we should also read contemporary works. A truly literate student or citizenry reads from a variety of genres, time periods, canons, etc."
Jim Twitchell, a professor of English at the University of Florida, says classics are "interesting, historically informative, intellectually dense and wonderfully rewarding." However, given the subjectivity of the term, it is unnecessary for people to feel obligated to read works deemed "classics" by others.
"I think you can live a rich and full life and never read a sentence of 'Moby Dick," he says. "I think your life might be a bit more interesting if youre exposed to these books, but I dont think it makes you a better person."
"It makes complete and utter sense to me that 18-year-olds would be bored by having to read 'Moby Dick. Theres something absolutely normal about them saying, 'Yuck, why am I being coerced into reading this stuff?"
He suggests such readers are not ready for the classics, but they might rediscover the books when they are older.
Mr. Wilson suggests that people who read little except contemporary mystery authors such as Mary Higgins Clark try classic mystery writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. Those who adore politics should immerse themselves in the writings of the 15th-century Italian statesman Niccolo Machiavelli.
"[Delving into the classics] requires a suspension of laziness," he says. "It requires you to say, 'This time, Im going to give it my full attention. Try it, youll like it."

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