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May 26, 2008

Canon of Literature

This weekend, I happened to come across a NY Times review called “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Boxall. The reason I bring it up here, is that this list is unbelievably and unashamedly Anglo-centered (including the U.S.) - it is not even a list of great Western literature, let alone that it tries to define the best in world literature.

Another matter is the narrow focus on the novel (and short stories). In ancient China, fiction in contrast was not considered as literature (which included rather philosophical and historical works as well as lyrical poetry) - the present West is just as short-sighted by only considering prose fiction. Of course poetry and plays should be included, but also - if they have sufficient literary value - historical texts, essays, even scientific work. Darwin and Hawkins, for example, should be part of the canon! It should be a canon of literary texts, and not of novels!

The weakness of the NY Times list is most clearly visible in the (smallish) pre-1700 section, where the only non-Western book is The Thousand and One Nights...

What about the Manyoshu? The Genji Monogatari? Basho?

And where are the Analects, Daodejing, Zhuangzi and the Book of Songs? Where are the Lotus Sutra and the Mahabarata and Ramayana?

The selection of modern Japanese literature is also rather biased, with no Tanizaki or Kawabata and by Oe only Nip the Buds, by Mishima only A Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea... Murakami Haruki is represented by Kafka on the Shore, After the Quake, Sputnik Sweetheart and the The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Not my list of favorite Murakami (except the last title) - Sputnik Sweetheart is one of his weakest books, as a "love story" Norwegian Wood (which I have been reading for a second time recently) is much stronger.

In the end, of course, everybody should build his or her own "canon" - based on personal preference and also clear principles (so as to be interesting for others). If I have time, I may start building my canon gradually, ten books at a time... Seeing a list made by others, really stimulates you to start making your own...

P.S. The great thing for pre-1900 literature is of course that so much of it is available on the web as "open source" - at the well-known Gutenberg site but also in many other places. And Wikipedia forms a convenient stating point for studying the various ancient and national literatures.