Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Cinerati's Canon -- Our Most Important Books

Professor Nokes over at Unlocked Wordhoard recently posted his experience with his students regarding their thoughts about whether a book was "literary" or not.

I remember an experience similar to the one he describes when one of my Undergraduate professors, in an American novel class, asked if the book Shane was literature or not. My knee jerk reaction was, "No way! Absolom, Absolom...yes! But Shane! No!" I have since changed my mind, having reread Shane seven or eight times, and find Shane to be the quintessential story of the West. It rightly encapsulates the central conflict in American expansion westward, as discussed by Frederick Jackson Turner in The Frontier in American History, and the book contains a darkness/realism in the title character totally lacking in the movie. In the film, Shane is Davy Crockett, but in the book he is more reminiscent of Doc Holliday, a mysterious Southern gambler/shootist.

Regardless of my thoughts at the time regarding the literary nature, or lack there of, of Shane my external reaction (and that of my classmates) was exactly that described by Professor Nokes.

To quote:

In fact, what happened was a single student took a position, and the rest dodged the question. I pressed them, and soon I came to understand that they did not believe they have a role in Canon formation.

None of us thought we had a role in Canon formation. Why? I credit it to humility more than a failure of education (Nokes' hypothesis). We hadn't been exposed to enough literature, broadly speaking, to trust our own judgements. Nor had we experience in discussing the value of a book. This second is a failure on the part of education. In high school and before, we were asked to tell what "happens" in a book to verify that we have in fact read what the teacher assigned us. We were given tests about places, people, and events. And we were given lectures about the symbolism of the Green Light in The Great Gatsby. But we were never asked whether we thought the book had value, or what was valuable about it. We weren't asked if it was "well written" with proper grammar, or played with existing conventions effectively and proficiently. I imagine the experience for the modern high school student is similar.

My comments on Professor Nokes site addressed a commentor who was critical of "Canon advocates" like Bloom. To which I responded:

I have to agree with you regarding the foundational Canon (KJV, Homer, Aristotle). I would naturally add Plato, actually The Republic is probably number one on my list of non-religious texts.

As to Frank's comments regarding Bloom (don't know if he is referring to Allan or Harold Bloom, not that it matters for his point which is poignant), I think he overestimates how much Bloom (either one) thinks the Canon is etched in stone. Allan would argue that a canon should be something that challenges young people to question the assumptions of the day rather than one that feeds them. Harold believes in an evolving Canon which is affected by the zeitgeist and continues to grow and change. Rarely are books dropped completely from the Canon, but new is added all the time.
I personally prefer Eliot's view (T.S.) that the Canon is a dialogue. The new is always in discussion with the old, either as addition to or reaction against. Some of the best poetry/art is a rejection of things past, but even rejections are improved when grounded in an understanding of the thing they reject. Thus for me the Canon is dynamic, rather than static, and additive. Some books may wane in importance for a time (Jane Austen's Persuasion or Cooper's Deerslayer), but they are a part of the dialogue.
The "literary" quality of a book matters to me, but so does the role the work played in its time or how well it represents that age.

So...what are 10 books I would demand be included in the Canon? Well, let me begin by saying that I largely think that limited lists are next to useless, especially when said lists imply an order of priority. Remember the "Top 100" lists by the American Film Institute recently? Remember how they left out half the movies you thought should be included? Me too. I think that any given list should be qualified with a "I think these are important, but that doesn't mean I think hundreds, even thousands, of others aren't." Given that caveat, here are 10 books I think everyone should read (in no particular order).

What would you add to this list? Please comment.

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