Colby Magazine

Volume 88 Issue 1 Winter 1999 Article 7

January 1999

The Canon Debate: What Makes You Think That Book is So Great?

Charles Bassett Colby College

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Recommended Citation Bassett, Charles (1999) "The Canon Debate: What Makes You Think That Book is So Great?," Colby Magazine: Vol. 88 : Iss. 1 , Article 7. Available at: https://digitalcommons.colby.edu/colbymagazine/vol88/iss1/7

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F irst of al I, in a burst of uncharacteristic humi I ity, let me confess that I did not aspire to share these words with the learned body of Colby alumni. The genesis of this article was a speech to some of the best and brightest students at Colby, the Dana and Bixler

Scholars-an audience willing to show up on a Friday night in

October to hear me do something besides read ghost stories.

My title for that speech was "The Literary Canon and How It

Works"; it should have been" Literary Canons and How They Work."

In 1999, I think that most of us will agree that we have no unique literary canon that all readers in the world understand as absolute, transcendent and beyond debate. Thus, I should more accurately speak of canons, except that when I mentioned this plural title to one of my more literal students, he asked how I got interested in artillery.

The canons under scrutiny here have only one n and require no ammunition, though they are tended by a very expert yet jealou ·ly exclu�ive cadre of "operator ."

These operators range from countle ·choolteacher ("You have to read that or flunk!");to the 19th-century Eng Ii h Iiterary crittc latthew Arnold ("the he t that wa thought and �aid"); to the Book-of-the- lonch luh; to the Encyclopedia Brnanrnca

(Grear Books of che \Xlestem World , 1rca 1952); to ollege� named r. John\ 111

nnapolisand anra Fe, the umcula of wh1ch arc a canon oi"great hook,"; to the Yale literary guru Harold Bloom (The \\'.'escem anon, 1994 ); to T\'' Oprah\ &iok luh.

ver and above ,111 oi che�e. the rre�1denr of t)lh l)llcge annu,1lh tell m1.:mber ot h1, baccalaureate audience 111 Lorimer hare! tL) keep a gl xi hook \\1th chem on all jt)umev� and tL) jt)ll1 the rubhc lihr..11), where g,xx.I lxx)k, arc re.kith ,1\".1il.ibk.

I TE R Like any group of literate American mous unread novel of all time, James And, ofcourse, the press servicesloved in 1999, reader of this article would Joyce' Ulysses. As K. J. H. Dettmar char­ comparing the Modern Library List to applaud Bill Cotter's advice but disagree acteri:ed The List: "It's too white (no another Top 100 compiled at about the violently about what book would be Toni Morrison ?), too male (no Toni same time by the (predominately fe male con idered "good." Even people who re­ Morrison I), too dead (no Thoma and young) students at the Radcliffe Pub­ ,·ile canon and canon-maker know that Pynchon? no Don Delillo? no Toni lishing Cour e. These canoneers didn't Harlequin romance and the authori:ed Morrison?); too Anglo-American (no forget Toni Morrison (or Alice Walker, biography of Dennis Rodman aren't good adine Gordimer?); too middlebrow or some others), but they brought scorn book , let alone . (Brave ew World in the top 10?); too self­ on their Ii t by including The Wizard of evertheless, reading anything at inrerested (over half the books are pub­ Oz and Charlotte's Web and The Wind in all-short of the Boise telephone direc­ lished by the Modern Library itself)." The the Willows, all of lovely reads but rory-i increa ingly rare in American Modem Library Advisory Board almost almo t never considered "great." culture. Let me be perf ectly clear: I'd immediately backed off in print, lamely o, you see, even as we seek va I idation prefer that my tudent read almost an)' confe sing that they'd been hoodwinked ofour reading choicesby "experts," we will novel or noYeli t-John Gri ham, Diuine by The List's catalyst, Christopher Cerf. spit fire if omehow our favorite novel is Secrets of che Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Danielle tyron eventually characteri:ed The Li t left out. I hare my friend Conarroe's in­ reel-rather than be drugge.,hoot m' that omeone out there loved Morris on The List' glories and omissions "good," "great," "clas- Paulie, the epitome of G fi lm -another in The ew York Times BookReview in late canon, you will note, Hollywood tyle. August did little to soothe the dis­ omehow, reader , like diners and gruntled. Morris had never heard of football fans anUrroundmg Top 100 list-and for the astonishing rhe :-.hxlem L1hrary\ 11',r of rhe 100he.,r absence of such writer\ writers as John Eng]1,h-l.111guage novel, ofrhe 20th cen­ Updike, Eudora Welty, Flannery tury, .1 n i ...rer rh,u ,ippeared 111 almo'r e\·el)· O' onnor and Fiann O'Brien. con1..e1\·,1hle medium ]a,r 'ummer ,md 1 Were the centul)·\ 100 he.,t his­ noll" c.illed '11npl) "The L1,t." A d1,r111- tlll)' hoob to he .,elected and

