Reading the Canon

There were lots of interesting comments on my post from yesterday about Seneca’s advice for reading — thank you readers! I wanted to pick up on a few ideas here, one of which Jenclair pointed out, which is that the publishing environment we have here today is surely very, very far from what Seneca experienced. But I couldn’t really tell you what type and amount of reading material was available in his day, and I wish I could. What in the world would he (and others from ancient times) make of the abundance of books we enjoy today? When he says “a multitude of books only gets in one’s way,” what does he mean by a “multitude”? That he feels anxious about the effects of having a multitude of books available shows that the similar worries we have today are nothing new at all.

The other thing I wanted to consider was the issue of the canon; some people felt we should read largely from the canon and others that more variety was better. I liked Hepzibah’s questions on the subject: “who does get to decide what is canonized and what is not? What makes one author more worthy than another?” Very good questions indeed. It’s because of questions like these that I am suspicious of the whole idea of the canon. Danielle’s question is relevant too: “If Seneca were here today do you think many women authors would make his cut?” I’m guessing they wouldn’t.

I don’t think that canons get created solely on the basis of literary merit, although it would be nice if they were — but even here we’re on shaky ground because I think definitions of literary merit shift over time. What people valued in the 18C, for example, isn’t what we value today. I think what ends up in the canon gets there partly because of aesthetic merit, however it gets defined at any particular time, and partly because of publishing trends; political and social forces (racism and sexism, for example); literary scholarship, created by people with biases and blind spots; the literary context, i.e. what other people were doing at the time that readers can later identify as a trend that then becomes a movement and is taught as such; educational trends, meaning what sorts of texts educators want to teach at a particular time; and surely a host of other factors unrelated to merit.

Canons also have a self-perpetuating factor to them, meaning that works that are perceived as important get passed on and on, not necessarily because they are “great” works of literature, but because they are what’s taught and what the people coming before us knew. I realize this is beginning to sound circular, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between the canon defined as a collection of the best literature that’s out there and the canon defined as “the things people have paid most attention to in the past.” I think this second definition is a more accurate description of what we are referring to when we mention the canon; I don’t think the canon defined in the first way really exists.

The marginal figures are the interesting ones to think about — why is Walter Scott in and out of the canon? Or James Fenimore Cooper? Or Aphra Behn? Or Mary Shelley? Writers like these make it clear, I think, that the canon is a shifty, uncertain thing, always subject to debate and controversy.


Filed under Books, Reading

14 responses to “Reading the Canon

  1. What I find interesting about this debate is its relation to the debate between relativism and objectivism. If one rejects the idea that some books are objectively better than others, then the canon makes no sense, and those who promulgate it are, at best, blind followers, or at worst, subjective and chauvinistic manipulators of taste. But if some books really are better than others, it raises delicate issues about those who prefer inferior literature. Most of us would rather not go there, and so the debate stalls.

    I think it is worth noting that the scholars who come up with lists of great works are not only the most qualified to make those choices, they have actually read all the works in question and know what they are talking about. Do we? I sure don’t. But I like to think I can recognize who does.

    It’s not a perfect system, but what do we expect? A perfect canon list delivered by God on stone tablets? It’s likely the current canon lists are the best humanity has ever had. We should celebrate them, not skewer them with vague, unsubstantiated criticisms.


    If anyone wants to see a variety of canon lists, try Rob Teeter’s Great Books Lists. The FAQ is particularly pertinent to this discussion.


  2. I think you’re right about relativism and objectivism — and I’ll add that although I’m critical of the idea of the canon, I’m not a complete relativist either. I do think it’s possible to say one text is better than another, although I’m not sure that judgment is going to hold at all times in all places. But there is a place for making aesthetic judgments, and those judgments are valuable — I do want to hear opinions on what is worth spending my time on, after all. I just reserve the right to treat those judgments with a little skepticism.

