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The Literary Canon—What Books Should Be Required Reading?


Last week, a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto presented this dilemma: She had a Latino American high school student in one of her classes who didn’t feel he was prepared for college because he felt that his high school reading list was dominated by Latino and African American writers and that he had missed out on reading many of the works of other writers of the American Literary Canon. This sparked a heated debate between those who felt California high school reading lists inadequately prepare children for college and those who thought the student in question should be encouraged to read more books written by Latino and other Spanish-speaking authors because “This is not a time for cultural imperialism.”

The canon debate—whether referring to the American Literary Canon or the Western Literary Canon—has been a point of contention among academics since the sixties when liberals began fighting for more women and minorities and fewer “dead European men” to be included in the canon. The canon wars culminated in the late 80s, when Jesse Jackson chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go” with students outside of Stanford in order to protest a required course in Western civilization. (The class was replaced by one that included more books written by women and minorities.) The traditionalists and multiculturalists had battled it out, and the multiculturalists had won.

According to a New York Times article published in 2007, “While in the 60s, the most widely read authors in college English courses were Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, and T.S. Eliot, by 1998, they were Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison. The most-assigned living authors (in 1998) were Morrison, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Salman Rushdie, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. (Ironically, the article states, Roth’s “Exit Ghost” features a character who rants about the lack of canon writers in a library display. “They had Gertrude Stein in the exhibit but not Ernest Hemingway. They had Edna St. Vincent Millay but not William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens or Robert Lowell. Just nonsense. It started in the colleges and now it’s everywhere. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison, but not Faulkner.”)

I think we can all agree that it’s a good thing that high schools and colleges are assigning Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros and Maxine Hong Kingston alongside Homer and Henry David Thoreau. The question is—have we gone too far? Is the loss of the historical perspective gained by reading the classics detrimental to one’s liberal arts education?

As Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College, put it, “Everyone’s read Things Fall Apart—Chinua Achebe’s novel about colonial Nigeria—but few people have read the Yeats poem that the title comes from.”

The same argument can be applied to the Bible and the Greek classics, too. If you don’t know your mythology, you’re going to miss out on a lot of references in modern-day literature (phrases like “Trojan horse,” “sisyphean,” and “Pyrrhic victory, for example.) The problem is that high schools can only assign so many required books. For every book that enters the canon, one has to be removed.

As someone who was an English major at UCLA in 1998, I can attest that I was assigned Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Zora Neale Hurston’s They’re Eyes Were Watching God and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior at least three times each, but I never read Faulkner or Hemingway, and only one book by Fitzgerald, whose title I can’t remember. (I did read a lot of Hemingway on my own but only recently read The Great Gatsby—often described as “the perfect novel,” for the first time.) However, I was still required to take courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton and to read the Norton Anthologies of English Literature, which are full of dead European men, end to end. I am thankful for reading Shakespeare and Milton because they had a profound effect on our culture (Our heaven and hell mythology, for example, comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, not from the Bible), but I am also thankful for reading Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. And frankly, I prefer books of the recent past—which have dominated high school and university reading lists since the 80s—more than classics written by Dante or Homer because A) They’re less of a struggle to read and B) I can relate to novels written by someone who lived in the twentieth century—regardless of their gender or race—more than I can relate to Ophelia or Bianca or Lady MacBeth. In fact, during my last semester at UCLA, I switched my major from English literature to American literature so I could take African American Literature of the West instead of another Chaucer class, for which I would have had to have learned to speak and write in Middle English.

But in the New York Times article referenced above, John Guillory, an English professor at NYU cautions, “I see too many scholars in the field who know very little about anything before the 20th century, and that concerns me.” And Tony Judt, an NYU historian, says that freshman often arrive unprepared from high school, asking for classes in “what we might have thought of as the old-fashioned approach.”

So where does that leave us? When a Latino American high school student looks to us and says, “Could you suggest books from the American Literary Canon for me to read?” What do we tell him? My instinct is to give him a list of the most important books we think are worth reading, regardless of gender or race or time period, and then arm him with some history about how the canon was formed, how it has evolved, and whether there should be a canon at all. (Back in the 1800s, the ONLY books in the literary canon were the Greek and Roman classics. Novels weren’t considered acceptable required reading.)

