Sunday, December 5, 2010
Without a 'canon' what?
I have been enjoying a Facebook multilogue on the great books initiated by Dianne Allen. Dianne posted a book list from the BBC of 100 significant books; although most are squarely in the Western cannon, the BBC estimated that the average reader will have read no more than six of them. My magic number was 22, but as I looked at the list I was amazed, and somewhat chagrined, that I had not read many more.
Several of the participants in this conversation mentioned that of the few they had read, most were assigned in high school. The question I want to raise is this: Now that we have pretty well destroyed the idea of a 'canon' on the grounds of its Eurocentric, racist and sexist implications, how will we ever have any common touchstones. Phrases that once echoed in our heads from the Bible, Shakespeare and Aesop will no longer provide these.
I am preparing to travel to Italy with my wife next year -- the standard (note that term) Rome Florence Venice tour. I am already reading about these cities and their cultural institutions, and am getting familiar with the locations of the main sights on the city maps. So for Florence I already can locate the Duomo, the Baptistry, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi, etc.
But imagine a city with no canonical works of art or architecture, no "standard" sights, no reference points. A city where everything is as significant, potentially, as everything else. Would this make the experience of the city liberating and fascinating, or just confusing and ultimately boring?
Yes of course, the real pleasures of travel have little to do with "doing" the sights. They are about chance meetings in coffee houses, unexpected and unpredictable experiences, personal self-discoveries. But where do you find these? On the way to the Duomo, or Botanical Gardens, or Uffizi, that's where.
So it goes with reading. Serious writing does not stand in isolation. It is a response to what has gone before it, and a portent of what is to come. This situation in a living history is what makes writing "literature". We always tell our grad students that when they write a term paper or thesis they have to do a "review of the literature". They they are making a "contribution to the literature". That they are "joining a conversation.
Would it be fascinating, or liberating, to just say whatever you wanted in response to anything, or nothing? Of course not. That is why reading books is important, and why we need some touchstones in literature. And we need them not so that we can say that everyone "did" the Bible or Jane Austen or Dickens, but so that as people have their chance encounters and make their personal discoveries they have something to talk about, and a sharable vocabulary.
Or perhaps you do not see it this way, in which case, please join the conversaton!
PS. I stuck the picture of Emerson on this post because (1) I always like to include a picture and hear that having a picture makes a blog post more inviting, (2) I had this on my computer, and (3) I think Emerson is worth reading if you want to talk about social issues within an American context.