What is Your Version of "The" Canon of "Great Books"?

stonespringstonespring Shipmate
edited April 3 in Heaven
Just about any of the traditional lists compiled (in the West) of the Canon of Great Books that one must read to be "educated" is bound to be dominated by dead white men and by patriarchy, cultural imperialism, history-written-by-the-victors-and-oppressors, etc.

Even the act of making such a list seems imperialistic - taking those works of the cultures of the world that I deem "worthy" in order to populate my own mental museum. I understand the criticisms of such an undertaking.

All that said, even if I like to think of myself as progressive, I dream about having read all the great books of literature, philosophy, religion, history, political treatises, etc., that have informed the great debates and discussions of history. I'd like to include the great works, up through the 20th and perhaps 21st Centuries, of all Europe and the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world, not just works written originally in English, as well as the great works of Asian civilizations and the civilizations past and present of Africa, the Americas, and the Pacific, including post-colonial literature.

(Feel free to discuss what a "book" even is - especially in the context of nonwestern cultures!)

Obviously any comprehensive list would be too much to read in a lifetime, and would even then be only a drop in the bucket of great human cultural achievements - many of which were never written down.

Maybe a working list would start with the 100 most important (in your estimation), and then have a second 100 to get to if a reader like me has time?

Lots of lists exist out there if one googles them, although quite a few of them consist almost entirely of books written originally in English. I'm curious to know what would be your list if you needed to compile one. Don't worry about listing 100 books on your own! Maybe we can see what people start suggesting and build our own list book by book from the thread.

My list would probably include the dead white men (and I have a hard time deciding which ones to leave in or take out, and even then which works of the each individual dead white man to pick over others he wrote). So I'd need some help editing even that part of my list.

I'd have a much harder time deciding what to include from the classics of Asia (China, the Indian Subcontinent, Persia, the Arab World, Japan, and so much more). Any suggestions here are welcome.

I also have no idea what works to include from the rest of the world (Africa, the Americas, etc.), aside from the most famous examples of postcolonial literature (China Achebe, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, etc.). Works from the colonial era, as well as whatever written accounts (and later writing down of oral tradition) we have from prior to the colonial era should all be considered.

How do we include works by women, whatever we have from the distant past as well as more recently, without it seeming like adding an appendix of "women's literature" to the main list? Just about everyone's list nowadays includes authors like Virginia Woolf, and rightly so, but women and people of color are still sorely underrepresented. How can we have criteria for selection of pieces that manages to integrate female and nonwhite contributions into the main canon without appearing to just squeeze them in here and there to round things out? I really don't know how to answer this.

Finally, I know that it's not really fair or accurate to call the famous authors of Ancient Greece and Rome, etc., "white" in the modern sense. But I think you get my point.

Ok, here goes: anyone willing to say at least some of what would be on their list? Feel free to link to lists elsewhere if they strongly align with what you would pick, or to just throw a book or more into the thread whenever you feel like it. I'm putting this in Heaven because I think it should be a light-hearted discussion rather than a full-throated debate on How People Should Be Educated. I just want to know what books I should read!

Comments

  • Schroedingers CatSchroedingers Cat Shipmate, Waving not Drowning Host
    OK, I'll bite. Most of the stuff would be Dead White Men, but I would include Arundhati Roy "The God of Small Things". Beautiful writing and an insight into a different culture and writing from a different cultural perspective.

    In my writing group, I am often reminded of her style, because it has been so influential. And it is always a compliment, because it means the writing is beautifully put together.
  • EnochEnoch Shipmate
    What line would you take with people who wrote more than one 'great work'? Would you allow 'the Complete Works of'? Or does each book have to count separately.

    And what about compilations? Does the Bible count as one book, or how many writers? And what about anonymous works, which may be the product of more than one person? And what are we evaluating, the quality of the writing or the importance of what the person said? Many important works are almost unreadable.
  • FirenzeFirenze Purgatory Host, Host Emeritus
    A further reflection on the concept of ‘great’ - who decides?

    The Great writers are the ones on the syllabi of literature studies. The Great composers are the ones dominating the recordings and the concert programmes. The Great painters are the ones whose originals sell for millions and reproductions adorn everything from calendars to tea towels.

    But like probably everybody I have comeacross books, music and paintings which seem to me as good or better than the famous ones.

    So how do you tell?
  • RublevRublev Shipmate
    I find Charles Dicken almost unreadable because of his interminable descriptions. But I do like Great Expectations which captures something profoundly true about the human experience of life - recognising who and what is genuine, the way that false ideals give way to true reality and the enduring importance of family and friendship. And when they are adapted for the screen his books make great television dramas.
  • Firenze wrote: »
    A further reflection on the concept of ‘great’ - who decides?

