What use the Western Canon?


An Era of Inclusion With the advances in feminist and civil rights issues in the middle of the last century, it also seemed natural to question tradition in other areas, including approaches to the study of  literature. Why should the field be dominated by works written largely by dead white males? What about works by women? Minorities? Those still living?

With the best of intentions, educators and literary critics opened the field. The effect has been two-fold. First, literary studies have become more about ideology than about art. This development has led the literary critic Harold Bloom to identify what he bitingly calls the School of Resentment (which includes Feminists, Marxists, New Historicists, and Deconstructionists, among others). Students of literature can no longer study novels, plays and poetry without also studying the writings of these theorists.

The second effect has been that the playing field has been levelled in terms of aesthetic form. If there is value in studying Shakespeare, the argument goes, why not the Broadway musical? Why should Wordsworth’s lyric poems be privileged over Madonna’s hits?

It’s easy to see where this leads. All texts are suddenly equal.  Milton, reality TV, text messages, the Coen brother’s films, George Eliot’s novels, ad jingles, YouTube, and Borges are worthy of the same degree of attention. Bloom calls this “the Balkanization of literary studies”. While he remains largely disapproving, the fact is that this development has led to much stimulating debate and the inclusion of formerly marginalised writers in the academic syllabus.

Entering into a Dialogue For writers, however, not studying the canon can create problems. In order to write well, a writer must read widely and critically. It is also important to read the full spectrum of good writing, which explains why many writers are returning to the literary canon, approaching it with new eyes and using it as a guide in their own creative work. Just as a skilled writer needs to know grammatical rules in order to break them, knowing the literature that has come before helps a writer extend, remake, engage with or cast off the ideas and themes most pertinent to a particular culture.

What is the Western Canon? First used to refer to the collection of books received as genuine Holy Scriptures, the word ‘canon’ is now commonly defined as the recognised body of works that are representative of a culture. According to Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, experts on literature and culture, to be included in the canon a book must satisfy the following criteria:

  • It must have contemporary significance;
  • It must be inexhaustible, something that is able to be read again and again;
  • It must be relevant to great ideas and issues.

Bloom asserts that “a canon does not exist to free its readers from anxiety” and that it does not necessarily “baptize us into culture”; rather, it gives our cultural anxieties “form and coherence”.

In the appendix of his book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Bloom offers a list of works he considers canonical. Adler and Van Doren present a similar list in their work How to Read a Book. Publishers of Everyman’s Library and Penguin Classics have their versions.

It’s well worth a look at which books have made these lists, both for the pleasure they afford readers and the example they provide to writers.


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