The Unquantifiable Canon; Or, Thoughts About the Collective Literary Conscious

A few of the book bloggers I follow have written posts about which books they’d add or remove from the Western canon. Reading those posts (linked in the most recent week on the bookish internet post) has set me to thinking about which books we add and which ones we leave out. This isn’t the most original post; scholars more experienced and better than mean have tackled the question of what ought to be in the canon. Harold Bloom made an entire career out of that.

Poul Friis Nybo

There are two ways to define a canon. On the one hand, a canon is the collective “best” work of a culture (or a species, for the people who very persuasively argue for a global canon). Best is obviously up for debate because it’s entirely subjective. On the other hand, a canon can be all of the works that readers ought to read in order to be considered well-read. There’s a lot of overlap between the two groups, but there are some distinctions—mostly because of readers’ and scholars’ subjectivity.

It would be nice to try for a global canon. Unfortunately, no library has the shelf room or the budget. Additionally, there would still be the problem of deciding what the cutoff is between “best” or ought to read and ordinary reading fodder that doesn’t stick with us for very long. For example, I think James Joyce’s Ulyssesis either a prank or just a mess. But almost everyone will argue against me.

The only thing I can say definitively about the canon is that it is a moving target. Any list will be obsolete a year after it’s published. I might think this because I’m a librarian, and I see books come in and go out of the library constantly. There are a lot of books that stay on the shelves, of course. We can’t throw out Shakespeare, Atwood, Rumi, L’Engle, Dickens, Ferdowsi, Austen, Lady Murasaki, etc. etc. But Horatio Alger is mostly gone. Melville was out and then in. Booth Tarkington appears on century old lists of books people will read in the future. Most readers now would struggle to name even one of his books. And at what point can we add N.K. Jemisin or Colson Whitehead to the canon?

Whether or not it’s necessary to have a definitive canon, it’s certainly a lot of fun to think about if you’re a bookworm. I love arguing with other readers about what’s “best,” what other’s ought to read, and where the cutoff should be. I’ve never written down a personal canon. It would probably snowball out of control within minutes because I just know I would try to come up with something that was both the “best” literature, challenging but meaningful literature, and inclusivity so that as many groups of people are represented as possible.

What would be in your personal canons?

• My money is on prank.

One comment

  1. I’m sceptical about any canon at all. I do enjoy reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, but as you’ve suggested here, the literary world is so much bigger than any canon could ever fit or any reader could ever read. To my mind, it’s an overly prescriptive way of “doing literature”, and reinforces the cultural power and ideologies of those at the centre of the literary system with the power to shape and dictate the canon. I think removing the canon is an interesting problem, and would require some creativity to achieve. Maybe instead of my personal canon I would have a reader’s manifesto?


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