Or No, I’m Not Saying We Should Stop Reading Moby Dick.
It really is okay to like Moby Dick.
(from Jeff Smith’s canonical comic, Bone)
In literary circles, one often finds the concept of the literary canon floating around. It’s a set of books, which have never been defined officially to the best of my knowledge, that are, like, The Books That Shaped Western Civilization. They’re the type of books that Real Deal Writers Should Have Read Already. (*cough*) And while there are some titles that frequently show up, from classical to modern, it’s not a really set text. Even Wikipedia isn’t sure what’s in the Western Canon, and merely offers a list of links to other people’s lists.
One of the most frequent critiques of any of these lists, though, is that they are overbearingly filled with dead white European guys. In fact, the 60-volume “Great Books of The Western World” set published in the US by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952 contains works by four women: Jane Austen, George Elliot, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf. There are no writers of color represented. The product was also sort of an albatross around Encyclopedia Britannica’s neck in that it sold poorly and later got criticism for not only being a Dead White Euro Guy bible, but also it was apparently quite hard to actually read because of the formatting…in essence, it was more of a 60-volume status symbol than anything else.
BOW BEFORE THE PHALLI OF HISTORY
photo: Wikimedia Commons
Let’s talk a bit about the etymology of “canon” with help of our old friend the Oxford English Dictionary (which you can log into with your library card number, hooray). “Canon” originally meant a law or decree laid down by the Roman Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical council. Later it morphed from meaning just church law to specifically which books of the Bible were officially okay to worship… As the OED says, “The collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired. Also transf., any set of sacred books; also, those writings of a secular author accepted as authentic.”
To me, this begs the rather large question of what “genuine” and “authentic” mean in this context; furthermore, “genuine” and “genius” share a word root: gignere (to beget) gives us gen- as in genital, generate, genuine, genius. Thus, I find myself spiraling back around to the notion of “genius” as a thing that writers may or may not have. And going back to the OED, “genius” was originally one of the types of Roman ancestor-ghosts, basically a tutelary or attendant spirit. There were also genii loci, or spirits of place. Djinni are related to genii. Overall: a genius was an external thing that might influence you or live within your spirit. This meaning was still used in Europe for centuries thereafter, but came to imply more of a spirit within a person–shoulder angels and shoulder demons, for example. At some point, perhaps the 1600s, genius began to be used as “Natural ability or capacity; quality of mind; attributes which suit a person for his or her peculiar work.” (definition 7b, OED)
So I propose that perhaps we are only geniuses because of our family of influence–our canon. Not The Canon, but a canon for each person, wherein they converse with their literary tribe. That’s not to say that one should not be reading Moby Dick, but rather than one should read canonical works that pertain to one’s own work and literary quest, keeping in mind that barriers to publication reflect social barriers in general. There are voices that are easier and harder to come by, and it’s worth reading a little of everything.
For example, if I were to shortlist *my* fiction and poetry canon (because comics, nonfiction, and film are a whole different ball game and I don’t have all day), it would go something like this:
- Plato, The Symposium
- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
- The I Ching
- Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
- Collected poems of Jelaluddin Rumi
- Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
- Pretty much the entire Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library (full disclosure: I have only read the Grimms, Andersen, Italo Calvino’s Italian Tales, Aranasev’s Russian Tales, Japanese Tales, Indian Tales, and Latin American Tales from this specific series)
- Thomas More, Utopia
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
- William Shakespeare: The Tempest, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear
- Christina Rosetti, “Goblin Market”
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
- William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
- G.K. Chesterton, Alarums and Discursions
- H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
- Lynd Ward, God’s Man
- Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
- Nella Larsen, Passing
- Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
- The poetry of Gregory Corso
- Ursula LeGuin, Earthsea series
- Howard Schwartz, Lilith’s Cave
- The Arabian Nights, trans. Haddawy
- The poetry of Anne Sexton
- Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
- Toni Morrison, Beloved
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye
- Tamora Pierce, Tortall series
- Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby
- Kate Berenheimer (ed), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
- Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox; The Icarus Girl
- The collected works of Terry Pratchett
- Patricia Lockwood, Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals
I could go on. This feels incomplete and I’m sure I’ve forgotten many important things. I realize I need to read more fiction by black writers. And I didn’t really get into the poetry I like, either. Or go very far in depth with all the sci-fi and fantasy and dystopian stuff. I realize I do have a lot of dead white euro guys on there. While that’s not wrong, I’m working to fill in the gaps in the rest of my canon, which is an ever-changing creature, much like my own work.
What’s in your canon?
Tell us in the comments, friend.