Monday, August 2, 2010

Is our perception of literary canon too rigid?

An article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Friday about the concept of the literary canon, claiming that its rigid and exclusive nature drives hordes of excellent books into oblivion.

"The literary marketplace is inefficient and unreliable," author Cynthia Crossen says. "The only way a book can be crowned literature for the ages is if it is accepted in the halls of academe. Unfortunately, academia is a feedback loop, as scholars teach what they were taught. It's blasphemy to suggest the occasional spring cleaning."

It is indeed true that many of the "classics" we study and enjoy in school have remained virtually the same as ever. Kids in any given state seem to be reading books in school from the same pool of literature as kids anywhere else in the nation. I bet most of you studied To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Farenheit 451, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Animal Farm and Tess of the D'Urbervilles in high school, or at least some of them.

These books have been lucky enough to be adopted into the canon by academics across the nation, and as a result, they have survived the test of time.

Or is that not so? Do they stand the test of time simply because they are great works of literary genius, and their value speaks for itself, regardless of whether or not academics acknowledge them as noteworthy.

I am torn on this issue. Certainly, there are great works out there that never seem to grab enough attention to be recognized as canon. But at the same time, most of the "classics" that I have read, with few exceptions (like Farenheit 451, cough cough), are classics for wonderful reasons. Becoming too inclusive might lower the standard of what is considered a great work of literature, and that, in turn, could lead to teachers assigning sub-standard literature in place of those classics that we have all studied and loved.

Perhaps the only way to solve this issue is to go to school for the rest of your life, so you can read and learn absolutely everything. Not too realistic, but boy oh boy, would that be great.

But enough of my musings. I want to hear what you think about this issue. And are there any books you have come across that deserve attention and are not getting it? Here we go, people, have at it!

By the way, the links to books in this post are books that the author of the aforementioned article claimed are excellent but unacknowledged.