Me vs. the “canon”

Below is the list of the 30 books that were part of the Siena survey, as mentioned in this story here. I thought it would be interesting to see how many of the 30 books listed I had actually read, but I am confused by the list because it includes all the plays and poems by Shakespeare as one thing, the novels of Faulkner are also one thing and so, too, is the Declaration of Independence. What gives?

Scanning the list below, I can actually say I’ve read parts or even all of each item listed. But I don’t think it is reading this list of books that make me well-read; rather, it is coming to understand that the “canon” cannot be a list, it has to be a guiding principle or principles of determining the value of texts.

In that sense, to be well-read means to be open to understanding how texts can shape thought or describe experiences that need to be voiced. In other words, you could read all the texts listed and still not be well-read. The books listed can be thought of as foundational for Western thought and, perhaps, American thought, as well. But the U.S. is a pluralistic society, and the Siena survey’s list needs to be updated to reflect the importance of, say, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” or Bodhidharma and his school of Zen Buddhism. Of course, lists are finite, and many more texts can be added. The point isn’t the books themselves, but how they reflect ways of thinking or ways of experiencing the world.

What follows is what I’ve read and the list of 30 books in the survey.

Things that I’ve read more than once include:

  • Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Tempest,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth”
  • Melville’s “Moby-Dick”
  • The Declaration of Independence

  • Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”

  • Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby”

  • Orwell’s “1984”

  • Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye”

  • Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad”
  • Sophocles’ “Oedipus”

These are things I’ve read once, but completely:

  • Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter”
  • Dickens’ “Great Expectations” and “Tale of Two Cities”
  • Thoreau’s “Walden”
  • Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”
  • Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”
  • Dostoevski’s “Crime and Punishment”

For the rest on the list, I can only say I’ve read parts. I haven’t read all of Shakespeare, for example, or all of Aristotle’s Politics.

Here’s the entire list:

1. The Works of Shakespeare

2. The Declaration of Independence

3. Twain, Mark, Huckleberry Finn

4. The poems of Emily Dickinson

5. The poems of Robert Frost

6. Hawthorne, Nathaniel, Scarlet Letter

7. Fitzgerald, Scott F., The Great Gatsby

8. Orwell, George, 1984

9. Homer, Odyssey and Iliad

10. Dickens, Charles, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities

11. Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales

12. Salinger, J.D., Catcher in the Rye

13. The Bible

14. Thoreau, Henry David, Walden

15. Sophocles, Oedipus

16. Steinbeck, John, the Grapes of Wrath

17. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays and poems

18. Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice

19. Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass

20. The novels of William Faulkner

21. Melville, Herman, Moby Dick

22. Milton, John, Paradise Lost

23. Vergil, Aeneid

24. Plato, The Republic

25. Marx, Karl, Communist Manifesto

26. Machiavelli, Niccolo, the Prince

27. Tocqueville, Alexis de, Democracy in America

28. Dostoevski, Feodor, Crime and Punishment

29. Aristotle, Politics

30. Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace

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