    But like probably everybody I have comeacross books, music and paintings which seem to me as good or better than the famous ones.

    I think the "great" works are the ones that have made a lasting imprint on our culture. For this reason, I don't think it necessary for a "great" work to be very good, although most of them are.
  • Fawkes CatFawkes Cat Shipmate
    Firenze wrote: »
    A further reflection on the concept of ‘great’ - who decides?

    But like probably everybody I have comeacross books, music and paintings which seem to me as good or better than the famous ones.

    I think the "great" works are the ones that have made a lasting imprint on our culture. For this reason, I don't think it necessary for a "great" work to be very good, although most of them are.

    Isn't that a definition of important works rather than great ones?
  • EigonEigon Shipmate
    Certain books should be familiar to everyone (I'm talking here purely from a British perspective). For instance, there are so many quotations from Shakespeare used in everyday life, so it would help people understand the culture they live in to study the plays. That also goes for Dickens, Paradise Lost, some of Hardy, Jane Austen and the Brontes. And also the Bible, of course.
    Homer is another one people should probably be familiar with.
    People should also be familiar with Robin Hood and King Arthur and, in Wales, the Mabinogion (actually, everyone should be familiar with the Mabinogion because it's awesome!).
    After that, Tolkein, because Lord of the Rings is a foundation text for a lot of modern fantasy writing - and probably things like Batman and Superman which are commonly referenced in modern culture.
    Beyond the shores of the British Isles, there are so many great works to choose from - and I'm sadly unfamiliar with most of them. As a citizen of the world, it would be helpful to be familiar with the literature of other countries, but I'm not sure where to start.
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    Enoch wrote: »
    What line would you take with people who wrote more than one 'great work'? Would you allow 'the Complete Works of'? Or does each book have to count separately.

    And what about compilations? Does the Bible count as one book, or how many writers? And what about anonymous works, which may be the product of more than one person? And what are we evaluating, the quality of the writing or the importance of what the person said? Many important works are almost unreadable.

    1. Multiple works by one author are fine (and with some authors I would expect it). Reading all the works of a prolific author is probably unrealistic for me, though, so I'd want to focus on the most significant ones.

    2. The Bible counts as one book for me, as would comparable works. So would anonymous books.

    3. My main criterion would be how influential a work has been, both in history at large and in its impact on the history of intellectual discourse. If it's something you see referenced or alluded to again and again in other historically-important books, speeches, and articles, then it probably should be on the list. Difficult readability is fine, although I probably would have trouble reading something that is essentially an index, albeit a very influential index. A "short list" of the more readable important books (or the more readable translations of non-English books) might be useful for me, but I would like to be able to read the great works of philosophy, for example, if I can, even if they are hard to understand (probably with the assistance of SparkNotes or something similar to make sense of it, even if it impinges upon my ability to form my own "pure" impressions and intellectual conclusions from reading them unaided).
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    Fawkes Cat wrote: »
    Firenze wrote: »
    A further reflection on the concept of ‘great’ - who decides?

    But like probably everybody I have comeacross books, music and paintings which seem to me as good or better than the famous ones.

    I think the "great" works are the ones that have made a lasting imprint on our culture. For this reason, I don't think it necessary for a "great" work to be very good, although most of them are.

    Isn't that a definition of important works rather than great ones?

    I don't mind if they are called great works or important works. What I am looking to build for myself is a list of important works, based on the definition I gave in my reply to Enoch's post above.
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    Eigon wrote: »
    Certain books should be familiar to everyone (I'm talking here purely from a British perspective). For instance, there are so many quotations from Shakespeare used in everyday life, so it would help people understand the culture they live in to study the plays. That also goes for Dickens, Paradise Lost, some of Hardy, Jane Austen and the Brontes. And also the Bible, of course.
    Homer is another one people should probably be familiar with.
    People should also be familiar with Robin Hood and King Arthur and, in Wales, the Mabinogion (actually, everyone should be familiar with the Mabinogion because it's awesome!).
    After that, Tolkein, because Lord of the Rings is a foundation text for a lot of modern fantasy writing - and probably things like Batman and Superman which are commonly referenced in modern culture.
    Beyond the shores of the British Isles, there are so many great works to choose from - and I'm sadly unfamiliar with most of them. As a citizen of the world, it would be helpful to be familiar with the literature of other countries, but I'm not sure where to start.

    How should people become familiar with King Arthur? By reading medieval Arthurian Romances like Le Morte D'Arthur? Or by reading modern retellings like The Once and Future King? Or just by reading summaries of the legends? How should one become familiar with Robin Hood?

