There is a big heavy book that professes to illuminate the 1001 books that everyone should read before they die. Well, the reality is that this is a joke for most people since they will actually read very few books of fiction after leaving school and very few of those books would qualify for any recommendation list other than a short-lived publisher’s marketing hype. But there is a subtle problem with the 1001 list: it has been revised.
It struck me as odd that I should definitely read a book that was then dropped in the next edition of 1001 Books. I can see adding books that might have been published since the previous edition and even books that might have been overlooked, but I cannot accept telling me I had to read something worthwhile and then saying never mind. Is it possible that the books themselves (which do not change) are less important than our attitude towards those books?
In the latest NYT Boookends, the question is asked:
Who Should Be Kicked Out of the Canon?
James Parker contends that Wordsworth should be shown the door, not because his works are bad but because of the way Wordsworth treated his friend S. T. Coleridge. Really?
It’s not just that I find his sensibility remote from my own — that “Wordsworthian,” for me, means stony and humorless and moralizing. Nor is it his authorship of that work of almost geological boredom, “The Prelude.” It’s the way he treated his best friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
In both instances (the boredom and Coleridge) I think Parker is ignoring the literature and its context and just focusing on his personal responses. I know De Quincy was a drug addict but I still read his works, even though I dislike drug addicts.
Francine Prose takes a different position. First she toys with the idea of giving Alexander Pope the boot (is she delusional?) contending that no one outside of Pope scholars still read him, but Prose’s final evaluation suggests that no one should be kicked out of the canon and, in fact, the canon should be opened up to more and more writers.
Given how nebulous and (despite the efforts of Bloom and others to codify matters) how personal the list of canonical authors seems to be, I would be in favor of expanding the canon rather than narrowing it down, of enlarging the guest list rather than disinviting the writers we no longer want at the party. Since the question of canonical versus noncanonical seems to matter most urgently in academic circles, I would argue for an approach to teaching literature that focuses less on some notion of literary immortality than on those works that still have the power to engage us. Rather than the dutiful slog through everything of importance written during a particular century, perhaps professors might want to choose from that time the half dozen books that they most passionately love, books that have awoken them to the pleasures and beauties of that period in our history and culture.
The house of art, after all, is large enough to have room for many guests. Robert Walser? Amos Tutuola? Patrick Hamilton? Jane Bowles? Elizabeth Taylor? Naguib Mahfouz? You’re on the list. Welcome to the canon.
This is more in line with my thinking, especially when it comes to writers that don’t meet the “dead white man, preferably English” criteria. Even the Venerable Bloom came to recognize that his Canon was woefully incomplete in terms of world literature and those oft’ neglected writers of the female persuasion. However, this view still needs to be tempered lest we discover the many successful hack writers like King and Rice and Grisham being declared canonical.
Let’s allow for the 1147 Books You Must To Read Before You Die but let’s not go too wild with the Canon … who wants to see Fifty Shades of Gray canonized?
But as an exercise: What books or authors would you like to see added to the Canon? How about suggestions for removal from the Canon? And finally I ask Francine Prose when she last read The Anatomy of Melancholy (which even literature scholars never read but continue to revere).