Books from top left to bottom right: I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki, Bed by Tao Lin, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, and Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball.
One of the things that identifies you as an “intelligent” or “cultured” person is familiarity with the literary canon. This alone is a somewhat arbitrary standard. For me, it’s incredibly important to read the classics, because I intend to be a writer and an English teacher, but I think my brother, who is majoring in physics, would be better served by reading scientific articles than 19th century novels–unless, of course, he really liked 19th century novels. These books might grow my soul, but others find their inspiration elsewhere, and that’s okay. But let’s say for now that it’s important for everyone to be well-versed in the literary canon. What, then, does that canon consist of? And who decides it?
There are millions of books floating around in the world. Generally, the classics are the ones written decades or centuries ago–those that have withstood the test of time. But what are the standards by which these books are considered to be universally important? What are the standards by which we choose which books are taught in school? Just about everybody reads The Great Gatsby in high school, or at least they did when I was growing up. Why is this book better than anything else F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, or anything else that was written at the time? Is it because it’s easy to use it to fulfill curricular goals? Is it because reading it will somehow improve people’s minds, moreso than any other book about the same topic?
Certainly, some books are better than others. The Great Gatsby is a skillfully written book. But what about The Iliad? It’s a classic because it’s a relic of a long-past age, because it’s one of the first texts that we have to go on. But if you read it, you see that it’s promoting rape. You could say that it’s important to understand what things were like during the time it was written, and you’d be right, but why do we then read it uncritically? Why don’t we talk about how unacceptable that is, and not just about it’s historical context? Why do we have to read about men being given women to rape as a reward for killing villagers in order to be cultured and intelligent? Why is Franz Kafka’s work considered classic when it was published posthumously against his will? Why are Shakespeare’s plays, which weren’t meant to be read but to be seen, and which weren’t even written by completely by him in the first place, considered mandatory reading? Why did no one ever tell me to read Natsume Soseki?
There are books that I personally feel that everyone should read. This is because I personally enjoyed reading them, and feel that doing so made my life better. But this is a small cache of books, because there are only so many books I as an individual can read. No one can read all the books, and no one can know for certain which books will be best for which person, except, of course, that person. As things are, it is important to be familiar with the literary canon, because it will be referenced repeatedly. It’s important to be able to read and understand the cultural script. But the cultural script is determined by what we continue to read. If we collectively decided that we didn’t need to read Shakespeare anymore, after a few generations, we’d stop referencing him.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t read Shakespeare, or Homer, or Kafka, or Fitzgerald. I am arguing that we read Soseki, and that we also read other writers of color, and that that be a mandatory part of any literary curriculum. We should be reading women writers and venerating them along with their male peers. The books that American society deems worthy of note are written by white men. This is a problem because America does not consist solely of white men. Women and people of color need to see what people like themselves have accomplished, and see those accomplishments viewed as just as important as the work of white men.
Also, we need to be reading contemporary literature, if we care about literature as a concept and not just historical benchmarks. If we don’t see what people are doing now, we’ll have a heck of a time seeing where our own work might fit in. If we’re not writers, we still should be doing this, so that we can see how the world we live in is reflected in art, and thus gain a better understanding of that world–meaning, our world, not the world of our great-great-grandparents. It’s important to learn about history, but we’re rarely asked to read contemporary books in school, and we should be.
When we think about what should be in the literary canon, we need to stop naming books we haven’t actually read. We need to stop saying that books are classics because they are classics. We need to be deciding what we think about books based on their actual literary merit, and we need to include a big pile of books not written by dead, white man.