Posted April 8, 2013 by in Bibliotherapy

What to read? (Part 4) The Literary Canon

What makes the classics so ‘classic,’ and why should modern readers still seek to experience them?

The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photo courtesy of Kimberly B. Roth.

The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photo courtesy of Kimberly B. Roth.

Nothing to be frightened of

As Arnold Bennett reflected, it is easy to feel daunted when approaching the literary canon – “The attitude of the average decent person towards the classics of his own tongue is one of distrust—I had almost said, of fear.” The Important Books have such a high reputation preceding them that they make the average reader wary. What if I can’t appreciate this book for all it is worth? What if I don’t understand it? What if I’m bored? Given a free choice, one often feels like anything would be easier and cozier to read than a classic. Bennett describes this reluctant attitude perfectly: “You do not approach the classics with gusto…You peruse them with a sense of duty, a sense of doing the right thing…you regard a classic as a pill.”

If a classic is viewed as a medicinal benefit, grudgingly submitted to rather than joyfully chosen, it will never be a palatable option for new generations of readers. Nick Hornby, a passionate advocate for young people’s reading, recognizes that “The quickest way to kill all love for the classics, I can see now, is to tell young people that nothing else matters, because then all they can do is look at them in a museum of literature, through glass cases. Don’t touch!” (from his fourth volume of reading diaries for The Believer magazine, More Baths, Less Talking.) To keep the classics accessible we must remember how they gained their classic status and why they are still worth reading today.


What makes a classic?

Literary critic Harold Bloom and Italian author Italo Calvino are my guides in understanding what distinguishes the classics and why they can still be beneficial to the modern reader. In Bloom’s The Western Canon, he identifies classics by their “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” In other words, a classic is a work of such striking novelty that readers cannot take it for granted. Jolted out of a numbly receptive reading state, the reader cannot help but participate in the work’s greatness.

The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photo courtesy of Kimberly B. Roth.

The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photo courtesy of Kimberly B. Roth.

A classic is not only ‘strange’ but subversive; “painters and poets / Have always shared the right to dare anything,” Horace declared in the Ars Poetica. Great works of literature break new moral ground, Bloom believes, by questioning “all values, both ours and their own.” A classic also startles readers by confounding their expectations for it. Even though the work may form part of our collective consciousness, it is not until we have actually encountered it for ourselves that we can say we know it. As Calvino puts it in his invaluable essay “Why Read the Classics?”, “Reading a classic must also surprise us, when we compare it to the image we previously had of it. That is why we can never recommend enough a first-hand reading of the text itself.”

In a sense, a classic is a work you recognize even though you have never read it. The story – whether it be Jonah and the whale from the Old Testament, or King Lear’s betrayal by his daughters – belongs to Western cultural memory and so is inescapable. Or, even if you have actually read it, a classic is a work that bears endless rereading. As Calvino jests, “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’.” Each reading of a classic yields new discoveries, making the work both multivalent and enduringly contemporary. Indeed, as Bloom pronounces, “One ancient test for the canonical remains fiercely valid: unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify.” Classics are books that change and grow with the reader.


What is the Canon?

Bloom traces the development of the literary canon to the middle of the eighteenth century. Until then the word “canon” had only been used in a religious context, to delineate those texts that were considered part of sacred scripture. It was not until the Age of Reason that the idea of a secular canon, described by Bloom as “a catalog of approved authors,” those who would be considered “time-proof,” came into play. A canon is by definition an exclusive body, evoking as it does Bloom’s rather Darwinian image of “texts struggling with one another for survival.”

The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photo courtesy of Kimberly B. Roth.

The Old Library at Trinity College Dublin. Photo courtesy of Kimberly B. Roth.

Lists of the Western canon may differ in small ways, but the same names pop up on nearly every one: Homer, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare (he “is the secular canon,” according to Bloom), Austen, the Brontës, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, George Eliot, Henry James, Joyce, Kafka, Woolf, Faulkner, and so on. Bloom’s appendices, which list the canon chronologically, range from the Epic of Gilgamesh to John Updike and onwards, with a dauntingly long list of hundreds of books that came in between.

A common critique of the canon is that it is dominated by dead white males and leaves little space for women or minority writers, also holding itself inflexible against the intrusion of contemporary titles. It is hard to ignore the condescension in Bloom’s tone when he dismisses recent postcolonial works as “fated to become period pieces: even their ‘multiculturalist’ supporters will turn against them in another two generations or so, in order to clear space for better writings.”