I have my own list of books I would recommend, but first I want to hear from you. If you were designing the Required Reading List for All High Schools in the United States, what would you include? What would you exclude that may have been included before?

4,532 comments to The Literary Canon—What Books Should Be Required Reading?

  • Jessica Carew Kraft

    Meghan, this is a terrific summary and addition to the discussion we started last week, thanks for posting. I completely agree that there shouldn't be an outright elision of the conventional canon, because it creates a generation of intellectuals with hollow cultural shells who only know how to critique the past, rather than having an appreciation for past cultural achievements within their respective contexts and an appreciation for a multitude of voices. Outlawing Huck Finn for its use of a racial slur, for instance, seems to be the epitome of this attitude. My elementary school in rural Iowa taught a curriculum that focused on the Plains Indians, which was fantastically fun and interesting, (and trying to right an historical wrong). But I can't tell you anything about the great Amish communities in Iowa, the democratic history of that state or how to grow corn. In college I was also directed to read previously marginalized authors multiple times, and this was also excellent. But without knowing what/who those authors were reacting to, it was hard to fully appreciate them in context. There must be a different way!

    • meghancward

      Thanks so much for your input, Jessica. I think what frustrated me in college was that the professors didn't communicate with each other to be sure they weren't all assigning the same books. I loved "Beloved," but I must have been assigned to read it four times. (Why not "The Bluest Eye"? Why not "The Sound and the Fury?") I think the best solution is to develop a reading list of recommended books that students can read on their own time because there's just no way to fit them all onto the school reading lists. And that's what I hope to do here. Like I said, I have no own list, but I want to hear from others first.

  • Molly Colin

    Great post!

  • lindseycrittenden

    The danger seems to be in terming the canon as a closed box, a finished category, as the Only Source of Good Literature. In assuming that if one reads any "canon" of a certain group of books–whether dead white men or multi-cultural–that one has therefore been exposed to what's necessary. Unfortunately the extremes on both sides tend to do this. I agree with Meghan and others about the importance of certain books in the DWM canon as significant to our cultural and literary references — from Homer to Faulkner. We read Homer not just for Homer. I'm not sure the same can be said for other writers, no matter how deserving of being studied. I suppose to some extent the issue hangs on what one is studying–an English major who wants to go on to teach or write would benefit from identifying the source of the Buchanans' wine-dark carpet in Great Gatsby, for example, as well but an Engineering major filling a Gen Ed requirement with a lit class would not. No easy solution, that's for sure. There are many many good books, far more than one class can cover, and in the end that's a good thing–and a point to be made by teachers and professors.

    • meghancward

      I would hope that most people know that the canon is ever-evolving. But yes, should there be a canon at all? Should there be one for European writers and one for Spanish-speaking writers and one for African writers? And then a global canon of the best of each canon? If we're talking about high school, the question is – if you were the principal, or the head of the English dept – which books would you assign?

      • lindseycrittenden

        When I taught high school, 16 years ago, my American lit class ("American Voices") had Toni Morrison (Bluest Eye) and Sandra CIsneros (House on Mango Street). These were repeated standards of the course, and I kept them. For the two other novels, I chose Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as well. I considered the age of the students as well as the representation of gender and ethnicity in the authors. The "toughest" books for the students to grapple with, theme- and language-wise, were Morrison and Kesey. Interestingly, I had to make a case with my department head for Kesey–he wasn't thought literary enough. Cuckoo's Nest is seriously misogynistic (women are whores or castrating nurses and mothers) but also has strong merits. All the books pushed some comfort levels while opening some eyes, and that seems an important factor for selection–as well as good sentences and provocative imagery and theme.

