Three academics debate: What is great? US scholars are arguing about `the canon' - those books considered most important to study. David Lloyd says: Abolish the canon. Wayne Booth says: Let's wait. Gerald Graff finds a compromise. Enduring interest puts a true classic on the list
Chicago — AS someone who has had a lifelong love affair with various works that appear on various ``canonical'' lists, I might be expected to get upset when anti-canonists offer their rival substitutes. But the truth is that like most other lovers of Homer and Shakespeare (to name only the two most canonical of all canonic authors), I have never embraced a fixed canon of works that everybody ought to love.
My ``list,'' never since adolescence formally written out, changes every year, every month, as some new work offers me that special radiance that turns works into classics (at the moment I am ``nominating'' Toni Morrison's ``Beloved''). Though some old loves have lasted, others have simply been dropped: I haven't reread ``Tristram Shandy'' for 20 years, though it must still be on my list somewhere. What's more, some of the works that other people would go to the stake for have always left me cold: I've never reached the end of ``The Faerie Queene.''
So part of what the rebels insist on is surely sound: Frozen lists of ``classics'' are not what we need, and such lists can, in the hands of martinets, lead readers to hate ``culture.''
But there's another reason the rebels don't scare me: They obviously don't believe their own more extreme claims. Some of them claim that it doesn't matter what we read, that to study any work is as valuable as to study any other work - and therefore (the logic goes awry here) what we should really study are such-and-such works, which are more valuable than those traditionally canonized.
I don't worry much about this kind of illogic, because the works the rebels tout, while claiming that no works really deserve to be touted, will either earn widespread admiration, and thus endure, or not; one good definition of a classic is a work that is sure to hold its own in a fair fight.
And the works they attack will either drop from sight, or not, depending on whether they continue to feed us. There has never been a fixed canon of the kind that Education Secretary William J. Bennett and others sometimes seem to believe in. What's more, we could lose half of anyone's current canonic list and suffer no drastic consequences, provided our engagement with other works were passionate and critical.
Others claim that the age of bourgeois aesthetic and ethical culture, buttressed by canonical lists and the illusion of a common human nature, is at an end; as David Lloyd puts it, ``the emergent literature of minorities ... will dissolve the canonical form of Man back into the different bodies which it has sought to absorb.'' Well, maybe. Who can tell?
Meanwhile, such confident prophets of the demise of my loved ones write to me, their reader, clearly expecting me to understand and embrace their (tacitly) canonical list of minor writers who are now, in their view, truly major. And they write, at least some of the time, in our shared language, using forms of argument that we share. Most comforting of all, they praise literary virtues and effects that most ``bourgeois'' literature has praised for something like the past 200 years: daring, originality, freedom from authority, and an embrace of a revolutionary new epoch that only a few rebels can see for what it is.
What does scare me a bit is that while all this ill-defined debate goes on, a large proportion of our graduates remains innocent of another ``canon'' entirely: the range of reading, writing, and thinking skills that enable anyone to deal critically with any text, classical or modern. The making and breaking of canonical lists leaves our major educational problems untouched.
Wayne C. Booth is a professor of English at the University of Chicago.