    For Greek myths, for example, is it enough the read Edith Hamilton's Mythology, especially for those myths that aren't found in Homer or the great Greek tragedies and comedies, or should one have to read about them principally from primary sources?
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    @Eigon I need lots of help figuring out what to read from non-Western cultures, as well.

    Within Chinese civilization, for example, Westerners love to say that they've read (whether they have or not)

    - Confucius' Analects (if he is in fact who wrote them)
    - The Tao Te Ching
    - The Art of War

    People with a bit more knowledge might also list

    - Tang Dynasty poets (Li Bai, Du Fu, etc.) - but the list of poets great enough that they are referred to again and again in Chinese writings throughout history is much longer

    - The "Four Great Classic Novels" (Water Margin, Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Dream of the Red Chamber).

    But for thousands of years candidates for the bureaucracy (and for the community of scholars) were examined on different texts (although the Analects were included). The list varied over time, being added to from dynasty to dynasty, but the most important are arguably

    - The Five Classics (the Book of Odes, Book of Documents, Book of Changes, Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals)

    - The Four Books (The Great Learning, the Analects, Mencius, and The Doctrine of the Mean)

    Some of these Confucian classics might be pretty hard to read, even in translation (I would probably have to read them in translation - even if I become fluent in vernacular Chinese, which I may never manage to do, I doubt I'd ever be proficient in reading Classical Chinese - which means I would lose many nuances of meaning). Some are great works of poetry, historical narrative, and philosophy/ethics, while others are more like ritual manuals. But given how influential they have been in one of, if not the oldest and most populous civilizations existing today - every educated person for thousands of years up until 1911 had to read and/or memorize them - should they be just as necessary elements on one's list as, say, Homer, Plato, or The Bible?

    From 20th Century China, Hu Shi is someone most Western students of Chinese literature study, and Mao is obviously important even if you detest what he did, but I'm sure there is much, much more that is just as important as Hemingway, Woolf, Eliot, etc.

    And then there's Indian civilization, Arab civilization, Persian civilization, Japanese civilization and the many writings across history from the Jewish diaspora, just to name a few more oceans of writing. I'd love to see what people recommend from these cultures.

    What about Ancient Egyptian texts? And we have The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ancient Mesopotamia, which was very influential on parts of the Bible.
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    And we have The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ancient Mesopotamia, which was very influential on parts of the Bible.
    I know that this is routinely said. In all honesty, I would probably not have seen the connection at all. In Gilgamesh, the gods get drunk and decide to kill every mortal on earth for no apparent reason. When they sober up, they realize that an old man and his family escaped the destruction. Now that they are sober, they don't want to kill everybody, but they feel that gods should be infallible, so they decide to make the survivors immortal -- much to the survivors' displeasure.
    It is so totally different from the Noah story that it seems almost a flight of fancy to say that Noah was somehow derived from it. Destruction of the world stories aren't all that hard to come by, so I still wonder whether the scholars really know what they are talking about in this or just want to increase the literature pool that they get to use in their classes.
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    tclune wrote: »
    And we have The Epic of Gilgamesh from Ancient Mesopotamia, which was very influential on parts of the Bible.
    I know that this is routinely said. In all honesty, I would probably not have seen the connection at all. In Gilgamesh, the gods get drunk and decide to kill every mortal on earth for no apparent reason. When they sober up, they realize that an old man and his family escaped the destruction. Now that they are sober, they don't want to kill everybody, but they feel that gods should be infallible, so they decide to make the survivors immortal -- much to the survivors' displeasure.
    It is so totally different from the Noah story that it seems almost a flight of fancy to say that Noah was somehow derived from it. Destruction of the world stories aren't all that hard to come by, so I still wonder whether the scholars really know what they are talking about in this or just want to increase the literature pool that they get to use in their classes.

    Whether the oral traditions the authors of Genesis were exposed to were related, however distantly to the oral traditions that the Epic of Gilgamesh stemmed from or not, it is true that the authors of the Bible lived within a continuum of Ancient Near Eastern cultures with overlapping mythological figures, narratives, and symbols.

    But that's not the point of this thread. Even if it isn't related to the Bible in any way, the Epic of Gilgamesh or selections from it may or may not be something that one might add to their own list of great and influential books that they should read.
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    And then there's Indian civilization, Arab civilization, Persian civilization, Japanese civilization and the many writings across history from the Jewish diaspora, just to name a few more oceans of writing. I'd love to see what people recommend from these cultures..