  • andyrossagency

    Which writers left an impression on me? Cervantes, Camus, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Plato, Marx, Thomas Mann, Orwell, Edward Gibbon, Kant, Hannah Arendt, Homer. Homer, All white men, except for one white woman. All Westerners. But they are all still worth reading. I don't think anyone could challenge that. Oh, here's something that gets my goat. When I was at Brandeis in 1964, I took a survey of political thought. We read the complete texts of, Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, etc. I told my son to take a class like that a few years ago at Tufts, and they read 30 page selections from a text book. Hmmff.

    • meghancward

      Good example of how they're not teaching the classics like they used to. They should at least be offered for those who want to take them. Like John Guillory said above – too many of the academics aren't familiar with works written before the 20th century. I love Camus, by the way. I'll add The Stranger and The Plague to my list. This discussion also makes me want to go back and reread all the classics because I've forgotten most of them at this point.

  • m++

    Very interesting post, Meghan! Last I thought about this was when I took AP English in high school in the 80s. At the time I remember thinking "who comes up with this Canon list anyway"? That is the definition of the all powerful "they"… +1 to Orwell and Camus being on "the list".

  • Aditi Raychoudhury

    Great post, Meghan!

    I agree w your suggestion “When a Latino American high school student looks to us and says, “Could you suggest books from the American Literary Canon for me to read?” What do we tell him? My instinct is to give him a list of the most important books we think are worth reading, regardless of gender or race or time period, and then arm him with some history about how the canon was formed, how it has evolved, and whether there should be a canon at all. (Back in the 1800s, the ONLY books in the literary canon were the Greek and Roman classics. Novels weren’t considered acceptable required reading.)”

    Indian schools typically assign classics by dead British ( and American) MEN ( and a few dead women) so while I know where the phrase ” things fall apart ” comes from – and we read a lot of Shakespeare and so on, I wasn’t exposed to much African literature ( I did read stuff by other European authors pretty early on b/c we had them in the library or at home) – but I never read classics from other cultures in school. I think the problem w emphasizing one genre / source of literature is that we aren’t exposed to other cultures, and, hence , may tend to think that the best literature comes from “the read” culture. at the same time, It’s tough to read great books from various cultures within a limited time. Hence, I completely agree w you about having a more even handed approach. For example, including one book by Kawabata and Garces, in place of several Jane Austens or Shakespeares, would increase exposure.

    At the same time, I think part of the problem is that we live in a culture of “blame and shame”. We either eliminate most great literature from colonist cultures – or blame our teachers for limiting our exposure. so, i would also tell kids – “stop blaming others for your ignorance! Its never been easier to get information on anything ! Google ” great nigerian authors” and you will find them… type in “great authors from the 1800s” and you will know what great books were written aT that time. So, grow up, get off your butt and get on the Internet. go to the library and find those great stories. … And please stop complaining about what you haven’t been taught. !”

    If little girls in small remote towns without internet and computers cd find Camus, you can surely find Yeats!

    • meghancward

      "If little girls in small remote towns without internet and computers cd find Camus, you can surely find Yeats!"

      Great line! And speaking of writers from Nigeria and other foreign countries, one thing I really miss here in the US is reading more foreign books in translation. Why is it so rare that we hear about what books are popular in France and Spain and Italy? Or Nigeria, Brazil, Norway? All we hear about are American and British authors. I want to read more works in translation.

      • Aditi Raychoudhury

        Hmmm – never thought about that b/c I read a lot of translated texts growing up – but, yes, I have no clue as to what’s current in non-English speaking countries .

  • Kristan

    Such a great post and an important question!

    "My instinct is to give him a list of the most important books we think are worth reading, regardless of gender or race or time period, and then arm him with some history about how the canon was formed, how it has evolved, and whether there should be a canon at all."

    I could not agree more.

    Also, I feel like if a student has read something twice already (particularly if they've already studied in a formal class) then they should have the option to read something else. I know it's easier said than done, but I think curriculums could/should be a bit more flexible. I mean, there's no reason that an English class can't have a robust, fruitful discussion about one concept/idea as it applies to a few different stories. (Compare & contrast, anyone?)

    • meghancward

      I like your idea to give the student an option to read an alternate book, Kristan! I supposed that would make more work for the professor, though, who would also have to read all those alternate books. But please don't make me read the same book four times! (Another I was assigned to read over and over and over at UCLA was Kate Chopin's The Awakening.)

