However, the belief that the canon is stable and unchanging seems utterly absurd to me. Canonical literature has something in common with pornography; as Potter Stewart said, "I know it when I see it." The difficulty is the same, since a clear delineation doesn't exist. We have no metric for determining whether a particular work is in the canon or not. As a result, the arguments about the canon tend to devolve into objections to finite lists determined as much by, for instance the languages the particular compiler can read or the university where he or she studied, than by the inequities of race, class, gender, and other demographic factors. This absurdity is thrown into stark relief when one speaks more than one language. On the English-language side, authors like Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Jane Austen, John Milton, and Ernest Hemingway tend to be prominent in discussions of the canon, but on the Italian side, one is more likely to hear Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni, Verga, and Pirandello. The canon shifts constantly as it travels across borders, whether geographic, linguistic, ethnic, or anything else. It's true that women writers and writers of color are less likely to be included, but the canon itself isn't stable and really can't be without falling into irrelevance of its own accord.
That should be heartening to those of us who feel frustrated treading water over the same texts a thousand times over. At the same time, one does have to reckon with pesky problems of lineage, influence, and context. Any Italian writer with even a high school education will have familiarity with The Decameron, The Divine Comedy and La vita nova, The Prince, The Canzoniere, and The Lives of the Artists. These are books that can't be dismissed and saturate the literary landscape in Italy, just as The Flowers of Evil, The Three Musketeers, Tartuffe, Madame Bovary, and The Red and the Black remain inescapable monuments in French literature, and Leaves of Grass, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Walden, and Moby-Dick preside over American literary culture. These canons create a common language of conventions, myths, archetypes, and tropes that can be transgressed, altered, mocked, critiqued, attacked, or otherwise tampered with, but without that common language, it can be difficult to formulate a coherent discourse in any given context.
It should be a joyful task to constantly make and re-make the canon for anyone who cares about literature, not a subject for outrage and mockery. It is quite literally impossible to read every book in the canon, even if one restricts oneself to a single language. One needs to accept that the best-read person in the world will, unlike the Nowhere Man, have some holes in his education. Completism is impossible; the canon is a useful tool, despite its constant evolution, because it helps us chart a course through millennia of written material.
For universities and the professors and graduate students who teach there, the solution to the conundrum of both ensuring students have an understanding of literary history and not thus neglecting the majority of humanity that has written, unrecognized, throughout that history is to accept that we are mere mortals and no one can lay claim to a complete knowledge of literature. That is part of its fascination. I might choose to pair The Prince with Moderata Fonte's The Worth of Women, Shakespeare's sonnets with Elizabeth Barrett Browning's, Hard Times with North and South, or Madame Bovary with Indiana, but choosing one book means deferring all the others. It will always be possible to complain that some absolutely essential book is omitted from a syllabus, a recommended reading list, or a generalized curriculum. One person's Pilgrim's Progress is another's Faust; you may insist on Candide, while I insist on Letters from a Peruvian Woman. Instead of attacking the canon, we could instead make use of it, bend it to our purposes political or otherwise, and thus contribute to its evolution, but to do that, we have to accept the limits of our human condition. It's bitter news for any bookworm, but in trying to read everything, we'll die both glutted and unsatisfied.
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