    After writing this I realized that I verged upon repeating the antisemitic trope that Jewish people living in Western, Middle Eastern, North African cultures during the Medieval and Early Modern periods (which is what I was referring to) did not belong to the civilizations they were living in. They had their own cultures, languages, literatures, and traditions, of course, though whatever isolation they had from society in Christian Europe was imposed upon them. Maimonides was a writer within the multicultural civilization of Moorish Spain. The Baal Shem Tov was a rabbi and mystic within European civilization - specifically, within the multi-faith Eastern European lands ruled at the time by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish literary heritages were pretty distinct from each other, just as the different cultures that they flourished in were. Just clarifying what I should have said!
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    Whether the oral traditions the authors of Genesis were exposed to were related, however distantly to the oral traditions that the Epic of Gilgamesh stemmed from or not, it is true that the authors of the Bible lived within a continuum of Ancient Near Eastern cultures with overlapping mythological figures, narratives, and symbols.

    But that's not the point of this thread. Even if it isn't related to the Bible in any way, the Epic of Gilgamesh or selections from it may or may not be something that one might add to their own list of great and influential books that they should read.
    I take your point, and it certainly is a delightful read. I just want to say one thing about my previous post, then I'll drop it. I read two versions of the epic -- one the late 19th century translation that was reprinted as a Penguin book and a wonderfully readable interpretation by Herbert Mason, both some decades ago. After I posted, I pulled out a copy of Old Testament Parallels by Matthews and Benjamin, thinking to look into some of the Psalms' Ugaritic roots. I noticed that they had passages of Gilgamesh and read them. They were much more in synch with the Noah story than the versions of Gilgamesh that I remember. I don't know whether that is because I have a bad memory or because there are real differences in the various versions of the epic as it has been translated over the years. I now return you to your regularly- scheduled thread.
  • A Feminine ForceA Feminine Force Shipmate
    edited April 3
    Oh dear where to begin.

    I guess since it's difficult to say what constitutes a "great book" I'm going to define it as being the books that I feel resonating with my ideals and/or which changed or opened my heart and mind to new perspectives and points of view.

    In the History of Western Thought and Ethics department I would include

    Plato's Republic and the Phaedo
    Epictetus the Enchiridion
    Aristotle's Poetics
    The four As: Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine and Avicenna
    Bentham, JS Mill, Kant, Hume and Berkeley
    Nietszche - Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil
    Soren Kierkegaard - Fear and Trembling
    Sartre - Being and Nothingness and No Exit
    De Beauvior - The Second Sex
    Martin Buber - I and Thou
    Viktor Frankl - Man's Search for Meaning

    In the General Human Condition Western Fiction department I would include

    Thomas Hardy - Everything
    Jane Austen - Everything
    the Bronte sisters - Everything
    Victor Hugo - Everything
    Robertson Davies - Everything
    Umberto Eco - Everything
    Khalil Gibran - Everything
    Dostoevsky - Everything
    Tolstoy - Everything
    Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita

    In the Other Cultural or Language Greats available in Translation I would include

    The Bible
    The Torah and the Talmud
    The Tanya and the Zohar
    The complete poems of Jalal ad Din Rumi and their companion, the Qu'ran
    The Tao de Ching
    The Art of War
    The Tale of Genji and The Tale of The Lady Ochikubo
    The Lotus Sutra
    The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads
    The Corpus Hermeticum
    The Nag Hammadi Codices

    In the Fantasy and Speculative Fiction department I would include

    CS Lewis - Narnia books
    JRR Tolkien - everything
    Frank Herbert - Dune
    Isaac Asimov - Foundation 3 books
    Philip Jose Farmer - Riverworld series
    Gene Wolfe - The Book of the New Sun
    Vonnegut - Everything

    Well OK - that's a lot of books. Maybe not a canon more like a mini library.

    AFF




  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    Well OK - that's a lot of books. Maybe not a canon more like a mini library.

    Thanks so much! There are a few really interesting books and authors you've suggested that I hadn't thought of.
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    What would people say are the foundational text(s) of Buddhism? Are they different for the Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and other strands? Or are the different schools, even within the same country, so different that they do not even share the same core of religious writings in addition to whatever is particular to their school?

    I am aware that non-Abrahamic religions do not have the same notion of "scripture" that Abrahamic faiths have, so the lack of a clearly defined canon is not really a problem. That said, I would like to know what the most universal and/or central Buddhist sacred writings there are.

    I think the Lotus Sutra, which AFF listed above, is very important in a lot of schools of Mahayana Buddhism, at least those that originated in China, Korea, and Japan, but is it part of the key texts of all major traditional (ie, pre-19th century) Buddhist schools even in those countries?
  • MarsupialMarsupial Shipmate
    A few thoughts on some relatively narrow areas I actually know something about.

    If I were trying to reduce a list of western philosophy classics to a manageable number I would probably suggest Plato (Republic), Aristotle (Ethics and Politics), Hume (I want to say the Treatise, but I've never read it cover-to-cover, so I might have to settle for the two Enquiries), and Kant (probably the two Critiques, which again I have never read entirely cover-to-cover, but in large enough chunks to say them rather than the Prolegomena and the Groundwork). That's a focus on ethics and politics, with metaphysics and epistemology secondarily and to some degree in the service thereof, but I think that's the right focus for a general liberal education philosophy reading list.

