Today I wanted to talk about the Literary Canon i.e. the greats and the classics of literature that have stood the test of time. The word canon comes from the ancient Greek word kanṓn meaning a measuring rod or standard, and these works are considered to be the best of what has been produced in storytelling.
I’m a literature graduate, so I think there’s a lot of value in the canon and here’s why I think people should consider reading these books.
My number one reason to read the literary canon is that a lot of the books featured are timeless. These are books that are relevant today in story, character or message no matter when they were written. The language may be older and the way that the characters act may seem alien to you, but that doesn’t mean the stories can’t resonate. There’s a reason why Pride and Prejudice has been adapted, remade and re-imagined so many times: the story is timeless!
Examples: Pride & Prejudice, Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird
Here’s the thing about writers: they are nerds. In my first year of uni I studied classical texts, medieval to renaissance literature and modern world literature. This was my foundation for everything I would read after it. Once you’ve read things like The Iliad, you see how much writers have been influenced by previous great authors and works and it makes the meaning of the work deeper.
Literally, the entirety of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is filled with intertextuality meaning that each reader has a different understanding of the poem depending on what they’ve read in the past. This extends to contemporary books too and it makes my nerdy heart glow.
Examples: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare opens on a club called Pandemonium. This references John Milton’s epic tale Paradise Lost where he invented the term Pandemonium meaning a place where all demons live. Understanding this gives a clue and nerdy readers (like me!).
And who could forget this classic Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror episode, riffing off of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven?
Missing Out on Really Good Books
Simply put, just because a novel is old does not mean that it is boring. Yes, it might not be as easy to consume as literature is today but that doesn’t mean it should be valued less. Dismissing classics as a whole is a limited perspective and I believe there is something in the canon for everyone. It’s also not limited to wordy, Victorian novels but includes poetry, plays and as it continues to grow, modern classics.
Examples: The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, anything by Agatha Christie
Widen Your Scope
Reading something outside of your comfort zone is a great thing; it widens your view of the world and your understanding of it. I have an interest in the position of women historically and how this has changed. Reading a contemporary 17th century book is reflective of views at the time and is a great window to understand society at the time. There is a plethora of literature that can expand your understanding of the world.
Examples: Interested in what it was like to be a woman in the 19th century? Read a Jane Austen novel. Want to know about the AIDs epidemic in the 80s? Read Angels in America. Looking to understand the Holocaust better? Read Art Spiegalman’s Maus.
So, what do you think – are you a reader of the ‘greats and classics’? Which literary classics have surprised you?
I’ll be following up on this post with one on why you don’t *need* to read the canon too, so let me know if you disagree!