The literary canon, 100 books you should read before you die, the 50 best books of all time – what's it all for? Luiza Sauma explores the importance of knowing the classics while steering clear of competitive reading...
How much of the literary canon have you read? Go on – be honest.
We’ve all lied about the books we’ve read – in my case, mainly to please teachers at school, when my 11-year-old brain couldn’t cope with Jane Eyre. I know I’m not the only one. At university, seconds before we entered a Postcolonial poetry seminar, a classmate leaned over and whispered, “I haven’t read a single one of the poems – teehee!” Minutes later, she launched into a hot-headed debate with me about Derek Walcott.
What is the point of the canon? What, in fact, is the canon? In truth, there’s no official canon to speak of: it’s a loose collection of literary works that we – readers, academics and critics – have deemed to be worthy of artistic merit, dissection and eternity; books that speak to our times, running from Homer to Jonathan Franzen, with Shakespeare and Dickens (and hundreds of others) in-between.
It is the life-long ambition of most keen readers to tick these must-read books off our lists; it does, indeed, take a lifetime.
Not for graduate, blogger and aspiring writer Catherine Love, who has set herself the brain-numbing challenge of reading 100 classic books in 100 weeks, thereby saying “bye-bye” to her social life, family and, possibly, work. Good luck to her, but it seems a rather pointless, joyless task: Catherine has decades in which to read the classics, and she’d probably appreciate them more if she wasn’t speed-reading. What is retirement for, if not for reading Remembrance of Things Past?
Running through her list of books reminded me of just how long – and, indeed, endless – the literary canon is. On Catherine’s list there’s no Fitzgerald, Orwell, Brontë, Mary Shelley or Homer (perhaps she’s already read them), but most big names are covered: Voltaire, Thackeray, Rushdie, Atwood, Joyce, Woolf, Ishiguro (twice – quite rightly), Cervantes, Milton, Ellison, et al. A hodgepodge of very brilliant and different writers, from different cultures and points in time, who somehow wrote themselves into the big time.
Plenty of nerdy fun can be had from going through the list and counting how many of them you’ve read. I came to 35 – pretty crap for an English grad and avid reader, but I must admit I don’t have any intention of reading The Divine Comedy, The Three Musketeers or The Lord of the Rings. Ever.
There are many other great literary lists, of course – us journalists love a good list. TIME magazine’s ALL TIME 100 novels since 1923 is a good one – and there’s not a coma-inducing 19th-century “classic” in sight, mentioning no names (Dracula). But what do we gain from this incessant literary point scoring, other than pretending Daniel Defoe is an equal to Vladimir Nabokov? (He really, really isn’t.)
There is something, however, to gain, because reading far and widely – and reading the books that changed literature, however dated they may be – makes you a better writer.
I’m never more surprised than when I meet aspiring writers who aren’t well-read, aspiring filmmakers who haven’t watched all the classics, wannabe actors who don’t go to the theatre and dancers who can’t dance (honestly – I have met all of these people).
Know your art and know it well – only then will you understand how far you’ve got to go. Just don’t do it in 100 days.
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Image: typewriter of capricorn by emdot, available under a CC BY license.