The canon is a lie

Worn books are loved books.

A search on Google for the 100 best books or 100 greatest books (or any variation you care to use) will bring up more than one list. Looking for a definitive list in the scholarly literature is futile, too. The Guardian has recently started publishing their own list, but I stopped paying much attention when they listed The Pilgrim’s Progress at number one and Clarissa at number 4. Most literature wonks can agree that there is a canon, but no one can agree what’s in it. I’ve been asked by students at my university’s library more than once what the canon is and what’s in it, and it kind of kills me that I can’t answer them.

A better question would be, why do we need a canon anyway? I would argue that we do. A common literature gives us common references, a common education. But no one can agree on more than a few books because we all have such different ideas about what’s good literature and what’s important. The more I learn about literature outside of British and American writers, I realize how little the rest of the world is represented in the nebulous thing we call the canon.

It’s a lot of fun to debate each other about what everyone should read, but I suspect that at true canon would be a really short list.

And Shakespeare would be on it.

And Austen.

And Dickens.



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