    How one thinks about this debate is also connected to how one thinks about authority. I like to rebel against authority (at times, at least — although the truth of the matter is that as a teacher and as the holder of a Ph.D. I can’t really talk about rebelling against authority as I’m supposed to be one myself) and so I’m not necessarily going to buy what authority figures tell me. See my Virginia Woolf quotation to see what my attitude toward authority is!

    Thanks for the links!


  3. Canon discussons are always interesting and always seem to get people excited. I think I lean toward your point of view Dorothy. It would be nice if there could be a definite and unchanging canon but times change and the things that resonant for readers change, thus the canon seems to be ever changing too. There are definitely works, however, that are always in the canon–Homer and Shakespeare for starters–and, I think always should be. Since I also balk at authority, I view the canon as a great list of suggested reading, time-tested and guaranteed at the very least to be thought-provoking.


  4. Excited? Who’s excited?!? I’m *not* EXCITED!!!!!

    Dorothy, you bring up a good point about authority. I think Canadians in general have more respect for authority, which perhaps comes from our strong British heritage. We’re also a more cooperative society, less fiercely individualistic than Americans. It seems to me more fruitful to give the Harold Blooms of the world the benefit of the doubt, try it their way, and see how it works, rather than never try it because of misgivings and never find out if they were right.

    And yes, I noticed the Woolf quote! πŸ˜€


  5. Sylvia – I thought your comment about Canadians being “less fiercely individualistic than Americans” was amusing. When I am in the presence of Canadian friends, some Japanese people will ask us about Canadian society and American society. I used to answer, “On the surface things look pretty much the same in either country.”

    Because of violently opposed reactions, my response is now to wait silently and let the Canadians field the question. While independence is grilled into us at an early age, I think Canadians get fiercely independent when they are described as being similar to America. (Or worse yet, to be described as “an extension of America”.)


  6. Oh, I just love that: “the canon is a shifty, uncertain thing…” And I’m very interested in this idea of a multitude of books getting in the way. I’ve been thinking lately (as I’ve spent a little bit of time packing a multitude of books) how much simpler life might be if I even learned to pare down my reading choices to, say, 100 books guaranteed to please and enlighten me that I just read and re-read, since books always change with re-readings. However, if I were to only choose 100, what about all those other books out there guaranteed to please and enlighten me that I never get to read? And, then, am I not creating my own canon?

    P.S. Looking forward to seeing you on Sunday (and you’ll get to meet other blogging members of my family).


  7. I respect, enjoy, and appreciate the canon. While some books have shifted on and off the list, we have to admit that there is a reason for most of them being there. Unlike many who have protested against the canon, I am very fond of Bloom and of most of the authors that remain steadily in that still valuable list. That doesn’t mean that I’ve liked every book and/or author that has been included–you can keep The Ambassadors (although I have to admit that I’m glad I read it). I liked Moby Dick, although many (ahem) don’t care for it.

    I still adhere to the Italo Calvino description of a classic: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Seneca is still vital and Shakespeare and Austen. I’ve never thought of “the canon” as authority but, as Stefanie commented, a “great reading list,” I have used it as such since high school. I love lists including
    “The Great Books” lists and have visited the site Sylvia mentions frequently.

    That being said, I still enjoy novels by authors that I know will not be read in ten year, twenty years. I enjoy fluff and sometimes crave it. I want a varied diet of what is edifying and what is simply entertaining.


  8. This is always an interesting discussion. It seems the experts don’t always agree on what is “the best”. I’ve been discovering that authors I thought were THE authors to read are not necessarily studied anymore, and that they come in and out of vogue. I do try and read books that are on those lists, but that is probably only a small portion of what I read. I can’t help myself–I like what is new and shiny sometimes as much as what is old and respected. I pick and choose depending on what I need from literature at different times in my life.


  9. Indeed, Bikkuri, Canadians are proud of what makes us different from Americans, but not just for the sake of being different. We’re actually better than Americans.



  10. Stefanie — I like your idea of the canon as “suggested reading” — and of course it matters who’s making the suggestion!

