Thursday, April 29, 2004

The following list of canonical books has been floating around the blogosphere for the last few days but since Abiola Lapite has blogged it I presume that it has now entered the realms of respectability. The idea is to copy it and highlight the books that you have read.

Author - Title

Beowulf
Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Bronte, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Bronte, Emily - Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage
Dante - Inferno
de Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22
Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey
Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
Shakespeare, William - Macbeth
Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Antigone
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

Considering that I have a degree in English, I'm rather distressed by how badly I've fared. Perhaps this is concrete evidence of our friend Kris's claim that South African degrees don't amount to very much. More likely though is that it's a reflection of the idiosyncratic nature of the list itself.

Obviously any such undertaking is going to amount to little more than a list of the compiler's own favourites but even so this one seems to have made a number of rather peculiar selection decisions. Firstly, why the obsession with the 19th and early 20th century worthies? For instance, is it really necessary to have two entries for Henry James if that comes at the ommission of, say, Tristram Shandy from an earlier period or Katherine Mansfield from a later? This is indicative I think of a pervasive, but erroneous belief, that 'good' literature must be of roughly Victorian origin and must concern itself with the minutiae of 'society' life. Call it the Jane Austen fallacy. It accounts for the fact that books like Pride and Prejudice regularly top lists of people's favourites, despite the fact that 21st century readers find little in them to excite or empathise with. And yes, I realise that the 'want of a wife' is a universal with which we can empathise but the methods and mores associated with that desire in Victorian England are unlikely to move many people today.

Then there is the overwhelming American bias of the list. Is a life really wasted if it hasn't devoted time to reading Mellville's Bartleby the Scrivener, Leslie Marmon Silko or Ralph Ellison? I doubt it, especially if the time saved was put to use reading Olive Schreiner, John Fowles or Patrick White to name just 3 glaring omissions. I suspect part of the problem lies in the compilers desire to overcome the tendecy of canonical lists to consist mostly of white men of European origin. Hence Ellison and Alice Walker (possibly the most over-rated writer of the last 50 years). The pity is that if the compiler really wanted to broaden the list he need only have looked to South America, Africa and India to find a host of authors who are not white or European, or, in many cases, male. Where is Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipul or Bessie Head?

In fact, the failure to look much beyond the United States and Britain means that the list is deprived of a number of books that really ought to be there. I'm thinking in particular of Margaret Atwood (either Surfacing or The Handmaid's Tale), Umberto Eco (Name of the Rose) and Milan Kundera (Unbearable Lightness of Being). These 3 are surely amongst the finest writers and books of the 20th century.

My final gripe concerns the tendency of these types of lists, and this is no exception, to be self-consciously literary, as if any book that is not resolutely high brow does not deserve to be remembered. This is patently absurd as any reader of Tolkien, M. John Harrison or Frank Herbert will tell you.

Does this make sense? I've noticed that most of the stuff that I've been trumpeting is post war which reveals where my own preferences lie. So perhaps I ought to dig out that copy of War and Peace after all.

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