Breakfast and Books: The Challenge of Choosing
Why do we think anyone can pick the perfect book list?
Think about breakfast. You probably had to choose what you had for breakfast this morning. You opened your refrigerator or your cupboard and looked at what you had and made a selection. You probably considered the flavors of the foods or how complicated they would be to make. You used prior information to group them based on your assumptions about them and then identify which groups and subgroups would best meet your morning food desires.
But can we use the same decision making process when building a literary canon? Can we pick what books to read and what books to hold valuable the same we choose our breakfast in the morning?
The short answer is “No.” We cannot just open our libraries and pull out what we want to throw in our canon. Not unless we have libraries of infinite space and infinite resources that contain every text ever written. Oh, and we will have had to read them all and have a perfect understanding of the definition and purpose of literature.
So why do we try so hard to create lists of the best or most important or most valuable books of all time? The answer likely stems from our very human desire to sort everything in our own lives. Humans process information by categorizing sensations and reacting based on the applied labels. In the case of reading, it is much easier to accept that a poem or a novel is good if it is included on a list titled “The Best Books of All Time.” Consider a recommendation from a friend: if you trust that your friend has good taste, you are likely to assume that their suggestion is good and worthwhile.
Of course, turning to and accepting any list similar to our imaginary “The Best…,” reveals a further reality of contemporary culture’s effect on the individual: the desire to maximize the value of time. When delving through the mountains of content on the Internet, you are more likely to find articles or lists explaining how or guiding you to improve your life by making it more fulfilling or rewarding. Often writers suggest that it is essential to take the time to read a good book. But what constitutes a good book? Surely, these writers could not mean any old book because then how would you know you were gaining the ultimate fulfillment?
Unfortunately, most of us have lost the confidence to choose a good book for ourselves out this fear that the book we choose might not make our lives better in the ways we would like it to. So, we look to what the experts, the critics have to say. We let them choose for us because we recognize, at some level, that we know less about books than we do about breakfast. In letting go of our right to choose, we empower the critics under the assumption that they know, that they know all there is to know about what makes good literature so damn good.
But, if we step back and consider for a moment the reasons why we can’t create a literary canon, then we will see that these same limitations ultimately apply to the best critics of the Western Tradition, from T. S. Eliot to Harold Bloom. None of them have read every work ever published and none of them are such masters of taste that their preferences can possibly apply to every possible reader. So, for the most part these men, because so often they are men, pick the texts they like, the texts that they relate to, and they tell us that these are the best choices out of the history of the West.
Of course, they don’t stick around after making their suggestion to see how you like it; they have to go eat their favorite breakfast.