Contemplating the Western Canon: What’s Wrong, What’s Right, And Why We Should Care

I am currently reading a non-fiction book about classic literature “from Homer to Faulkner;” and in the introduction to the book the author states that she will be addressing Western literature as we traditionally know it, without attempting to redress imbalances or redefine the canon.  This statement got me thinking about “the Western canon”: What is it? What does it include? And what is its relevance and meaning in our culture and academic institutions?

What It Is

The question of “What is the Western canon?” seems like it would have an obvious answer. My own answer (off the top of my head and completely inadequate) would be “It’s the books we all study in high school and college, the ones that are considered timeless and important.” The problem with my inadequate answer is that it only leads to further questions: “How do you define important?” “WHO defines important?” “How long does a book have to be around to be considered ‘timeless’?” As it turns out, trying to define a classic is like trying to define art—no one can define it, but everyone knows it when they see (or read) it.

Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on my musings alone for this; we can look to others who are for more educated and experienced than I am. Harold Bloom—my personal favorite literary guru and author of many books of literary criticism, including Novelists and Novels—writes that his three criteria for greatness (not exactly the same as importance, but close enough perhaps?) in imaginative literature are “aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, wisdom.” Timelessness (or relevance) doesn’t even factor into the equation for Bloom, who writes that “What is now called ‘relevance’ will be in the dustbins in less than a generation.”

Clifton Fadiman, author of The Lifetime Reading Plan, takes another view and writes that “over three thousand years of western history, there has gradually accumulated a body of what have been called ‘original communications.’ The schoolroom term is classic, and that is all right with me if we add Carl Van Doren’s definition: ‘A classic is a book that doesn’t have to be rewritten.’” Fadiman says nothing about relevance, but I interpret his words to mean that a classic is something that continues to have meaning for us.

If you’re looking for a more forceful definition you might prefer the one found on Wikipedia’s page on the Western canon: “The term Western canon denotes a canon of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the ‘greatest works of artistic merit.’” Again here we have the issue with the last sentence of how do you, and who gets to, define “greatest?” But I do like what Wikipedia has to say about influence in shaping our culture.

What It Includes

If we can’t pin down a definition of “classic” or “Western canon”, I thought perhaps it would be easier to address the issue of exactly what is included in the Western canon?  For this I decided to start with my own bookshelves. My literary mentors (Harold Bloom, W. Somerset Maugham, Michael Dirda, Clifton Fadiman, and Susan Wise Bauer) were less help than I might have hoped, under the circumstances. Although each of them has a list of what they consider “Western classics,” no two lists are exactly the same. Some are shorter than others, some are of approximate equal length but the titles and authors don’t match up. Wikipedia’s page on the Western canon included further suggested lists and resources; each of these as different in their own way as the lists from my literary mentors. From all this I conclude that “the Western canon” may be more an idea or ideal than it is a single concrete list.

So why do we even have a Western canon of great literature if we can’t agree on what great literature is or what should be included on the list? And in light of this, is it reasonable to be concerned about imbalances or deficiencies? Do we only have a list of Great Books so that we can disagree about it?

Having a list of great books so that we can argue and disagree about it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to me. Respectful argument and discussion is a proven and time-honored path to education, legislation, transformation, and more. Disagreement keeps the blood flowing and the brain working, and it holds stagnation at bay. And consider, how bad can it be to have someone with different experiences suggesting great books for you to read? “So you think this book is great enough to be on the list? Well I don’t know, I’d better read it to verify.” Seriously, I can think of worse things.

It’s not adding books to this nebulous list that causes trouble, it’s when someone suggests that old favorites (or not so favorites) should be removed or replaced by newer, less tried, or more politically correct (a.k.a. culturally relevant?) titles that we run into trouble. And here is where we get to the crux of the issue—what meaning does the Western canon have for our culture and academic institutions?

What It Means To Us

The way I see it, the Western canon actually serves two very important purposes: as a chronicle and as a guide.

As a chronicle the Western canon seems to be a better record of the history of Western civilization than most of the history books out there. First of all, the body of literature of a culture or society presents a more complete and holistic record than any single textbook could. People, places, politics, technology, religion, and a record of daily life are all expressed in works of non-fantastical literature (including fiction, plays, biographies and other non-fiction.) But it doesn’t stop there; opinions about the past, commentary on the present, and hopes and fears for the future are often expressed through fantasy literature, science fiction, and other kinds of speculative fiction. Every aspect of society will be expressed in one way or another (and often in many and varied ways) through literature, giving the most complete, accurate, and well-rounded record one could ask for.

Furthermore, as cultures and governments evolve textbooks tend to be rewritten as political parties and leaders move in and out of power. But while these textbooks may be rewritten with every revolving political agenda, the original works of literature remain unchanged. Any reader with a desire to know about the religious views of the founding fathers, how colonization changed the face of the world, or what caused the fall of ancient Rome need only look to the literature.

The final (and perhaps most important) purpose of the Western canon is as a guide. In a world where there truly are “so many books, so little time” the canon serves as a starting point, a list of the tried and true, the books that have proven over the centuries to be beautiful, thought provoking, and worth spending your time on. This doesn’t mean that every person will like every book and it doesn’t mean that you have to read every title on the list. There are no rules about what to read or when to read it or in what order. The Western canon is merely a suggestion, as if the smartest people throughout history are sitting at your elbow saying “Oh yes, this one, read this book, it’s a good one.” You can take their advice or not, the choice is yours.

Any reader knows, however, that one book will often lead to another, and to another… It is very likely that as you make your way through the Western canon you will stray from that list often, following a literary or historical path as it meanders through an era, or from master to apprentice, or from fiction to biography. This is one of the great delights of reading and should not be denied; but it’s nice to know that when you come to the end of your literary offshoot you can always come back to the canon for more “Great Book” suggestions.

Does this mean the Western canon is perfect? No, I don’t believe it does. Should we take it upon ourselves to address any deficiencies or oversights in the canon? Absolutely we should! The Western canon contains what it does because the great thinkers of our civilization have changed and added to it over the centuries; conversely, our civilization is what it is now because of how the great works of the canon have created and influenced us. Just as our civilization is constantly evolving and changing, so is the list of what we might call our sacred texts. This list represents the best and the brightest our culture has produced over the centuries—I certainly hope we aren’t finished yet!

As with any evolution, however, change takes time; and as I mentioned somewhere in all my loquacious ramblings, respectful argument and discussion—as well as the challenge and defense of ideas and assumptions we may have come to take for granted—is beneficial. So long as the Western canon of great literature continues to be challenged and debated we can rest assured that the ideas it represents—the thoughts and assertions of the great writers through the centuries—remain alive in our culture and our academic institutions. So I say bring on the disagreements! Challenge those musty old books from decades past and compare them to the bright new authors of the present day! But remember, there can be no comparison without study, so get reading! Those ancient texts may hold up better than we think… and we may find that the venerable and the contemporary complement each other far better than we ever could have dreamed.


(Originally published November 2011.)


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