J.!lll'lll'd ,1d1 1,or, h..i,1rd mdudmg \X/il- ranked h) , the re. ulrs (c,1h, ,1f no,·e], like /31m and /. 76), the would douhtle.,., he no le.,., Rnu'h n11n�1i,r A. . R\ .lll (the 11nh mepr than th1., hland pud­ ll'

n' 11 ughL" I 111 11 nh rhc1r dl'cllon,,.mLI, rnL' 1 norm ,111) ,1 l"l'l) 1..,ilm I re liL1.1l h, fur lll'11 .111 rhc 11 ,1v l

literary greame s being the po\\'erof John O' Hara, an author's \\'Ork to mtlucncLother Appointment in Samarra write� O\'Cr the age,. Bk><)m\ t'>a sclf-refcrcnttal anon, dctcr­ J. D. Salinger, mmcd not hy ,chool tea her'> Nine Stories or lxx)k rc\·1cwcr'> l)r tdcn­

>tlm pcr,onaltt1c' but h,·

l\TltCr'> 'pcakmg (l) \ITH­ John Steinbeck, Cr'>. The h6t 1\TttCr'> arc Tortilla Flat thl)'C whl) "pr,)\'l)kc 1mmcn,c amb1\·,1- , lcncc 111 thl)--C who Rabbit, Run Cl me .1 ttcr them." ,1 Canonization is a dicey business. Just ask the folks at Random House, whose Modern Library 100 last summer inflamed the passions of readers who disliked many of its choices and wondered at the temerity of even attempting to select a "best" book. Undeterred by the controversy, or perhaps emboldened by it, the Library Journal recently developed a list of its own by asking librarians across the country to weigh in with their selections. The result was a top 100 dramatical ly different from the Modern Library compilation. Only 38 books appear on both lists. The highest-rated book from the combined lists is The Great Gatsby . Four of the top five and 11 of the top 20 in the Library Journallis t do not appear on the Modern Library list. Six of the Modern Library's top 20 failed to make the LJ 100. There was at least one book about which the list-makers agreed. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is number 45 on both lists. The Modern Library Top 100 is printed below. Bold-faced titles are those that also appear in the Library Journal list. The correspond­ ing ratings from the LJ list are in parentheses.

1. Ulysses, James Joyce (44l 24. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson (59) 2. Th e Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (13) 25. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (75) 3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (53) 26. The Wings of the Dove, 4. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (17) 27. The Ambassadors, Henry James 5. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (41) 28. Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald 6. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (47) 29. The Studs Lanigan Trilogy, James T. Farrell 7. Catch-22, Joseph Heller (10) 30. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (77) 8. Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler 31. , George Orwell (8) 9. Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence 32. The Golden Bowl, Henry James 10. The Grapes of Wra th, John Steinbeck (20l 33. Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser (86l 11. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry 34. A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh 12. The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler 35. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner 13. 1984, George Orwel I (7) 36. All the King's Men, (94) 14. I, Claudius, Robert Graves (70l 37. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 15. To the Lighthouse, (60) 38. Howard's End, E. M. Forster 16. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser 39. Go Tell It on the Mountain, 17. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson Mccullers 40. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene 18. Slaughterhouse-Five, (14) 41. , William Golding (9) 19. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (28) 42. Deliverance, James Dickey 20. Native Son, Richard Wright (31) 43. A Dance to the Music of Time (series), Anthony Powell 21. Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow 44. Point Counter Point, Aldous Hux ley 22. Appointment in Samarra, John O'Hara 45. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (45l 23. U. S.A. (trilogy), John Dos Passos (97) 46. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad

phenomenon that Bloom calls the "anxi­ who care nothing for literature per se; read Shakespeare's or ety of influence." Bloom's canon of great these resentful theorists, Bloom says, are the "who begot whom" chapters of the book doesn't exist to free readers from using literature as a chip in a game of soc ial Bible experienced some "difficult plea­ anxiety; a canon is an achieved anxiety, engineering or as a signifier in a nihilistic sure"; you just didn't recognize it as plea­

JU'>ta;. any trong literary work is its author's and meaningless dance of words. sure of any sort. Reading Bloom's best a h1eveJ anxiety. The literary canon does In fact, Bloom him elf expressly ab­ books "can bring one to the proper use of not hapn:e us mto culture ; it does not jure any ocial "worth" for literature. one's own solitude, that solitude who e make u> free of cultural anxiety. Rather, it "Reading the very best writers ...is [not] final form is one's confrontation with " onfinn.," our ultural anxienes, yet help going to make us beuer citi:ens." Bloom one's own mortality." g1,·e them form anJ coherence. claims that "the tudy of literature ...will Charl.otte's Web probably won't do that. 1ven th1-. muamural Jefi111t1on of rhe nor ave any individual any more than it Neither will Dorothy's conclusion that great ,1 anx1et) pmJucer , Bloom' choice will impr ve any ociety." o much for "There's no place like home." But I frankly ,!\ the mo t 1mponantauthor m the We t­ rho e who believe that Lincoln was right do nor demand a confrontation with my ernc lntlt1 Mon�tl\ er, Bloom won 'r even grant that read mg good books himself to appreciate Mark Twain's satire renle rhti-e h11l.1r.-. he Lall, "the exrm­ 1 fu n: "The rexr 1 there not to give r Jame Thurber's essays. Or even the ltrcr.ir, · h1)ol ,>f Re LntmLnr"' -the pica ure hur rhe high unplea ure or more Miami newspaper columnist Dave Barry,

