As literary scholars, book lovers, and participants in popular culture, we are conditioned to become “well-read”. But what weight does the established canon really hold? What is the reward for pursuing literature that is widely lauded as a “great book”?
If you are a sad, nerdy, self-serious reading person, you know about the Lists. The BBC has one, every liberal arts school has one, Harold Bloom had one that would require several lifetimes to finish. The Lists are there to tell you about the Great Books.
The arguments against the Western literary canon are well-rehearsed. The Canon is dominated by the Dead White Male, with a smattering of token female authors, authors of colour, authors with disabilities. It’s a gatekeeper: people who aren’t familiar with the Canon are excluded from our cultural conversations, because they don’t really know about books. It trains us to extend endless sympathy to angry white men and none at all to … anyone else.
The Canon is the guy at the party who won’t stop talking about Dude Books, but has never read Pride and Prejudice (and yet has an argument about why it’s not a great literary work). The Canon makes you read everything he thought was good when he was fourteen, but leaves every book you lend him on his bedside table, untouched. Every time you struggle through one of his Dude Books, two more appear, like the heads of the Hydra. Admittedly, sometimes they’re good, but they’re not Zadie Smith good.
The Canon is inside my head, like the Phantom of the Opera, if the Phantom of the Opera did not offer singing advice but instead just exhorted you to read Dostoyevsky.
The Canon is a bad boyfriend, so why is it so hard to break up with it?
I know, intellectually, that these Lists are restrictive, limiting the stories we read and talk about and write, that they arise from power structures I don’t want to uphold. But letting go of the Great Books is more frightening than liberating. If I admit that I think Restoration drama is uniformly terrible* and will never like Wordsworth, then who will present me with a great big trophy and universal approbation for finally being a Well-Read Individual?
There are the stories in the Canon, and then there’s the story of the Canon: the lie that running on the hamster wheel of European thought makes you some kind of literary Ubermensch, that there is only one way to cultural competence and only one culture worth being competent in.
I know this, and yet a set of leatherbound classics still makes my pupils dilate in a Pavlovian reaction. There is no prize for being ‘well-read’, but so much of my early formation, as a reader, a critic, a person, was staked on the premise that there might be.
Is it enough to see the Canon for the arbitrary racket it is, to choose instead the company of authors I love, who speak to me? To catch myself before I ask someone else, with reflexive incredulity, “You haven’t read any Auden?” Or do I need to delete the Canon’s number from my phone and start again, building my own Great Books from scratch? Can I finally ghost on The Faerie Queene?