  • Great post. Very important that professors communicate with each other so books aren't replicated two or three times! I don't like the word "canon" for it's exclusivity and agree that what should be assigned are the best books. But who decides that? The makeup of committees is very important and should be diverse. Also, I agree that historical perspective is important–so Thoreau and transcendentalism should be introduced as well as Toni Morrison for her amazing writing about what really has gone on in African American communities–all part of the history of American literature(not African American or White or Chinese American but American).

    • meghancward

      I thought of you when I was watching Mud this weekend, Louise. Mud portrays life on the Mississippi in Arkansas in a way that most of us "townies" have never seen it – the same way Toni Morrison portrays the lives of African American communities in ways that many non-African Americans haven't seen it before. It's so important for all of us to read about people from other cultures – whether they be people in Arkansas, Latino Americans living in the U.S. Asians, Africans, African Americans, or people who lived during the time of Shakespeare and Jane Austin.

  • annerallen

    What makes the "canon" important is that they are cultural touchstones. Like the Bible. We expect a literate person to know who Lazarus was as well as recognize phrases like "etherized upon a table" or "slouching toward Bethlehem to be born." I think by removing these from standard education, you're robbing those students of something they need to understand the culture around them. The most popular authors of their time added important things to the culture. Failing to study them means losing keys to understanding ourselves.

    I know a high school English teacher who only got to teach classic "dead male" authors like Shaw, Wilde, Sheridan, Joyce and Yeats by presenting their work as ethnic "Irish literature". Seems like silly hoop-jumping in order to provide kids with the education they need.

    • meghancward

      Anne, I don't think it's a bad thing to have an Irish literature class and an English literature class (literature specifically from Britain) or a European literature class – as long as it's still available to students. But what to include on the high school required reading list is still up for debate since there are only so many slots to be had. At least in college students can pick and choose which classes to take.

  • haroldjohnson

    "Canonize them all!" That's how I remember answering a similar discussion posed in the final course I attended at UCLA in 1999 or so, a class about postmodern literature. I may have been trying too hard to impress at the time (as in, trying to come across as rebelling against the canonization of Great Works of Literature). It was so important for me to challenge the status quo. (Come to think of it, I haven't changed all *that* much…)

    I received a B.A. in English from the same university you attended, Meghan (graduating the same year), and I recall being offered a decent selection of literature to read — from the long dead English through Fitzgerald and up through Paul Auster. I fell in love with Steinbeck while studying at UCLA, but also was exposed to the literature of Allison Lurie, Borges, Carolyn See, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, and a broad selection of both contemporary and multi-cultural (or "ethnic") writers (too broad a list to insert here).

    In high school I remember being introduced to Sandra Cisneros alongside Steinbeck (but finding myself snoozing while my English teacher read Of Mice and Men aloud — a classic which is one of my favorites now). The House on Mango Street seemed more relevant to me at the time.

    You have to perform some of your own research and take a chance on some of the offerings (or electives, if you're in college) that may seem, at first, a bit less "important" than others. If I hadn't taken that postmodern lit course, I wouldn't have been exposed to the digital works of hypertext writers such as Michael Joyce and Shelley Jackson. Everyone is told to read James Joyce, of course, but if I hadn't elected to attend a 10-week course dedicated to the artist, I would have had very little exposure to his works (except for perhaps having come across one of his short stories in a Norton Anthology or something). Same goes for Faulkner — I don't recall having read Faulkner until long after college, though I admit he was mentioned often throughout both high school and college (and I think we may have read part of one of his works in the aforementioned course on postmodern lit.)

    I can't imagine not having been exposed to Faulkner now. Or Joyce. Or Milton. Or Tolkien! Tolkien first came to me by way of my mom's book collection, and thank goodness for that (though he was also mentioned often in a course I took dedicated to the works of C.S. Lewis). How many college students only know about Tolkien through his translation of Beowulf (and how many students will remember or care about that contribution)? Tolkien should be in the canon, as far as I'm concerned. Yet the author also seems to uphold the old guard (white, Old English, classic mythology, male-centered).

