A plea for a new literary canon

September 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

We need a new literary canon. We have to say good bye to the books that have been on there for decades – yes, you heard me right. I’d love to replace some of the “classics” with other books, not necessarily more recent, but definitely different. Why?

“You know, I’d totally put it on the reading list for high school graduation.” Can you guess what book I am talking about? Probably not because this is not an apparent choice. I’m talking about The Marx Family Saga, a very good postmodern novel by Juan Goytisolo. Seriously, it’s postmodernism 101 – no punctuation and no capital letters, but a load of metafictional elements. Anas recommended it to me, and of course he was keen to know my opinion on it, and he was a bit surprised when I told him I would include it in the high school reading syllabus. The book is definitely not easy to read and it takes a lot of patience and concentration, but once you’ve found your way through it, it turns out to be a very rewarding read.

But the main reason for putting it on the reading list would be sweet, sweet revenge for all the mediocre stuff that I had to put up with in high school. I wonder how some of the books we read ended up on the list in the first place.

I’m not saying that the books in the current literary canon are bad, but there are better books out there that are just less known. But is it really the quality of a book that makes it suitable for a literary canon? Let’s ask my ever-faithful friend, the dictionary. It says that a canon is “a list of books or other works that are generally accepted as (…) being important”. Anas and I have had long discussions about what makes a book important, but we have agreed on two points. A book should reflect the era it was written in and at the same time it should have a timeless value. An important book, in my opinion, should address an issue that is still relevant centuries later.

Fontane’s Effi Briest paints a nice picture of German society in the late 1890s and it is certainly a nice additional read for history class, but it is so dependent on exactly those social circumstances that to a high school student in 2012, it is no longer relevant. Goethe’s Werther, admittedly embedded in its era as well, on the other hand offers a protagonist going through lovesickness and teenage angst. And no matter how society changes, a young person will probably find traces of themselves in this character.

Furthermore, a literary canon should show a certain development. Most national literatures are obsessed with a certain era or even writer that they think is the peak and epitome of their literary production, but one mustn’t forget other schools of literature. The German literary canon shouldn’t start with Goethe and end with Schiller, it should be a list of books that depicts the change of style, form and motifs throughout the centuries. A canon should include more than just the bestsellers of each decade – why not dare more and dig a bit deeper into the treasures of the written word? Some books that went unnoticed when they were first published might prove to be perfect additions to the current “must-reads”. The textbook examples of each literary school have their right to exist as well and they’re necessary to teach the basics, but we should have the guts to include some more obscure works in our literary canon. In the end, this list of so-called important books is arbitrary, despite the criteria that one might detect, and this means that we can change it. We just have to start.

But what do our readers think? If it was up to you guys, what would you make a mandatory read in school? And why?


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