Who? What? Reading the Western Canon

Visiting Risa’s blog and attending my last lessons on Caribbean literature, I came across the following question:

What is a classic and who tells us what to read?

There is a bunch a titles in English literature that seem to have read by almost everyone, at least, that is the popular perception. However, when asking people not too many have actually read them. I am talking about Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Woman in White, A Room of One’s Own and the likes.

Studying literature in college should assure me to read a good number of them, but it is not so. One Dickens’, one Brontë and Collins, one Fitzgerald, one Hemingway (as you see they are almost all men!) if you dare to chose an optional subject in your last year. Despite their literary relevance  -I would swear The Woman in White has more influence in nowadays detective literature as Sherlock Holmes does- we do not really get to them.

It is in our teachers’ hands to choose not only what to read, but also who and when. Asking first years to read Dickens may not be a good idea so, which author is good for a starting point? When is it the moment to introduce students to novels that need a background research/history and philosophy knowledge?

What’s your story regarding classics and reading? How do you choose what and who to read? 

I must admit I read almost every compulsory reading in college and then I try to read another kind of literature in my free time: from bestsellers to another classics not included in my programms, I shift from one quality to another. Sometimes, I need a rest from deep ideas and buy a New York Post bestseller’s list and others, I do my own research. There are lots of fields I do not study at college: Southern authors, some “classics”, Irish authors and feminist literature among others. I try to cover them all as much as I can.

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19 thoughts on “Who? What? Reading the Western Canon

  1. Shannon says:

    I bought a western canon collection from Barnes and Nobles so I am working my way through that. Reading it almost exclusively. What I love about reading the classics is I can pretty much guarantee reading any book from my collection will not be a waste of my time. Even if I don’t love it, it’s still worth knowing. I’ve never been a big fan of modern best sellers lists. If I want something light hearted and easy, I just read Jane Austen

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    • Elena says:

      Mmm I don’t like Austen which I read when I was 19. I like sci-fi and detective stories so, once in a while I buy one and then I freak out because I desperately need something deep.

      How is that western canon collection called, if you don’t mind my asking? Is it annotated? It sounds great.

      Thanks for visiting!

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    • Elena says:

      Wow, that’s a lot of money for one investment!!

      And the brief annotations are the bests because they don’t distract you from reading. Thanks a lot for the discover.

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  2. Bex says:

    Thanks for visiting my blog! This is a great post. The first classic I read was Jane Eyre, at the very end of secondary school. Although actually, now I think about it, we were reading Shakespeare from around the age of 14 onwards. I didn’t really get into reading classics for ‘fun’ though until I started at university, and got the gorgeous two volumes of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which run from the middle ages up to the 20th century. After uni I sold most of my course books, but couldn’t bring myself to part with these! They are mostly great for poetry and essays, but do have a few full length works in them (Frankenstein, Heart of Darkness etc).
    Since I started blogging, I’ve had so many people give me so many great recommendations for classics, that I tend to pick them up second hand now, but I have to say I do absolutely love the ones in the picture here!

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    • Elena says:

      My pleasure, Bex! Thank you for visiting too.

      I don’t think I could part with any of my college books (although there are exceptions, like 17th century literature) there is something about them. Mostly, that they remind me of my teachers and how much I’ve learned thanks to both the books and the lessons. However, if I keep buying books like I do nowadays, I’d rather buy a flat and turn it into my own library… Wouldn’t it be great?

      Lots of people have told me about Norton and my teachers usually copy some short stories so we can highlight what we like and discuss. Maybe, if I become a teacher, I’ll have to buy them too.

      Hope to see you back soon.

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  3. She says:

    The first classic I ever read was A Tale of Two Cities, but I don’t like to think about that. It was just so awful for me (and teacher mandated at that!). I like to say that my first classic was The Count of Monte Cristo (not teacher mandated) because it was the first one I LOVED and really opened my eyes to books that aren’t pop.

    Now I read classics in part because I feel as though I’m obligated to– in order to be well read and all that. BUT I also do it because I love them. They aren’t mandated by teachers/professors/etc. I love finding new old authors I love. I will not, however, read an author’s whole works if I really cannot stand them. I don’t feel that obligated.

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    • Elena says:

      That’s a great point, She. I got to read too many “old” works I don’t care about because I don’t like them in literary terms. However, during the summer I alternate best sellers and classics and I’ve found myself reading classics my teachers haven’t told us about! These discoveries end up being much more special than any compulsory reading.

      Thanks for visiting!

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  4. Risa says:

    I was going through the responses to this post when some things Shannon and She said caught my attention.

    One. Do we really feel like we’ve gained something from reading a classic we didn’t particularly enjoy? Why is that? Is it just a feeling because these books come highly recommended or is it because whether we like it or not the reading has affected us in some way?

    Two. Must we really feel obligated to read the classics? I know that at times I feel this way. Later, I’m not so sure if I’d have done better to read a classic I knew I’d enjoy instead of labouring through something that the ‘world’ dictates I should read in order to be well-read. Very often I find myself facing this dilemma where the Russian writers are concerned…:-/

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    • Elena says:

      I completely agree. I may gain more and feel more mature with a posctolonial poem no one considers to be in the list of the “well-read” people. I personally feel Annie John has enriched my life much more than Robinson Crusoe…

      Thanks for your always interesting and critical view, Risa. It is a pleasure to have you around!

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      • Risa says:

        Annie John…I should see if I can read something from her. Though truth to tell, I am not all that much into poetry. I love to study it but I don’t read it for pleasure. Does that make sense?