    Sylvia — I like the idea of a more cooperative society, I really do, but my reaction to your Harold Bloom comment was something like “Harold Bloom!!! What an ass!” Sorry πŸ™‚ But you’re right that it makes sense to at least consider his point of view and others like him.

    Hmmm … I have no idea how to address the next commenter, how to reproduce that name … but I do like your comment on Canada and the US!

    Emily — I’m looking forward to seeing you too! I think I’d be content with 100 books or so if I weren’t so aware of all the other ones available … it’s that knowledge that makes sticking to a small number so hard.

    Jenclair — I like that definition by Calvino too, although what fits that definition is up for debate isn’t it? I’m someone who reads a lot in the “canon,” though, so I do agree with some of the points pro-canon people have made; I just prefer to think of the word “canon” in quotation marks πŸ™‚

    Danielle — from what I see you read quite a few classics and challenging books, and I wouldn’t ask more than that of anybody, that they give different kinds of works a try.


  11. Sylvia, I will have to admit Canadians are superior. For example, you have been able to mint a successful dollar coin; whereas, America has failed multiple times: Eisenhower, Susan B. Anthony, Sacajawea, and now the (dead) Presidents series.

    Kind of stretching the canon topic. What about non-English works? For example, Soseki’s “Ten Nights of Dreams” – a work I could read over and over, getting a different experience each time – or “Don Quixote”, which I think is on your reading list. Can foreign language works be canonized; and, more importantly, should they be read in their original form or translated? I find that non-European languages tend to be overlooked, and almost always get published in translated form.


  12. Dorothy, I agree wholeheartedly that Harold Bloom is an ass, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about the classics.

    Bikkuri, not only can we mint a fine dollar coin, it is now equal in value to the greenback!

    There are a huge number of non-English (and even non-Western) works in what we call the Western canon. If you look at the much-maligned Mr. Bloom’s gigantic canon list, you’ll see it is extremely inclusive.

    Still, no one can deny that Western culture has produced the greatest quantity of fine art, with the greatest influence and reach. The wealth of colonialism and slavery (and just plain domestic exploitation) is obviously behind much of it, but we can’t take anything away from Western artists because of that. At least I can’t. I will always admire Michelangelo even if he was paid from indulgences.

    I don’t think we have any choice but to read in translation. One would need a dozen languages just to read the most basic Western canon.


  13. Dorothy, sorry about my pen name. Some folks just cut and paste it, but it can be ‘romanized’ as Bikkuri. I noticed that Sylvia already figured that out… what is her secret, I wonder…

    Sylvia, thanks for the reminder of the strength of the Loonie. I remember when it was high before (maybe dating myself there).

    I suppose I should have taken some time to study the various lists of books in the canon before posting, but I was in a hurry to get to work. I expected that various European works would make the list.

    Certainly I agree, from a practical perspective, that books need to be read in translation; however, I also disagree. Given the time to learn a language well, I believe we get a tremendously different perspective when reading a book in its original language. One colleague insisted that “Don Quixote” must be read in Spanish. “I am a cat” should be read in Japanese.

    In Japanese there are myriad ways to say ‘I’, and each one carries different nuances depending on who is speaking and to whom they are speaking. The first line of “I am a Cat” is, amusingly, “I am a cat.”; however, the words used express that the cat has identified himself with a certain air of status or position. Nuance like that is tough to translate into English: more explanation gets the point across, but loses the simplicity.

    Of course, understanding culture and history effect our experience as well. Both “Don Quixote” and “I am a Cat” are loaded with political satire, which could be missed without a grasp of the situation. I suppose most good translations have several addenda to provide background and history. (I have even found this useful when reading older English works, such as “Nicholas Nickleby”.)


  14. Bikkuri, I am full of surprises… πŸ˜‰

    I wonder if it isn’t better to read a good and properly footnoted translation than to read in a second language and perhaps miss some of the nuances and cultural references? Would we even know if we were missing things? I suppose one could always read criticism by native speakers to make sure.


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