Do we need the literary canon?

Photo Courtesy of YouTube

Article by Yashowanto Ghosh, Reporter

The short answer is no, of course we do not. 

My own first encounter with the literary canon came in graduate school in Germany, where there were certain books about which my teachers would say, “Das Buch muß man gelesen haben”—literally, “one has to have read that book.” But really what they meant was, “What do you mean you have not read that book?”  It was yet another way for them to control yet another aspect of my life—my reading life.

Still it could have been worse:  At least the literary canon only mandated what books I had to read, not prevented me from reading other books.  Right?

Well, yes and no. While it did not directly ban other books, it did limit how much out-of-canon reading I could do.  In the episode “The Persistence of Memory” of the 1980 television series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan addresses the question of how many books one can possibly read in an ordinary lifetime. He shows us his estimate in the form of a walk in a branch of the New York Public Library.  The walk lasts just around ten seconds and is just about a dozen paces long (at approximately the 41-minute mark in the YouTube link).  Any books I am required to read is indirectly a substantial limitation of my ability to read other books.

The alternative, of course, is to break the rules and for each of us to pick our own readings. The limit on how many books one can read would still differ from person to person, of course. That means there would be many books that no one gets around to reading. There would also be quite a few books that only one person reads. These people would not be able to talk about these books because no one else would have read them. Finally, there would be a few books that more than one person reads, and they alone would get to talk to each other about the books they have in common—those few books would dominate our discourse.

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

In other words, those few books would become a canon.

So no, we do not need the literary canon.  If we throw it out, it is likely to grow back within one generation of readers—with a new list of titles, but with the same power of monopoly.

Categories: Opinion, The Saint

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