Often we tend to conflate the canon and classic books, but they are not necessarily the same. The canon refers, more specifically, to the Western canon, which is a body of works seen as influential in shaping Western culture (assuming you believe in such a thing). That is, these books are understood to have had large-scale effects on the culture and they are the works that other influential authors would have drawn upon in creating their own works. The names in the canon vary depending on who is curating it, but two of the more famous versions of the canon are the 1909 Harvard Classics and Harold Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. You can think of the canon as a collection of books that someone presents to you and tells you you ought to read to be a cultured individual.
Depending on the collection, the authors will vary, but generally speaking they include names such as Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Joyce. Females have been scarce. Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Brontë are considered canonical. Bloom added Virgina Woolf to his list. Through the years the canon has been challenged for its lack of diversity, with some trying to add names (think Toni Morrison) to the list, others proposing additional lists such as the Black Literary Canon, and others arguing that the idea of the canon should be eliminated completely.
A book can be a classic and not be canonical. What exactly a classic is has been debated, but these books are generally considered important and “timeless,” the idea being that the literary merit of the book alone has kept it in print over the years. (We conveniently ignore market trends, authors who had influential friends in publishing, and sheer dumb luck such as an unknown academic deciding that an author everyone forgot about for two centuries is now essential. The reality is that the list of classics has changed over the years as literary taste has changed, just like the canon. These works are not “timeless” at all but bound up in the attitudes of the day. But I digress.) An author like Stephen Crane or Anne Brontë might have written classics, but they are not considered part of the canon. They are not considered influential or important enough, not in the league of Socrates and Co.
There is also hierarchy of classics. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy classic. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is a children’s classic. Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is a modern classic (likely to become one, but it’s too soon to know). If you have to add a descriptor to “classic,” you are indicating that these classics are somehow “lesser” than a straightforward classic. The hierarchy of books thus might be considered:
- the canon
- genre or children’s classics.
So no one is teaching “the canon” in middle-school. Ramona and Her Mother might be considered a modern children’s classic, but it’s not the canon. And it’s not even considered on the level of something like Peter Pan because it’s too new. Much less on the level of Dickens or Chaucer or Tolstoy.
Obviously, you can argue for the importance of various texts and believe that children’s literature should be as respected as adult literature. You can challenge the notion of a canon or argue for more diversity in classics and the canon. However, it helps to possess an understanding of how terms like “canon” and “classic” are nebulously defined.
What do you think about the canon? How useful is it today? Should it be expanded or should it be dropped?