The Canon vs. the Classics: What Are They and Do We Need Them?

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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
  • classics
  • 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?

Krysta 64

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26 thoughts on “The Canon vs. the Classics: What Are They and Do We Need Them?

    • Krysta says:

      To be honest, I think the schools that still use it often are doing so because the general public equates the “great books” to a good education. I know that having a Shakespeare course at your college, for example, is often a way to ask for funding because people associate Shakespeare with being learned and cultured. I’m sure many schools aren’t really as invested in the canon as they seem to be, but when you’re reporting back to a board or have to ask the state for money, well, those people don’t know much about literary studies or the field or the theoretical underpinnings of the canon debate. They just know that Shakespeare = good and pop culture studies= suspected lowering of standards. :/

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      • The Reading Bug says:

        Krysta – it sounds like the concept of the canon is tied into educational theory and practice in the States in a way isn’t in the UK. Having said that over here all state schools have to teach from a fairly narrow core curriculum which includes a strong element of ‘classics’ – my 12 year old son has just been force fed Oliver twist for instance.

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        • Krysta says:

          That could be. I do see the canon as tied into the educational system since it’s generally schooling that transmits the canon. You read a book in class, you’re told it’s important, and then maybe when you start recommending or teaching books you go back to what you were told was important and influential and continue the transmission of that canon.

          After all, how many people read Hawthorne or Thoreau on their own for fun? And yet if someone were to teach an American literature course, I think just about anyone would know that they “had” to include Hawthorne and Thoreau since that’s what they were taught. Maybe they really love Louisa May Alcott, but she’s “just” a writer of children’s classics, so she won’t likely make the syllabus in a survey course in college. Maybe she’d be able to be a “special topic” course.

          Wow. Oliver Twist seems like a rather daunting read for twelve-year-olds! Certainly many are capable of it, but I’m not sure it would be my first choice to teach at that age!

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  1. looloolooweez says:

    This is a nicely organized way of thinking about the whole canon/classics thing. I have to admit that I never did fully understand the idea of a literary “canon” — I mean, I understand that those works were supposed to have had a major influence on subsequent literature and culture as a whole, but trying to narrow down which works by which authors should be included in that definition is just boggling.

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, I think you’ve identified the whole problem of the canon. It’s going to have to keep expanding. The idea that someone can read all the “important” books is increasingly laughable. Maybe if we were back in the Middle Ages and texts were scarce!

      Plus, as you note, there is a degree in judgment involved. How do we really know that some authors were more influential than others? Where do we draw the line for what counts as influential?

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  2. xtine says:

    Great discussion, Krysta, as always.

    As much as I have tried, particularly post-university, to expand my reading to include classics I may have missed, I definitely have never understood the need for a canon. To be honest, it seems like a group of privileged scholars get to decide what is considered “high art” and what isn’t – and I’m increasingly seeing how problematic that can be. For instance, as much as I love Toni Morrison, it seems that she’s the token black woman of the “high art” discussion, as if other black writers aren’t as important (maybe because their style isn’t working so hard at appearing “literary”). It begs the question: who decides what’s worthy of being read? Why are other genres always seen as lesser? And how do we change something that’s so imbedded in our culture, particularly our academic culture?

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, that’s quite true. When I think of expansion of the canon and Black writers who have been included, it is pretty much just Toni Morrison. Of course, there are Black scholars trying to make a Black canon, but then others argue that this makes the Black canon seem tangential, like a less important add-on to the main canon.

      I think there are scholars who would like to see the canon go, to, but they are often working within systems where it’s difficult to effect change. The culture wars in America have made the humanities a political ground, so every time someone tries to add something to the university courses or departments, there are immediately people going, “Why are they studying Star Wars and not Shakespeare? Where’s the canon? Standards are being lowered!”

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      • Briana says:

        On the other hand, I know that at some universities, the English departments are purposely holding classes on monsters, children’s literature, comics, etc. because these classes are way more appealing than Shakepeare to people who are not already English majors. So they get 500 people to enroll in a large young adult literature lecture, flash the numbers at the funding people to prove people are interested in English classes and their department should get money just like the STEM programs, and then pray some of those students stick around to become English minors or majors, as well. :p

        But, yeah, I think some of the general public reaction to such courses is “Why is X local university teaching people about picture books?”

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        • Krysta says:

          That is certainly a good approach as well! (And very tricksy!) I think to some extent, the need for Shakespeare may be as a result of having to report to boards, taxpayers, etc. It’s kind of how state schools are sometimes required to required the GRE, even if the departments themselves don’t find the GRE a useful metric. But I can definitely see how offering other types of courses can also bolster their numbers and increase funding. Or even their reputation. Many schools like saying they have a special department for cultural studies or Black literature, for instance, because it makes them look cutting edge or inclusive.