    When it comes to literature I'm not really confident in my ability to distinguish between greatness on some kind of objective standard and books I happen to like. But bearing that in mind, among English-language authors I'd make a pitch for Austen, Dickens, Eliot (both of them), Conrad, Fitzgerald and Waugh as being among the first rank, with the likes of Wharton and Greene perhaps a step lower (though both maybe more consistent than some of the former). I find it interesting that Eliot was a great admirer of the Great Gatsby - Eliot and Fitzgerald being names that most people don't regularly associate with each other.

    I'm leaving out quite a lot of good stuff that I would describe as being at least well well worth reading here and now - Robertson Davies and Margaret Laurence among the Canadian "classics"; Rohinton Mistry, Josef Skvorecky, and Dionne Brand among Canadian immigrant novelists, and David Lodge for his sharp-eyed but sensitive portrayal of a period of fundamental change in western intellectual history.



  • LydaLyda Shipmate
    A slight tangent; I liked this story.

    One of the most common requests the Joseph Campbell Foundation receives is for Joseph Campbell’s reading list – the books he assigned in his mythology course at Sarah Lawrence College.

    It’s a lengthy list. Bill Moyers shares a story about receiving a letter from a former student of Campbell’s who noted that “While all of us listened spellbound, we did stagger under the weight of his weekly reading assignments.” Eventually, one of her classmates complained, noting that she had other classes, each with assigned reading, and wondered how she was expected to complete the reading for his course every week.

    Campbell’s amused response: “I’m astonished you tried. You have the rest of your life to do the reading.”


    (Hosts, I hope this doesn't overstep the copyright rules.)

  • Oh dear where to begin.

    I guess since it's difficult to say what constitutes a "great book" I'm going to define it as being the books that I feel resonating with my ideals and/or which changed or opened my heart and mind to new perspectives and points of view.

    In the History of Western Thought and Ethics department I would include

    Plato's Republic and the Phaedo
    Epictetus the Enchiridion
    Aristotle's Poetics
    The four As: Anselm, Aquinas, Augustine and Avicenna
    Bentham, JS Mill, Kant, Hume and Berkeley
    Nietszche - Also Sprach Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil
    Soren Kierkegaard - Fear and Trembling
    Sartre - Being and Nothingness and No Exit
    De Beauvior - The Second Sex
    Martin Buber - I and Thou
    Viktor Frankl - Man's Search for Meaning



    In the Fantasy and Speculative Fiction department I would include

    CS Lewis - Narnia books
    JRR Tolkien - everything
    Frank Herbert - Dune
    Isaac Asimov - Foundation 3 books
    Philip Jose Farmer - Riverworld series
    Gene Wolfe - The Book of the New Sun
    Vonnegut - Everything

    Well OK - that's a lot of books. Maybe not a canon more like a mini library.

    AFF

    If I were to be succinct I’d have Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder as a thought provoking overview of western philosophy. It was pretty big in Europe in the mid-‘90’s. Although I’d take some philosophical texts too.

    Also, the Hitchhikers Guide ‘trilogy’ has to be included.




    Orwell’s 1984 has influenced our language & culture so I’d include that.

    I suppose something old & Greek too like The Odyssey.

    How does the overlap with the Christian, Jewish & Islamic texts impact on this? & are we taking the protestant Bible, the RC one or the Orthodox version?

    Is the OED relevant? Do other dominant languages have an equivalent?

    I can’t decide if 100 texts are too few or too many to select!



  • Too many books, too little time ...

    AFF's list 'feels' right in broad terms.

    I've read Latin American stuff but the Chinese, African and 'Colonial' and post-colonial literature are a gaping hole in my reading as indeed are some contemporary female writers, a deficit I must rectify.
  • HuiaHuia Shipmate
    Where the Wild Things Are - Maurice Sendak, because the sheer joie de vivre of the Wild Things having their rumpus and the love and forgiveness it depicts.

    I first read this as a young adult training to be a teacher over 40 years ago and it has been a favourite ever since.

    The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. This hasn't been around as long and isn't as well known, but I think it is the best depiction of the experience of depression I have ever read.

    Shan Tan also wrote The Arrival about the experience of immigrants (his parents migrated to Australia).
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    Time to explode the idea of a 'canon'. Chosen by whom for what readership?

    I've enjoyed reading Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's Odyssey, but also spend time with women poets rewriting the classic epics: H.D.'s Helen in Egypt, Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, based in part on the famous Sumerian myth, the Descent of Inanna, as well as the Iliad.