        Yes…your example makes what I was trying to say extremely clear. Put very neatly.:D

        But tell me, do you ever pick up a book you feel ‘compelled’ to read (apart from a course book, i.e.)? Do you ever feel ‘guilty’ for not reading a well-acclaimed book? I confess, I feel it sometimes. But I console myself by saying that afterall one person can’t read all the ‘good’ books in the world, right?

        And thank you!…I enjoy the discussions we have on our blogs.:D

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  5. Elena says:

    Annie John is a novella by Jamaica Kincaid and it is about the growing up of a girl in the isle of Antigua, under English colonization (at least, cultural).

    And… well. I do not have too much free time to read what I really like so I try to make the best of, mainly, my summers and read three kinds of books I really like: detective stories, feminist narrative and NY Times’ best sellers. However, some detective stories and feminist novels are “classics” and I do feel some kind of professional obligation to read them.

    But you won’t find me reading Russian authors, 18th century English essayists or Shakespearian works unless I feel trully interested.

    Do you feel that way?

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  6. David says:

    Elena,
    You have a wonderful blog here!

    Classics. For me, reading Homer, Dickens, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner – you know the list – has been, first of all, an excersise in continuous amazement. Not just for “literary” reasons, how the author constructs his or her work, or the features of a writer’s style, although that is certainly a large part of it, and gorgeous writing can induce a kind of ecstasy. But more because, through the voice of a great writer, I hear thoughts, my own, thoughts I didn’t even know I was having. Emotions, too. When, in TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, the characters plan to visit the lighthouse but never do, I recognize a certain thrust to my own life of which I was only partly, or inarticulately, aware. Or, when W. H. Auden writes “Lay your sleeping head, my love/Human on my faithless arm;” I am made aware of a kind of true humanity, in myself, which I might otherwise have disowened.

    Whether or not I “enjoy” a book is, I believe, one of the least interesting things a I can say about a book. Liking, or disliking, is the starting point. It leads quickly to the questions: “What is exciting me here?” “What do I find repellent?” “Am I bored? What does this say about me as reader? Do I not relate? Why not? Or, do I not want to relate? Maybe I’m bored because I’m feeling overloaded by this book. What is overloading me? Is the writer’s literary experiment stretching me past my comfort zone?” In other words, my response to a book may tell me far more about myself than about the book. In which case, even a book I might have an aversion to has expanded me, opened me to a fuller experience of life.

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    • Elena says:

      What a wonderful reply, David. Thanks for visiting!!

      What you say is why I believe in literature. There is something in words that moves us, connects us etc.

      However, works that are not classics can also provoke that change. For example, I never thought I would enjoy postcolonial literature (take for example, a short story from Kenya) because I could not relate to the landscape, the culture etc. But, I found myself identified and moved by African writers, because after all, we are all humans and losing a relative is as painful here as in Africa. Same happens with Shakespeare, it still amazes me that I can relate to someone from the Renaissance, but his wonderful psychological portraits allow me to.

      That is why I love literature!!

      Hope to have you back soon and thanks for the reply.

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      • David says:

        I’m sure you’ve heard all the arguments about what constitutes a “classic” in the first place, how a work gains admission into the canon, and just whose canon is it anyway. All essential questions to consider.

        I think that one of the great benefits a reader accesses by engaging with a work that has, by cultural consent, been knighted a classic, is that, in addition to the expansive richness I mentioned yesterday, the reader also gains a greater commerce with the culture doing the knighting.
        By reading MOBY DICK, we are deepened in our understanding of the ideas, both intellectual and spiritual, that have shaped our world, and us in that world. We gain something like a common foundation to our knowledge, a common intellectual and spiritual vocabulary, whereby we can talk better to each other. We agree, don’t we, that we want to talk better to each other.

        That said, of course these heart-opening virtues come to us through none-canonical, non-“classic” books as well. In fact, I would say it is vital that we encounter books that hale from elsewhere. I’ll never forget the shattering experience I had after reading WEDDING SONG, by the Egyptian author, Naguib Mahfouz. It has been years since I read it, and I barely remember the story, but I remember, upon closing the book, the onset of a completely involuntary bout of weeping. I doubt it would have quite the same effect now. Timing, personal factors, certain vulnerabilities, all factor into one’s experience of a book.

        I would love to know the Kenyan author you are so admiring of. What was the story? Where might I find it? What other African authors have impressed you?

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    • Elena says:

      Don’t worry!

      The short story is The Martyr by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It is one of my favourite non-Western short stories.

      On the other hand, I’ve been incredibly influenced by Jane Eyre and The Woman in White. They are key works in the construction of women’s identity through history but they can also shape the reader as they get into the story.

      Thank you so much for coming back!

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  7. sadiejean says:

    I just finished Jane Eyre about a month ago, I listened to it on audiobook and really loved it. Jane is one of my all time favorite literary characters. After, I listened to Wuthering Heights. I was not as much of a fan. That is one weird story. Right now I’m tackling The Grapes of Wrath. I really loved East of Eden when I read it about 5 years ago, but I’ve forgotten how much Steinbeck talks about setting instead of characters. And my other goal for the next year or two is to read through the entire collection of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve done 3 out of 4 of the novels, and am about to start the short stories. But I think I prefer The Woman in White!

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    • Elena says:

      Jane Eyre is great… and Wuthering Heights’ first half is good too. But then things get messed up and well, I found it difficult to understand, really!!

      I had to read a selection of chapters from The Grapes of Wrath this year and I liked the idea but I agree Steinbeck talks too much about the setting (you gotta tell me about the ending because it’s… unique).

      Sherlock Holmes rocks. We all know that, but the Woman in White is the trully Victorian masterpiece. I’ve heard The Moonstone by the same author is equally good.

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