Reimagining the Western canon
Do we even need a canon?
The great books are those ones that we must read. They form the foundation of your appreciation of what great literature is. In the Western world, we have inherited centuries, millennia even, of literature. Some of this makes the cut. Some of this outlasts fads and fashions. It transcends the boundaries of time. This is the Western canon. All that’s good, and great, and true.
An educated person must tick several boxes. One of these, the most important, is to have read the great books.
Shakespeare, Kafka, Eliot, Woolf, Milton, Joyce all find themselves on this list of worthy literature. I’ve read some of them — but not all.
Does that disqualify me from talking about literature? Does that stop me from being able to enjoy the books I do read?
There is a problem with the canon. It is unwieldy. Collections of the traditional canon, for this I’m using the Great Books of the Western World as a guide, run to dozens of volumes (there are others out there, such as Harold Bloom’s list). Hundreds of books and plays. Once we learn to read, to really read, this pile is dumped in our laps. It comes with a sign: read this or else.
Collections of the canon cost around £1,000 on Amazon. It is expensive, intimidating, and even though it stretches to what must hundreds of thousands of pages, it includes both too much and not enough.
The idea of a canon emerged in the Western world. That original canon was not one we would recognise today. Medieval students studied the ancient masters. Cicero, Aristotle, Euclid, Sophocles and Thucydides made up their education. The contemporary and vernacular was at best second rate if not dismissed entirely.
That began to change in England in the late 17th century. It was the beginning of English global power and the emergence of the idea of the nation-state. That idea spawned another.
National culture and cultural identity were becoming increasingly noticeable. The educated middle class was emerging and growing, though without as much Latin or Greek as previous generations. They wanted to read something worthy and English.
Great essayists, the forerunners of blogs, were making their mark. The most famous of these was Richard Steele, who wrote and published The Spectator and The Tatler. In The Spectator, Steele compared Milton’s Paradise Lost to the ancient epics.
While he found some faults in the poem, he ranked it on the same level as Homer and Virgil. For a culture that had before appreciated only the venerable, the literature that had emerged from the enormous gap of time with its reputation still intact, to praise the (relatively) modern was a break. The fact that it was a Christian poem, as opposed to the paganism of the past, no doubt helped elevate it to forming the first part of the nascent English canon. Shakespeare, of course, was also added to this small list. The ancients still reigned but there was now the possibility of new entrants.
The canon grew over the centuries. More books were added. Names such as Pope, Swift, Sterne and Fielding joined the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as a growing number of English speakers. Years past and the canon grew. It stretched beyond the British Isles to take in French, America, Russian and German writers.
Still, they all had something in common. They were all white men. In the more inclusive culture after the Second World War, that began to change. Slowly there were rebels, dissenting voices that said more voices should be added. Woolf, Murdoch, Walcott, McCullers, Baldwin, Naipaul, Tagore, Marquez got the recognition their writing deserved.
After reading some of these masters, their voice and experience add new ways of understanding, thinking about and appreciating the whole breadth of human life. The canon is now more representative of the world we live in. That is a good thing. But it stretches and strains to try and cover every aspect of life. It has attempted to become an exhaustive list, rather than a core.
The list is huge. No one can read all of it. No one can take in all of it (except for Harold Bloom). It has become a checklist, one that can never be completed, and that size means it is failing to do its job.
Would it be better to abandon the idea of a canon? No. There are many benefits to having a recognised core of texts we should all be familiar with.
The Irish poet W. B. Yeats is definitely part of the canon. But it wasn’t until I had read some of his poems, most notably The Second Coming and Sailing to Byzantium, that I understood the influence he had. And what having a canon does for a culture.
I could see homages, little quotes, built into the titles and body of other works. Joan Didion’s collection of essays Slouching toward Bethlehem¸ steals its title from The Second Coming. Knowing that coloured my whole reading of that book.
Having a canon allows those books in it to act as the body language of literature. Not enough to be noticed all the time, but noticeable by its absence.
Slouching toward Bethlehem as a title told me enough to understand what Didion was trying to do with her work. It served as a three-word introduction to the collection. It was neat and elegant. It served its purpose perfectly.
The canon represents the critical and influential books of society. It provides the cultural foundation on which others can build. A canon is necessary, even just for university reading lists. Exploring the great works of the past allows people to build on it, enhances their reading of contemporary work, and allows people to talk with one another with a common understanding. A canon is needed.
The canon we have inherited is bloated. It tries to represent all our current culture rather than the main texts. To take even the field of literature and poetry, leaving alone film, music, and nonfiction, the time needed to get caught up, to even arrive at the conversation, is too much.
There are two ways of building a canon. You can make a reading list out of books that can’t, under any circumstances, be left out or you can create one based on what could be included, what is worthy to sit beside the other titles. We have been building our canon using the second definition. We should keep that. These are the masterpieces. But we should also make one using the first.
I don’t have the background to put that together. No one person does. It involves a conversation. Nor do I want it to be a project that returns the canon to its old unrepresentative roots. If nothing else, it wouldn’t be doing its job of allowing us to have a conversation.
A lot of discourse today revolves around oppression and exploitation. To talk about these things properly, we need Baldwin and Morrison. We need Rushdie and Naipaul.
The first book, though, will have to be the Bible. Even in an increasingly secular world, the Bible has informed so much of the cultural output of the past, of the language we use and how we think about morality. It is a given.
Selected works of Shakespeare are added to the list too. Not all of him, I don’t think reading Cymbeline adds much, but the significant plays. Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, should be enough to get people familiar with much of Shakespeare’s influence on our world.
Yeats, of course, would be part of it too. He allowed me to hear what Joan Didion was saying. Those three little words carried with the weight of allusion and influence. They spoke to me and made me listen with a true ear. That is the power of the canon.
Now it must regain that power. We must look at the canon we have constructed and see it is no longer fit for purpose. We must reduce it to something an inspired reader can get through. We must allow it to regain the power that it once had.
Thanks for reading, I’d love to hear what you think are the books that people have to read are, as well as if you disagree with any of my limited choices.