    Perhaps I should write a book about this rather than continue commenting. Then again, that would be a huge waste of time. It's a fun discussion to return to, though (and a valuable one).

    • meghancward

      Thanks for your comment, Harold! I loved that postmodern lit class (Do you remember our professor's name, by the way? I have him to thank (or accuse) for sticking with writing instead of going pre-med. (Damn, I could have been a doctor by now!)) I know the onus is on me to read Faulkner. I will, one of these days. I own The Sound and The Fury. But I was disappointed to have been assigned so little Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc. at UCLA. Still, I loved my seminar in Pynchon (some scenes from Gravity's Rainbow and V will be forever etched in my mind), and I loved my Black Literature from the West class, in which we read Morrison's Paradise, which had just come out and which was being sold on this new website called It was also in that class that I discovered and fell in love with Octavia Butler's The Parable of the Sower (I have yet to read the sequel, The Parable of the Talents, but I will some day.) And to piggyback on Anne Allen's comment, you have to know a little bit of the Bible to know what the titles of those books mean. I feel like being an English major all over again – going back and studying all those classic books and poems and plays a second time because you really need to read a book more than once to retain it.

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  • Anthony Lee Collins

    I'm always ambivalent about this question, since in high school (I think high school and college are very different — or at least they were for me) the main effect of studying anything was to turn it into junk (some of the books may actually have been junk — but some were apparently not).

    To this day, I cringe at any suggestion of reading Moby Dick, for example, which many reliable people have told me is quite good. I still remember studying it in high school, for months, which involved a lot of memorizing. I even wrote a chapter once based on the nine gams of the Pequod, and I bought a copy of the book to prepare, but I couldn't bring myself to open it and instead did the research online.

    On the other hand, I'm always quite happy reading Henry James and Hemingway, for example, because I never had to study them in school.

    College was different, of course, because we got to choose our courses. It was still almost entirely dead white guys, though I gather from the other comments that that's changed more recently.

    Pynchon in college? Wow. I hope they don't ruin his books for people. Some books, like some forms of music, are really better learned about from enthusiasts, or in dark, dank, clubs full of cigarette smoke.

    • meghancward

      Anthony, the Pynchon seminar was fantastic. It was taught by a woman who specialized in the intersection of science and literature. It was an intense class and to read Gravity's Rainbow we had TWO books to assist us and help interpret what the hell he was talking about. We read The Crying of Lot 49, V, GR ,and at least one or two others. I think The Mason-Dixon Line was not yet out.

      • Anthony Lee Collins

        I'm glad it was a good class (hey, when I was in college, Gravity's Rainbow had just come out 🙂 ).

        It's interesting to that you mention science. When Inherent Vice came out, I was obsessed with it for about six months, and part of that process was going back and rereading The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland (the other two short ones, and the other two set in California), and with Lot 49 it was interesting to remember how much his early novels focused on physics and paranoia, two themes which are largely absent from his more recent books.

        • meghancward

          Vineland was the other one we read, although I don't remember it as well as Crying of Lot 49, V, and GR. I remember that The Crying of Lot 49 was about a postal service. I haven't read any of his recent books. What did he write after Mason-Dixon? Did you read that one?

          • Well, my opinion would be that you don’t remember Vineland that well because it’s not that good. 🙂

            I wrote about Vineland here:
            and here:

            I’ve read everything by Pynchon except for Against the Day, which I’ve never made it more than halfway through. Other than that, I’ve read them all several times. I guess he’s my “favorite writer” if anybody is. His next novel is coming out later this year, and I already have the date marked on my calendar.

            Mason & Dixon is, IMHO, his masterpiece. Inherent Vice connected with me particularly, though, maybe partly because it’s a mystery, which is what I write, and partly because he nails the era (1970).

            I wrote about The Crying of Lot 49, too:

          • meghancward

            I didn't know you were such a big Pynchon fan! Thanks for the links and for the tip about Mason & Dixon. I'll have to read it one of these days.

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