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  3. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I really don’t like the idea of the canon because it’s so straight-white-male dominated. That’s why I love my course so far, we read texts that are part of the canon, but we also read things that are not that well known, and I appreciate that. 😊

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  4. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    The canon is super weird- and to be honest years after being introduced to it at uni, I’m still not sure what I feel about it. The way it was taught to me was slightly different- it was sort of explained as the books that academics study- so in the University I was in it would have included books that were “genre” or “children’s” fiction, as we studied those too. I also went to a Scottish uni, so there were a lot of Scottish books included that you wouldn’t get in other countries (the canon can change from place to place, so it’s very different in Australia and Canada for instance). Annnd I just realised I’m going off on a long rambly preamble. My issue from the canon was in part that it didn’t include a lot of things, or that things could be excluded for arbitrary reasons (it seems to me absurd that there were times when Shakespeare or John Dunne weren’t included), but equally absurd that books that were a little sub-par were included for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. For instance we studied Joanna Baillie’s work in my uni because she was the only woman writing plays in Scotland at the time- the only problem being her plays were all flops and really, really weren’t any good. Oh or for some reason George Herbert had a random resurgence in Oxford Uni recently, because even though he was considered the poor man’s John Dunne, they wanted to try and revive something that had faded from memory, because… well, no reason (ok the reason I was given was that it was good to get an idea of what other writing was going on at the time, even if it was less popular). My point is, it seems absurd to me to create these arbitrary rules for studying things. I much prefer the broader terms of “classic”, “modern classic” and “contemporary literary fiction”- it allows for a lot more flexibility. Sorry for this super long and probably incoherent comment- this was just a really thought provoking post!!

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    • Krysta says:

      I think you’re right to point out that the canon is by nature rather arbitrary. We talk about it sort of in capitals–The Canon–and act like it’s “timeless” and that everyone can recognize a “great” book. But it’s true that the canon varies across countries (and so do classics) and that the canon has changed over time. I’m pretty sure Hawthorne was out of favor for awhile and so was Dante. Usually these authors are “recovered” by people who are interested in them and so promote them. We pretend that their qualities enabled them to endure, but really it’s just lucky that Dante found some guy who wanted to translate him and introduce him to the British academy.

      And I think you’re right that the canon and classics are often what is studied at school. And people who excel in school often end up teaching it later so they keep teaching what they learned were important.

      I did learn George Herbert in school. Had no idea I caught him in a resurgence. He was nicely anthologized in my book of English Renaissance verse with all the other big names, like he was always naturally there. 😉

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  5. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review says:

    I agree with the Orangutan that “arbitrary rules for studying things” are not helpful. The “Canon” idea seems like another way to save people from having to think for themselves and discern what books are valuable and important, under the guise of preserving what is best of the past. I believe that many of the books that have historically been included ARE valuable and important, and they shouldn’t be thrown out just because they are by dead white males (or for any other arbitrary reason), but we need to be constantly re-evaluating those criteria. Education should consist neither of blind adherence to tradition, nor of bending to passing fads and fashions, but of finding the path in between that leads to true growth and development.

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    • Krysta says:

      I’ve never thought of the canon as a way to keep people from thinking for themselves. The canon debates have been raging for decades with proponents of different books and different systems explaining and defending their choices in public venues (though admittedly the general public is unlikely ever to access these venues). The effects of these debates can be seen in universities that now have departments and classes devoted to previously overlooked literature (though there are also debates about how fully a university accepts something like African American literature if they can just add a course and not overhaul the entire program to fit in more diverse books). It’s true that I have met many people who are really convinced that the canon are the “great” and “timeless” books and that they have not evaluated these books themselves, nor considered how markets and tastes have often influenced the canon. But I don’t know if the canon has really been blindly accepted by most people since at least the 1960s.

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  6. SERIESous Book Reviews says:

    Interesting post! Just the other day, I was thinking what makes something a classic? Is it the writing? The story? The publishing date?

    I remember learning about the canon in university and how it truly varies based on whomever is compiling it.

    I honestly don’t use it for anything. The only “canon” I follow is the Shakespeare one and that’s just because it lists all his works in a nice place 😛

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  7. Kelly in Hali says:

    This is such an interesting post! I always wondered who got to decide what books get classified as “classics” and TBH, I don’t think I ever stopped to consider the difference between a classic and canon. Most of what I read in school was by local, Canadian, East Coast authors, so we mostly avoided the “classics”.

    As someone who hasn’t studied the subject however, it seems like if no one can decide what makes something canon, and canon changes depending on location / time, what value does it really hold?

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    • Krysta says:

      Well, that’s a good question. I would argue that there are some good books in the canon that certainly hold some sort of value, whether it’s because they address important questions or because they are beautiful or because they do something intriguing or creative. However, I think it’s also important to remember that the canon IS a created thing, that people make it up and so we can debate about what sorts of things we value when we canonize some books and not others. For instance, why are there so few books by women in the canon? Are we saying that women don’t generally write about issues we value?

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