Monday, July 13, 2009

Trimming the Canon

A group of contributors at The Second Pass have compiled a list of ten books that should be stricken from the canon. As it says in the introduction, this ‘is a list of ten books that will be pressed into your hands by ardent fans. Resist these people. Life may not be too short (I’m only in my mid-30s, and already pretty bored), but it’s not endless.’

Among the list are several books I have read, and I have to agree that some of these choices seem justifiable to me. For example, I really did enjoy Don DeLillo’s White Noise when I read it about ten years ago, but it read as
dated even then. Sure it’s prescient, but when what it was prescient about is itself old news, perhaps it isn’t a crime to skip this.

Also must concur with the elimination of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I only read this novel because a friend of mine told me it was the best novel he had read that year (2006, I bel
ieve). As The Second Pass notes, the plot is secondary and the characters so vague that they can be nothing but archetypes. The prose can be commended separately I suppose, but when putting it in service to such a mediocre tale, it makes a person wonder what the point is.

Perhaps a bit more surprising is the inclusion of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I read in high school and thought was for the same sorts of people who thought ‘enlightenment ala Robert Pirsig’ was cool. Maybe I just don’t get the Beat writers. But the exclusion of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was quite shocking. Not so much because of the call for decanonization, but instead that it is part of the canon in the first place. I really liked the book when I read it last month, but would I have classified it as a must-read? Of course not.

I’ve begun to wonder what other books might be excised from the foreboding list of all literature that you must read. The Merry Wives of Windsor for sure, as well as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, a novel I found so incredibly overrated that it put me off of later-Roth for the better part of a year. The poetry of Sir Philip Sidney. But with the loose definition of canon used by The Second Pass, perhaps it wouldn’t actually be that hard to get rid of things, even books I loved. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was fantastic, but no one is going to read that in fifty years.

I suppose lists of ‘canonical’ books are interesting because they give a reader a place to start, but as the piece points out, the lists are so long that one has nowhere near the amount of time to actually make it through everything (even leaving out the great books that would be written between now and the end of that reader’s life). So the impulse to throw out some of the ‘canon’ to make it more manageable makes sense, but somehow I doubt throwing out ten books really makes all that much of a difference.

A question: which books have you read that you would consider recommending against and adding to the list?

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