Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Canons of Great Literature

I remember back in seminary a professor excoriated me for selecting unpopular, if not virtually unknown books as influential in my life. I had demonstrated a lack of spiritual maturity by not agreeing with his choices.

There's a lot of literary spinach out there -- stuff that's supposed to be good for you, even if it's boring. Well, I don't really care what people think of my tastes in art, literature, or anything else. Every now and then I get the bug to try out heavy literature. Recently, it was Kerouac's On the Road. Before that, it was Nabokov's Lolita. But if it doesn't grab me, I put it down and read something else.

Years ago, I met a high school girl who kept a copy of Atlas Shrugged around. She would pull it out and conspicuously read from it so that people would be impressed by her intelligence. And I think that many of the works that make it into and stay in the canon of great literature do so only because rejecting them would make a person like a dullard. Sort of like abstract art.

As for me, I don't apologize for what I like and what I don't like.

Which is not to say that there is not an advantage to a culture asserting an aesthetic canon. A common body of literature (or other arts) gives cohesion to members of that culture. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra and all that. But at a certain point, it's time to strike out on one's own and set one's own aesthetic values.

1 comment:

Divers and Sundry said...

I agree there's value in being familiar with what the dominant culture accepts as "great" (including written works, art, music...), but that doesn't mean I have to _like_ it. It also doesn't mean I have to have read or heard the whole thing or seen it in person as long as I'm familiar with with it in terms of why it's culturally significant. Life is short. I'd rather spend an hour watching "Darmok" again.