Fcmm1't', . I 1rx1 t" L:1L.tnl tn , 1 '1.:11 H1-,­ d1ff1rnlt plea.,ure rhat a lc'>>er text will who convulses me once a unday. an a t< •rtu't , l\:t.nn rru1.:t10111 r,, ·m1ot1u.m , nut prm 1de." I'll her that all of you who "great" k be fu nny? Somehow I don't 47. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad 81. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow 48. The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence 82. Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner (42) 49. Women in Love, D.H. Lawrence (95) 83. A Bend in the River, V.S. Naipaul 50. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller 84. The Death of the Heart, 51. The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer 85. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad 52. Portnoy's Complaint, (80) 86. Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow (86) 53. , Vladimir Nabokov 87. The Old Wives' Tale, Arnold Bennett 54. Light in August, William Faulkner 88. The Call of the Wild, Jack London (67l 55. On the Road, Jack l

think a confrontation with mortality in own gender, race, cla , exual orienra­ your way through rhe /\.lodem L1haT) li'r every book would wring a mile from even tion, occupation, religion, etc. But then, and make hn topher crfnch. Re-read

the most nc rophiliac ommon Reader. o does everyone el e' Ii t. The Wizard of Oz and come ro appreu,1te

o where arc we ? Whom can we tru·t? everal year ago, omeone diagno ed Kan a . Read Oscar · Lucinda h Peter What sho11ld we read? l depend primarily my fascination with O'Hara as pure iden­ arey and plea'e m� fnend \m.imie. on my friends to expand my own canon. tification: O'Hara and I were middle-cla s Read new>paper , read maga:me , re.id edri Bryant, my friend and colleague lri·h atholics struggling to enchant the 1ournab.Read mg needn't he conhned to in English here, force· me to rea I hi countT)' club et in ocially rigid >mall prmt media: read movie,, 'It-com,, p.1111t­ discoveries- harles Fra:ier'· old citie . ow, both of us, havmg read The mg,, advem,mg. Interpret, "decon rruct,"

Mo11ntain is the late�t. John Edgar real acsbyand recogn1:mg the anxiety 'peculate, d1'cu '· D1m't ,jr m111Jle I ideman's stories \\'ere anocher Bryant of its influence, houldhave reah:L I that 'tanng ar Paultt, wh11'L 'dh p.tm t m.1 addition. ly phy,1cist buddy, hclby our p1t1ful �truggle, were dtxlmed and faced have .i deep culrnr11 ''t.'l11llc.111ce rh.tt

clson, introdu ed me ro a little gem of up mourmortahty. But O'Hara \\'enton m e c.ipedme .•�eek rhe .!TLH. You'll never am vel, The II of le by Jeannette Ha1en, pubh,h 4 6 'hon '[l)ne,, 13 mwcl , eight t1 11d n until Y1>u re 1J LttlL Im the 111ter­

a pleasure I had been m1,�mg >lllCe it' plav (rememkr PL1/ JD<'-;;?), ,e,·eral lxxiJ..., t:,tlll\! if vuu h,1\·L h • \, m,urer \\ h. t

publi· ation m 1986. nd I h

idios ·ncrati - favonre, John 'Hara­ He died many nme' a milliLma1re ma ,c11- g,)("Jd tlmt: 111 the pnxe '· :\nJ \ u ne\·er \\'ho is on some canon> ( BloL1m\, the de,1gnecl mantlr hL1u,c 11n Pretr\ Rr1x1k kn1m \\ h.u \\1u md1t le 1m. I h.1rrcn r

lndem Library's), offorhe � (Radcliffe\). Rll,lcl near Pnnce[l)n. kn1 \\ rh.1t rherc .ire rn o Ch rle, B.1 ctr I leap ro admit that R.1>>ett\ anL1n­ :\nJ here I .1 m \\ ntmg m /h,. 111 the 1 c telephone J1rccr T).

like all those L1ther canon,, 111d1ndu,1l L1r 0 Llt tL ) b.1d fornL1n-c.m,,111c.1l t,' Tl u hL-.... Chares Basse t s LeeFam y Pro essorof :.mercan committee-generared-retlecr' B.1 '•tt\ Bur read e\·er, ch.111ce nlu get. Re.1J Studes and E gs