    And I'm hoping the future makes generations of polylingual readers possible so that we can have people enjoying global literature without waiting years for a decent translation. That said, it is so exciting to have new translations of Clarice Lispector coming out, more from Mathias Énard by the brilliant translator Charlotte Mandell, Ann Goldstein's translations from Primo Levi and Elena Ferrante. For those of us who have collaborated on translation projects, this slow painstaking effort has to be some of the toughest and most thankless work around, nearly always badly paid.

    Also delighted to see the new international interest in African women writers from the diaspora: Petina Gappah's forthcoming novel on Livingstone's companions on his last missionary journey, Out of Darkness, Shining Light; . Namwali Serpell’s deconstructed colonial Zambia in The Old Drift; Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s surreal Ugandan novel Kintu. I read voraciously and know how much I still have to discover --
  • Reading this thread makes me feel hopelessly unread.

    I'll throw in a vote for Sophie's World in the belief that it's a good summary of much else and thought-provoking in its own right, and be tempted to add something by Jonathan Edwards. I've only ever read one tiny work of his in its entirety: The Distinguishing Marks of the Work of the Spirit of God, but what a mind.
  • agingjbagingjb Shipmate
    One place to start, if we need a canon, is Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon"; the list at the end is vastly inclusive.

    But I would start with a very short, and perhaps obvious, list of books that I might stand some slight chance of defending, and happen to be on my shelves.

    Shakespeare's works.
    The Authorised Version of the Bible - together with a good modern translation.
    The novels of Jane Austen.
    "Middlemarch" by George Eliot.
    "Four Quartets" by T.S.Eliot.

    There are naturally many other books, including translations, that I value, but I suspect that virtually all of them would create the reaction: "oh certainly, not that", and I would find it much harder to answer that response.
  • tclunetclune Shipmate
    MaryLouise wrote: »
    Time to explode the idea of a 'canon'. Chosen by whom for what readership?
    I have a similar feeling, but with a bit of a twist. With AFF's list of philosophers, I thought that it would be grotesquely unpleasant to read them. I got my degree in philosophy fifty years ago and read essentially all the Greeks, most of the Enlightenment heavies, and then more American philosophers than most people have ever heard of. Very little of it was edifying.
    It would make a lot more sense for people who don't have to pass a qualifier (and, truthfully, most who do) to read a decent history that summarizes what other people have decided was the point these guys were making than to read the men themselves. They are, with very few exceptions, turgid and uninspiring. The Critique of Pure Reason was very important in the development of western thought, but I wouldn't wish reading it on anyone. The other two Critiques don't even have the virtue of continued relevance. Read Copleston and be done with it..
  • That's a good point. I've read more French philosophers than any other nationality combined, and boy was it a relief when I got to Pascal. Like a breath of fresh air.
  • DafydDafyd Shipmate
    It's a fun game.

    I don't think it's healthy to read only books that fit on a list of great books. And I don't suppose that there are really books that everyone should read before they die. On the other hand, you don't know which books you should read until you've read them. The following is for fun...

    One problem is that lists of books means you get a lot of novels and epic poems, but shorter poems and short stories and plays tend to miss out. You could do a Collected Works of Shakespeare but that seems like cheating, and I don't know that anyone has ever been worse off for not having read Two Gentlemen of Verona. Then you get lists with one book per author which creates a bias in favour of authors with one important book.
    That being the case the usual suspects are:

    Iliad (Homer)
    Odyssey (Homer)
    Plays (Sophocles)
    Aeneid (Virgil)
    Metamorphoses (Ovid)
    Divine Comedy (Dante)
    Tragedies (Shakespeare) (Five musts, three maybes.)
    Comedies (Shakespeare) (Four musts, several more maybes)
    Histories and Sonnets (Shakespeare) (Three musts: Richard II to Henry IV Part II; Two maybes)
    Don Quixote (Cervantes)
    The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe)
    Faust Parts I and II (Goethe)
    War and Peace (Tolstoy)
    Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
    Short Stories (Tolstoy) Must include The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Pevear and Volkhovonsky have a good comprehensive selection. Note that short in Tolstoy is relative.
    Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky)
    Demons (Dostoyevsky)
    Karamazov Brothers (Dostoyevsky)
    In Search of Lost Time (Proust)
    The Trial (Kafka)
    The Castle (Kafka)
    Metamorphosis and other stories (Kafka)

    So, non-fiction.
    Republic (Plato)
    Confessions (Augustine)
    Essays (Montaigne)
    Origin of Species (Darwin)

    The Bible (Genesis and Exodus until you get to the legal bits), 1 and 2 Samuel, Isaiah 40:end, Job, Mark, Luke, and Gospel of John.