Even those critics without such a snobbish air will recognize that all contemporary writing must face up to the standards of the canon; anyone writing fiction nowadays will be constantly reinterpreting and building on canonical works that have come before. As Bloom asserted, “Great writing is always rewriting or revisionism”; here he echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson, who held that “the inventor knows how to borrow.” There is nothing new under the sun – no undiscovered stories, patterns or emotions – so every piece of literature is essentially a reworking of something that preceded it in the canon. Bloom’s most famous theory is in fact “the anxiety of influence,” meaning that “any strong literary work creatively misreads… a precursor text or texts.” Everything old will be new again.


Great Books programs

A few notable American colleges run Great Books programs or foundational year courses that require students to read many of the world classics. The first of these was the General Honors course at Columbia University, established by Professor John Erskine in 1919. In 1920 Erskine moved to the University of Chicago, where he set up a similar core curriculum. Among the institutions with Great Books curricula, St. John’s College may be the best known. Founded as a colonial school in 1696, the St. John’s branch in Annapolis, Maryland went through several incarnations before adopting its Great Books program in 1937.

McDowell Hall, St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Christopher W. Foster.

McDowell Hall, St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Christopher W. Foster.

Critics may argue that the generalist education students receive through Great Books programs is poor preparation for the modern workplace, but in Racing Odysseus, his entertaining memoir of a sabbatical semester at St. John’s, Roger Martin defends the need for “people who have an appreciation for the complexities and interrelatedness of society, the courage to ask difficult and penetrating questions, and the inquisitiveness to seek intelligent and innovative answers.” Martin argues that now that people switch careers up to eight times, it is useful to have a broad base of interdisciplinary knowledge. He does concede, however, that “St. John’s students are shortchanged by not reading more books by women or books by non-Western writers.”


Setting your own agenda

Even for those who do not attend colleges with Great Books programs, there is always the possibility of a self-imposed reading curriculum. For instance, Christopher Beha set himself the challenge of reading the 100 or so books of the Harvard Classics set in one year; he recounts his adventures with the canon in The Whole Five Feet. Or one could follow literary editor and TV personality Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, a list he revised three times between 1960 and 1997. His final 133-title curriculum is familiar yet includes a few surprises – ranging from Gilgamesh to Achebe – and is of a manageable length. Recent attempts to update the canon with overlooked classics include Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure and Bound to Please, two volumes chock full of wonderful recommendations for devising a personalized reading agenda.


Michael Dirda (Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0)

Michael Dirda (Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0)

Finding your own classics

In addition to those books that are undeniably canonical, readers will encounter books that strike a chord with them – books that become their own personal classics. Calvino encourages readers that “during unenforced reading…you will come across the book which will become ‘your’ book…‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.” In the course of a lifetime of divergent reading, Dirda confirms (in Bound to Please) that “Every reader learns to recognize his ‘fatal type,’ the writers to whom he automatically loses his heart.” A relationship with the canon is usually limited to the mind, but the way to truly engage with the classics is with the heart. Falling in love with particular classics ensures that we will keep them with us forever.


Classic vs. contemporary

Should readers eschew all modern works in favor of a pure diet of the classics? Occasionally it seems that the message spread by literary critics (such as Arnold Bennett) and universities is that nothing is worth reading apart from the classics. But Calvino advises a more balanced approach; indeed, he believes that “the person who derives maximum benefit from a reading of the classics…skillfully alternates classic readings with calibrated doses of contemporary material.”

After a year of reading nothing but Harvard Classics, Beha also concluded that “we need to have both the confidence and the discernment to take from the Classics the things we can use and to set aside the rest.” Putting the classics on a pedestal and valuing them above any contemporary literature is like proclaiming there is no place for rock and roll in a musical world ruled by Beethoven and Bach. Such an elitist program denies the truth that, as Hornby insists, “great writing is going on all around us, always has done, always will.”

Beethoven's Eighth Symphony

Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony


Beyond the checklist

All too often the canon appears as a checklist against which to measure one’s performance as a reader. Yet I have come to believe that the healthier approach is to throw that checklist out the window. Seeing the classics as a set of books you must have read before your education can be considered complete will only elicit feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Instead, picture the classics as a nearly boundless treasure trove. Any time you dip into the treasure chest you will come up richer; you will never be disappointed.


How would you describe your relationship with the literary canon? What are some of your classics?


Next time: This book could change your life – the aims and technique of bibliotherapy.

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Rebecca Foster

An American transplant to Reading, England – a fitting place for a fiendish bibliophile. After six years as a library assistant, I am recklessly embarking on a freelance writing career. I review books for Kirkus Indie, The Bookbag, For Books' Sake, We Love This Book, and Bookmarks magazine, and also volunteer with Greenbelt Festival's literature program. I read everything from theology to popular science, but some favorite genres are literary fiction, biography and memoir, historical fiction, graphic novels, and nature writing. Check out all my articles.