Oddly enough, people have always distrusted the classics, but it is now publicly acceptable to take pride in such distrust. We all dislike intimidation, so we worry about being overwhelmed by these tomes above which halos hover as over the graves of the recently sainted, because we wrongly believe they are fields full of esoteric knowledge worse than nettles, of specialized jargon, seductive rhetoric, and swarms of stinging data, and that the purpose of all this unpleasantness is to show us up, put us in our place, make fun of our lack of understanding; but the good books are notable for their paucity of information—a classic is as careful about what it picks up as about what it puts down; it introduces new concepts because fresh ideas are needed; and only if the most ordinary things are exotic is it guilty of a preoccupation with the out-of-the-way, since the ordinary, the everyday, is their most concentrated concern: What could be more familiar than a child rolling for fun down a grassy slope—that is, when seen by Galileo, a body descending an inclined plane? What could be more commonplace than Bertrand Russell’s penny, lying naked on an examining table, awaiting the epistemologist’s report on the problems of its perception? What could be less distinguished a subject for Maynard Keynes’s ruminations on the source of its value than such a modest coin? Why should the question—What good is that?—alarm us, or why, in an age when most of the world worships money but calls its chosen God Father instead of Chairman, Lord instead of Coach, Most High instead of Star, should we shy from the same questions Plato asked, and not ask them about our business, about our love affairs, about our lip-served gods, about democracy?
From William H. Gass’s “To A Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics”; collected in A Temple of Texts (Knopf, 2006). For fun, pretend you are the young friend in the title.