    There are a lot more candidates, but I'm at the point where none of the candidates jump out as me as must be on the list.

    No women so far. Austen and Woolf may not jump out as more important than, say, Flaubert and Joyce, but I'll add them in:
    Emma (Austen)
    To the Lighthouse (Woolf)
    The Waves (Woolf)

    Eugene Onegin (Pushkin) is considered the most important work of Russian literature by Russians. Pushkin also had African ancestry.

    Not sure what to do about lyric poetry.

    All the above are European or American. It's not that there aren't important non-Western writers, but I don't know as much about them.

    If there's one non-Western writer on the list it's always:
    The Tale of Genji (Murasaki Shikibu). Also making up a bit for the shortfall in women.
    The Dream of the Red Chamber / Story of the Stone (Cao Xueqin). There are a lot more Chinese prose stories but I don't know how to sort between them. Chinese poets raise the problem of author or book I mentioned above.
    More than one of the medieval Persian poets (Rumi, Hafez), but I don't know enough about them and good translations seem to be hard to find. (Most translations try to make them sound as much like a lesser Kahlil Gibran as possible, which I believe is wrong.) Hafez raises the lyric poet problem again.
    Journey to the Deep North (Basho).
  • DafydDafyd Shipmate
    Victor Hugo - Everything
    Everything by Victor Hugo? Really? I gather that like many nineteenth century poets the majority of what he wrote isn't much good, and the stuff that is good fills several bookshelves.

  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    Any suggestions from the pre-colonial Indian subcontinent? Of course the Bhagavad Gita, but what about the rest of the Mahabhrata and the Ramayana (I don't know if they are too long for it to be realistic to read them all)? And the Upanishads - would reading all of them be unrealistic? There must be much more outside of the commonly-known religious works? What works of poetry, prose, nonfiction, philosophy, history, and more from the pro-colonial period are considered great works by Indian scholars and scholars of India and which stand out the most? Of course, feel free to talk about works from the colonial and post colonial period as well.

    What about French authors? I'm particularly interested in pre-19th century authors not associated with the Enlightenment and not Pascal or Descartes. All I can think of offhand is Moliere and whoever wrote the Chanson de Roland (should that be on the list?) - who else and what specific works by those authors would you recommend?

    For pre-19th century (post-Roman) Italians I guess you would have Dante, Bocaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Michelangelo (?) - who else?

    Gosh this is hard. Especially if you are trying to limit it to 100 books/collections as a realistic starting point. I want the original works, though, and not modern summaries. In school I got away with reading the summaries. When I've read the original works, I've learned so much more - although I've often needed the summaries alongside them in order to understand them.

    I'll be honest and say that I'm not much of a reader, although I want to be. I have trouble reading more than 10 pages per hour even when I am at my maximum level of focus. I may be lucky if I get to 50 of the books in my lifetime. That's why I would like to narrow down my list. I'm lucky that I've already read some of what people have mentioned, although I'm not sure how much I remember of any of them.
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    MaryLouise wrote: »
    Time to explode the idea of a 'canon'. Chosen by whom for what readership?

    I may sound reactionary in saying this, but I want to understand the common references that authors throughout history (and today) are alluding to, and that means going after the works chosen by the elites throughout history for the select few (and, with the advent of the printing press and mass education, more) that they expected to receive an education - at least prior to the end of the Twentieth Century when the idea of a Canon was questioned enough that many if not most students were able to get an advanced degree, even in the humanities, without having read most of the works that would have been required in the past. I'm not criticizing this development or arguing that Shakespeare is more edifying or worthy of praise than any contemporary author from anywhere in the world - I just want to understand what everyone else is talking about when I read things from the past or some of the things today that continue to make references to the traditional works.
  • EigonEigon Shipmate
    Earlier, stonespring asked how people should become familiar with the legends of Robin Hood and King Arthur, and the Greek myths.
    The way I did it was through the children's retellings by Roger Lancelyn Green, and I think that's quite good enough to give a basic familiarity so that a reasonably educated person can recognise things like the story of the Minotaur or robbing from the rich to give to the poor. If they are interested, they can always go further.
  • DafydDafyd Shipmate
    What works of poetry, prose, nonfiction, philosophy, history, and more from the pro-colonial period are considered great works by Indian scholars and scholars of India and which stand out the most?
    I believe the play The Recognition of Sakuntala by Kalidasi is supposed to be the stand out. When it comes to the religious texts I don't know my way around.
    What about French authors? I'm particularly interested in pre-19th century authors not associated with the Enlightenment and not Pascal or Descartes. All I can think of offhand is Moliere and whoever wrote the Chanson de Roland (should that be on the list?) - who else and what specific works by those authors would you recommend?
    Rabelais is the obvious choice: I almost put him in my post above. Maybe Racine.
    For pre-19th century (post-Roman) Italians I guess you would have Dante, Bocaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Michelangelo (?) - who else?
    Ariosto. Perhaps Tasso. But I think you may be getting overambitious for what you can fit into a list of a hundred books.

