Firing the canon


“Do you want to be the canon’s mouthpiece?” I asked a friend whose university had invited him on to a committee to identify 150 books that all undergraduates ought to read. But then I recalled that once, in my youth as a schoolteacher, I had established a literary canon of my own. One of my responsibilities had been the library, where, beyond the broad staircase in the vestibule, a blank wall faced the visitor. I appropriated the space and smothered it in books by former pupils, so that newcomers, as they crossed the threshold, saw a great heritage spread before them and might reach for equal eloquence and influence. I was realistic enough to know that the books would remain unread, but I thought that at least, if students passed close to the shelves, something might, as it were, rub off.

It is hard to identify texts that constitute genuinely universal culture: even the Bible, Marx, Homer, Darwin and Confucius penetrate patchily. Like the school where I tried to be a teacher, every community has its canon, but most people are too idle to read their own scriptures, or too dim to grasp them: they commonly hear digests from catechists and commissars, who must then endure the frustration of getting confused fragments back, washed up in students’ work like the flotsam of some terrible wreckage. “Required reading” provokes examination howlers: Macbeth’s witches represent satin; Cleopatra stuck an aspidistra in her breast. A fellow undergraduate of mine recalled that man is a political animal, everywhere in chains, and that covenants are but words, but could not say how Aristotle’s, Rousseau’s and Hobbes’ doctrines differed, or who said what.

Founders and forgers of canons have, moreover, a tendency to expand them to the dimensions of an evermore yawning bore. If l’appétit vient en mangeant, menus are bound to lengthen. A publisher recently asked me, for public relations purposes, to name my five most influential books: every title that came to mind sparked 50 others, at least as dear and important to me. There seems to be a current vogue for “1,001 books you must read”. Far more people will read the forthcoming list by historian William Roger Louis for its author’s fame, his pithy summaries and his shrewd animadversions, than will ever read all the books. Even at a title a week – surely an unrealistic tally, especially when most of the tomes are hefty and intellectually demanding – 1,001 amounts to a sentence of 20 years’ incarceration between bindings.

The books that ought to be in everyone’s canon are, as far as I can see, never included. I mean those that, in a given community, everyone reads and understands; those that everyone knows best and can recall vividly; those whose influence lasts a lifetime; those whose characters we love most and keep in our hearts forever; those that communicate lessons that go deepest and endure longest; in short, those that exceed all others in the effect that they have on us. Obviously, the books that meet these criteria are those we read in childhood.

Children’s books are often among the best in the world because they are unpretentious, and pretension is the curse of consciously literary efforts. They are often relatively short, and concision is a way of concentrating power. Pictures frequently accompany them, and fix in our minds images that we can never escape. We read children’s books with relish unfiltered by inhibitions, and enthusiasm unsubverted by cynicism. So we embrace their influence, with none of the wariness that makes our mature judgements “balanced” and therefore constrained. I like À la recherché du temps perdu – or at least the first couple of volumes, before the sex gets too strong for me – but I’d rather have the works of E. Nesbit on my desert island. Give me Dahl before Dostoevsky. I learned politics from The Wind in the Willows, morals in Narnia. I escaped from the suburbs into Hundred Acre Wood and Kipling’s jungle. Pages Glorieuses de l´Armée Française made me a five-year-old historian – not because I shared its gaudy, joyous patriotism, but because it alerted me to the partiality of my English pre-prep teachers’ version of the past.

Because adults write them, good children’s stories disclose new depths if you re-read them at intervals. My fellow collegian, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and I were once the only members of the Oxford University Tintin Appreciation Society. Even in senectitude, I rate Kidnapped and Mr Midshipman Easy among my favourite books. I have read few better works than A High Wind in Jamaica. Oscar Wilde wrote brilliantly for all ages, but never better than for children.

If we want a canon to give us a common culture, let us make it of children’s books. At least there’d be a chance that people might read them, whereas it is pointless, with most readers in mind, to urge the Bible or Plato’s Republic or the speeches of Demosthenes or the Buddhist classics or The Bhagavad Gita or Roger Louis’ indispensables or Leavis’ Great Tradition. I don’t claim such a canon would be easy to define. I asked my class for help. A few students had read The Lord of the Rings. All could summarise a Harry Potter saga. None had read Treasure Island.

Author Bio: Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history at the University of Notre Dame