Creating Canon: When Book Lists Attack

We had a bit of an outpouring of literary geekery the other night when I found this comment on a friend’s Facebook feed:

Ok most of list I agree with however not being a fan of C.S. Lewis I can say I didn’t get beyond The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I can even agree with The Da Vinci Code being on here, and don’t anyone get all crazy calling me a heretic, The Da Vinci Code was decent fiction regardless of the topic especially when read with Angels and Demons. But check out the very last book #100 I am sorry but there is no way that book can even be considered decently written.

Book #100 is Fifty Shades of Gray.

Learning that tidbit compelled me to look at the list in its entirety, which you can see here. I won’t re-post it here because it’s long and kind of tedious, and frankly unnecessary.

The list is titled “From Zero to Well-read in 100 Books.” I applaud the ideal and the effort that went into it. There’s a lot of extremely high-quality stuff (Twain, Conan Doyle, Chaucer, Orwell, Huxley, Plath, Voltaire, Poe, Dickens, Dickinson, Flaubert) in it. I have some question over the results, specifically the selection process.

The post, written by “Jeff,” is an attempt to define the term “well-read”:

“Well-read” […] has a number of connotations: a familiarity with the monuments of Western literature, an at least passing interest in the high-points of world literature, a willingness to experience a breadth of genres, a special interest in the work of one’s immediate culture, a desire to share in the same reading experiences of many other readers, and an emphasis on the writing of the current day.

The following 100 books (of fiction, poetry, and drama) is an attempt to satisfy those competing requirements. After going through several iterations of the list, one thing surprised me: there are not as many “classic” books that I associate with the moniker well-read, and many more current books than I would have thought. Conversely, to be conversant in the literature of the day turned out to be quite a bit more important than I would have thought.

That’s fine. But to my eyes the list is a jumbled compilation of established canonical literature, non-canon literature, and popular writing. That’s actually what our exchange was about: trying to figure out what the blogger was thinking when he created the list.

I can see C.S. Lewis, because even if Narnia is not your thing, The Screwtape Letters is canon. But Screwtape is not on the list while Narnia is.  The whole list is like that. A few quick examples that got our attention include:

Edith Wharton: Age of Innocence is there but House of Mirth is not.

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights is there but Jane Eyre is not.

And why Cloud Atlas? I get that it’s an incredibly well structured book but not exactly taught in college lit courses.

Jeff also split up the Bible into The Gospels and The Pentateuch and then assigned them different slots on the list. (#43 and #77 respectively). Yes, it’s alphabetically ordered, but I have yet to find a literary bible study course where the professor makes that distinction. If it’s a study course taught at a religious institution it might make more sense, but it’s still confusing.

More bits: Inferno, but not Purgatorio or Paradiso? The Divine Comedy is a three-book set. It’s not like Dante just sat on the field of ice when he got to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Without redemption and bliss being attainable facets of spiritual life, there can be no value in punishment. Granted, Inferno is the volume most people have heard of, but . . .

Dracula made the list but Frankenstein did not. Neither did Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde or anything by Oscar Wilde or H.G Wells.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved made the list but The Bluest Eye did not.

The Illiad and The Odyssey made the list but The Aeneid did not. Yes, I know the Greeks remain more popular than the Romans, but you needed a familiarity with both to consider yourself well-read when I was an undergrad.

Ulysses by Joyce is there but Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is not, which I think is a mistake. Finnegan’s Wake isn’t there either, but to be honest, I’m okay with that.

No William Faulkner. That’s just wrong. No Truman Capote, either. Yes, Capote is an acquired taste, but In Cold Blood is totally canon.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is there (if mistitled), but nothing by Alice Walker is. Has Jeff never read The Color Purple? Spielberg made a surprisingly good film about it and everything.

One of our thread’s contributors figured out early in the exchange that it seemed as if Jeff fostered a desire to be thought well-read by people he imagined to be educated, but didn’t actually know what knowledge that sort of education called for or what the American canon contained. So he put down canonical authors that he remembered hearing about, and maybe read some of their work. And he put down books that he and his social circle liked:

Ayn Ran: Atlas Shrugged. No.

Douglas Adams: The Hitckhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Works for me.

Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook: Not my favorite, but not a bad choice.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale. Excellent choice.

And of course, E.L. James: Fifty Shades of Gray. I would rather read Atlas Shrugged. Yes, I am serious. At least the sex scenes in that book are interesting.

So, Jeff, if you’re reading this, please pop a reply and defend #100 or any other of your choices. I’d really be interested in hearing how you came up with this list.

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About Jon Frater

A gaming industry stalwart dating back to the 1980s, Jonathan Frater is the co-author of roleplaying game books Robotech: Return of the Masters, and Robotech Adventures: Lancer's Rockers, both for Palladium Books. Jonathan also wrote a column on writing and game design called The Tome in Gateways magazine. He's currently a librarian at Metropolitan College of New York. Article 9, the first in his ambitious Blockade Trilogy, is Jonathan's first full-length novel.

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