  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    Dafyd wrote: »
    Ariosto. Perhaps Tasso. But I think you may be getting overambitious for what you can fit into a list of a hundred books.
    I am being overambitious - but I figure it's worth considering as many countries and periods of history as possible before winnowing down the list. I'd like to know what an Italian might say must be on the list that we might not be considering.

    I could probably make a list of 100 books right now with what I already was thinking about and some of the suggestions here - but I'm hoping this thread will offer lots of ideas I haven't thought about, as well as help all of us think about what someone from another culture might consider to be their Canon.
  • stonespringstonespring Shipmate
    So much of what's on most lists you find online consists of novels (and other works, but especially novels) written in the 19th-20th centuries. If someone was studying (let's say in the West) in the 19th century and contemporary novels weren't yet on the list, what would be on the list of most important works that probably would not be listed today in order to make room for all the great novelists of the following centuries?
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    tclune wrote: »
    MaryLouise wrote: »
    Time to explode the idea of a 'canon'. Chosen by whom for what readership?
    I have a similar feeling, but with a bit of a twist. With AFF's list of philosophers, I thought that it would be grotesquely unpleasant to read them. I got my degree in philosophy fifty years ago and read essentially all the Greeks, most of the Enlightenment heavies, and then more American philosophers than most people have ever heard of. Very little of it was edifying.
    It would make a lot more sense for people who don't have to pass a qualifier (and, truthfully, most who do) to read a decent history that summarizes what other people have decided was the point these guys were making than to read the men themselves. They are, with very few exceptions, turgid and uninspiring. The Critique of Pure Reason was very important in the development of western thought, but I wouldn't wish reading it on anyone. The other two Critiques don't even have the virtue of continued relevance. Read Copleston and be done with it..

    That makes sense to me @tclune . I once spent a year reading Patristics, poring over Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen etc. Very dry and obscure texts -- developing ecclesiology, countering heresies, asking questions about the 'Soul' and the Logos, establishing doctrinal statements to ward off Error. At least two dozen footnotes needed on every page. I skipped the recurring misogyny -- that women were incapable of reason, had no souls, were like animals or children, unclean, a source of temptation, responsible for Adam's Fall. What startled me was the shared loathing and suspicion of the 'flesh', Nature, pleasure in any form. The most interesting text I read and still have on my bookshelf was Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine which put core arguments and contexts of the Early Church Fathers in a nutshell.
  • MaryLouiseMaryLouise Shipmate
    edited April 5
    So much of what's on most lists you find online consists of novels (and other works, but especially novels) written in the 19th-20th centuries. If someone was studying (let's say in the West) in the 19th century and contemporary novels weren't yet on the list, what would be on the list of most important works that probably would not be listed today in order to make room for all the great novelists of the following centuries?

    @stonespring, I'm not sure lists of unread books are worth compiling or discussing. There's an ongoing critical revisionist reader reception within and outside of the West, so that the old assumptions held by English academics about Marx's Das Kapital would now be challenged by, for example, someone from West Africa who would be reading Frantz Fanon alongside Marx and thinking about socialist change in a very different post-colonial society.

    Older more benign or romantic histories of the Raj in India are now being rewritten by a younger generation of Indian and Pakistani scholars (just consider Shashi Tharoor's Inglorious Empire). Pankaj Mishra has taken a new look at Gandhi's autobiographical writings. Indian feminist thinkers have engaged with gender-bias in the Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana. That is why it is impossible for us now to, say, pick up a copy of Ezra Pound's Cantos and read it naively or without knowing anything about Pound's controversial history. We read literature through the hermeneutic lens and opinions of those who have read before us, we make a new canon for ourselves as we in turn quarrel with other readers.

    No classic is ever a closed book, no interpretation, elitist or not, stays carved in stone. And any 'literary canon' is in flux as we look at how it has been appropriated or discarded and rediscovered over time. Different readers and critics make room all the time for new or overlooked texts by those on the underside of history.

    When I was studying French literature, we were taught to think about Montaigne and Pascal rather than Christine de Pizan or Marie de France. That changed as more women registered for the seminars. Does it mean Montaigne or Pascal are less important? It depends who is reading and what they are looking for in the texts. I wouldn't be able to suggest any kind of 'definitive' list for you or anyone else. That is your (or anyone else's) work as a reader, to recognise and overcome cultural biases and preferences, to move out of your comfort zone. We can only really talk about books that have engaged us.
Sign In or Register to comment.