All books have blind spots. All eras do. We can look back and spy past prejudices, ridiculous and discredited in hindsight. We see their mistaken premises and faulty logic. We can reject geocentric astronomy, the rooting of disease in the “influenza” of the planets, and the race-based classification of the human and the “subhuman.” We see the futility of phrenology and cringe at doctors who bled their patients to cure fever. We laugh at the “divine right of kings” and wonder why Salem thought it wise to hunt witches. But should we avoid books whose authors accepted what passed for wisdom in their own time?
Several reasons support wide reading of old, even flawed, books.
Censoring history helps nobody. TinTin might stereotype and degrade the Congolese. That might be reason to keep his African escapades from toddlers, who surely are not ready to learn of King Leopold’s reign of terror in the Belgian Congo. But those who are mature ought to know the hard realities of history. We shouldn’t erase the Trojan War because it was bloody, just as we shouldn’t forget Jim Crow laws because they are troubling.
We benefit from the clarity arising from past mistakes. We can learn to avoid old errors, of course, but “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” sweeps away hubris, as well. Meeting dead assumptions—whether they are disproven or merely discarded—confronts us with the realization that we may have our own unexamined suppositions. What premises do we consider self-evident that earlier generations scorned? Perhaps our own generation’s ideological fads are not so permanent as they seem.
Reading classics is humbling.
Where does humility (personal, cultural, national, generational) come from if not from experience?