The Canon reconsidered


The Second Pass examines 10 books that should be fired from the literature canon. The mistake they make, however, is twofold. The first is the inclusion of books that arguably haven’t even been canonized yet.

No one would argue that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections don’t deserve the acclaim they’ve received, but it’s difficult to accept that they are safely in “the canon” to begin with. Their newness is a detriment. Maybe one day they’ll get there, but the canon exists as a statement for literature that has stood the test of time.

We could argue about whether or not the gatekeeping of the mythical canon is even relevant (and risk being attacked by Harold Bloom in the process) today; yet, it seems as if the canon, a lightpost illuminating significant works of literature, is a mercurial thing — changing with time, circumstance, reevaluation. 

It’s very function is to create a communal vocabulary, a sense of shared culture.  It’s hardly ever up-to-date with the times.  Still, the literature that reflects our culture now, probably won’t be ascertained until we’re long gone.

And in that sense, The Second Pass should be commended for dipping their toes into this muddy pool.  Especially given that culture changes every three months and is so fragmented that having one guidepost seems, well, outdated.

But, the second problem with their list is that many of the novels aren’t exactly sacred cows. With the exception of On the Road, White Noise, and One Hundred Years of Solitude the other five books seem like safe selections. Feathers won’t be ruffled by their inclusion here. 

Oh really, A Tale of Two Cities, The Rainbow, Absalom Absalom, Jacob’s Room, and The U.S.A. Trilogy should be taken down a peg or two.  Okay, fine, whatever.  They were never on the peg to begin with in my lifetime. 

Two novels I would’ve like to have seem them take down would be James Joyce’s Ulysses and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It would have been nice for them to really go for it because it seems as if the canon should be altered.  I don’t think I’d rely on Harold Bloom to help me pick out a decent sci-fi novel, comic book or anything genre related.

Post-modern Essentials

The list of 61 essential postmodern reads gives points for: • author is a character • self-contradicting plot • disrupts/plays with form • comments on its own bookishness • plays with language • includes fictional artifacts such as letters • blurs reality and fiction • includes historical falsehoods • overtly references other fictional works • more than 1000/less than 200 pages • postmodern progenitor.

I’m not usually a fan of post-modern literature; I often find the stories too clever, too enamored with their tricks and conventions and flourishes, instead of just telling a damn good story.  Too often, it feels like reading the work of an academic instead of a raconteur.

Essential Beach Reading

NPR is in the process of winnowing their list of 200 great beach reads to compile their diffinitive list of the 100 best beach books.  Sometimes you just need something you can polish off in a day or two without really reflecting on it all that much.  Coincidentally, many of these books have been “canonized.”  So there you go.

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  • Don Naggie July 24, 2009, 12:31 am

    "I don’t think I’d rely on Harold Bloom to help me pick out a decent sci-fi novel, comic book or anything genre related"

    Harold Bloom has written a wonderful essay on the sci-fi novel A Voyage to Arcturus in his book Agon and is continually recommending Le Guin's the Left Hand of Darkness and John Crowley's Little, Big and Aegypt series all great sci-fi/ fantasy/ romance works.

    Of course Bloom recommends Lewis Carroll as well, the pinnacle of the genre. Bloom hasn't recommended any comics I am quite sure but his friend John Crowley has and has in fact written several essays on favorite comics in his book Other Words