Who Loads the Canon?

There seems to be some common consensus that it isn’t just the old and familiar books that can be heralded as classics. For example, Time Magazine rated the top 100 novels of our time and included the excellent graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I wholeheartedly agree that this book needs to be added to the canon. It’s an unconventional choice since it is essentially a comic book but it just goes to show that great stories can be told in a variety of mediums.

I don’t have a problem with the canon as it stands but I do believe that newer work needs to be added to it. Louis Sachal’s Holes, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, among others, could easily and justifiably be added to the list.

According to Arthur N. Applebee, the top 7 full-length works studied in school are,

Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare
Macbeth by Shakespeare
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Twain
To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee
Julius Caesar by Shakespeare
The Pearl by Steinbeck
The Scarlett Letter by Hawthorne

I studied four of the above works in high school and one in university. That is 5 out of 7 for me. How about you?

I believe that these works deserve to be in the canon and that students should be exposed to them. I believe that the work of Shakespeare is invaluable and that its inclusion in the canon cannot be disputed on any rational level.

I also believe that most readers can appreciate what makes a literary work great. We all understand the basic tenants of story and desire to have good stories told to us. The study of literature gives us the language and objective evaluation tools to merit what work should be heralded as classic.

I believe that modern, popular work is starting to get more recognition from literary circles. The Time magazine article, for example also includes Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. I know this list is debatable but I also believe that many of the people in the literary circle will agree on most of the selections included. It’s nice to see modern, popular work being considered in the same category of the old, tried and true works that most people associate with the canon.

So tell me.
How many of the 7 works have you studied in school?
Have you read any on your own?
What do you think should be added to the list?

8 responses to “Who Loads the Canon?”

  1. Hmm… Only studied two of these at school (Romeo an Juliet and To Kill a Mockingbird), and I've read the other two Shakespeares myself. I'm assuming this list is American? Perhaps it would be slightly different in Britain. In any case, I wholeheartedly agree that certain works have to be included in the canon, and that Shakespeare, certainly, can't be disputed. I've also written a mini-essay on my blog on the very same subject if you're interested: http://www.perplexicon.net/2009/08/do-we-need-a-canon/

  2. Hi David Michael,

    I swung by your blog and left a comment there as well. You made some really great points there. I think anyone who likes my post should check out yours as well.

    I think the canon might differ depending on where you live. I really didn't think it would change that much in the UK however. Interesting.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. In school I remember studying all but To Kill a Mockingbird and The Pearl. And as I recall, coverage of Macbeth and Julius Caesar was sparse. And not one have I read on my own. Saying that makes me feel lame. What's this world coming to?

    Honestly, so many could be added to the list. There is more good literature out there that I could ever read in a lifetime.

  4. Hey thanks for checking out my blog.

    I guess the canon probably isn't much different in the two countries. It's roughly the same throughout the West, though probably France would have more French literature, and so on. But what I meant was that the list of the top books studied in school might be different. Probably slightly more American literature in America and vice versa.

  5. I read 3 of them: Julius Caesar, To Kill a Mockingbird and Macbeth. I read Huck Finn on my own.

    I would add Lord of the Flies, 1984, Animal Farm and Frankenstein to the list if I could. Being Canadian, if there were a separate Canadian list, I'd add The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz as well.

    – Elle

  6. Hi Ryan,

    I agree that so many more works could be added to the list. That is why I run a feature here called Recommended Reads. Of course, the only problem is finding the time to read them all.

    Hi Elle,

    Great additions. I have read almost all of those. It looks like you might have added one more book to my list of "should reads." I'll have to check out The Apprenticeship. I had never heard of that one before.

  7. All Applebee did was to document the books that are actually read in schools. He wasn't making the claim that these books should be read, or even that they're "good" books.

    It's funny to hear people talking about what they would add to the canon "if they could." It makes it seem like there's an application process or something. There's no such thing as a master list of books that are canonical. Every institution, every school, every person has their own canon. Sure, there are books that get read over and over again (like Romeo and Juliet), but not because they're on some official list that's locked up in someone's office somewhere. It's because, as Wendell Harris puts it, they're part of the "ongoing critical colliquey." Simply put, people keep talking about these books. There's still something to say. That's why we keep reading them. Harold Bloom claims that a book is canonical when it has become part of "societal memory." I like that idea.

    I love this topic. I'm writing my dissertation on it.

    High School English Teacher
    Doctoral Student, Seattle Pacific University

  8. Hi Jeremy,

    It is interesting to see that so many teachers seem to gravitate towards the same material without there being any official canonical list. There seems to be a common consensus as to what books are on this non-existent list. I think it is because those books are timeless and always spark intelligent discussion.

    Thanks for the excellent comment. Good luck with your dissertation.