In May of 2012, I graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. Between my degree program, the Honors College in which I was enrolled, and my advanced high school courses, I had read a handful of the books that one ought to read. Homer, the Oresteia, great Reformation, Romantic, and Victorian authors. In the world of English studies as well as the world of librarianship, this is known as the literary canon.
In my early survey courses, we joked about reading the DWMs — the Dead White Men — but it’s not lost on me that a lot of what I read in college and high school was produced by the DWMs. Since those survey courses, I’ve learned that the Western literary canon is founded on what is broadly called the Great Books philosophy. While the philosophy can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson and, arguably, the Greeks, the Great Books educational philosophy began to gain momentum in the 1920s. The idea of this education model attempts to ensure that college graduates are well-read in the best of the best. Back to that controversy later.
As I mentioned, I’ve read a decent number of the Great Books. In fact, the reason that I am driven to write this post is my recent completion of Anna Karenina, which is a peripheral member of the literary canon. My point? I didn’t like Anna Karenina. I didn’t like the Oresteia either. Nor did I like The Grapes of Wrath or a list of others. Of course, I liked some of the Great literature I read — notably, John Keats, Homer, and Oscar Wilde. But all in all, the works that I enjoyed most were outside of the list of books that one ought to read, like Prodigal Summer and The Hours.
In the world of interdisciplinary English studies, the literary canon is controversial because of its narrow focus and its exclusion of many contemporary works, LGBT perspectives, international authors, and authors of color. Some programs make an effort to incorporate books outside of the DWMs — mine required it, in fact, for which I am very grateful.
The point that I want to make here and now, is that it is okay to love Great Books, but it’s okay to think they’re terrible, too. And it’s okay to love parts of the modern, non-traditional canon like The Hours, Angels in America, and Beloved — but it’s okay if you don’t like them either. The Great Books philosophy is a fine idea, when it’s placed alongside an interdisciplinary, intercultural, “non-traditional,” curriculum. We need to read the “Classics” to gain an understanding of where literature has been, but we need to read outside of the canon to see where human thought and innovation may lead.
If you’re interested in a more extensive English studies discussion, check out my capstone essay, “A Culture of Canonicity.”