The Question of the Canon.

Is there room for canonical literature in 2010, or are there simply too many authors, too many films, too many artists, and too many distractions in our modern age for the work of the 20th century “greats” to be revered, read or even recognized?  Why would I sit through seemingly painful reading sessions of The Sound and the Fury when I could revel in the writing of Junot Diaz, catch the latest 3D film featuring a soundtrack by the world’s most elusive musicians, download the month’s best-reviewed records, or play Angry Birds on my iPhone?  Do we still possess the patience and generosity necessary to interact with these kinds of texts or are these traits simply a thing of the past, replaced by the sense of instant gratification that is demanded of in the era of Netflix?  I feel these questions hit at the heart of what our class set out to explore as we covered a variety of texts, each unique in origin, style, and impact.

It was fairly clear that the works of Conrad, Faulkner Elliot, and perhaps even Hemingway and Yeats, left our class fairly unfulfilled, that perhaps reading these texts felt more like a burden than an opportunity to expose ourselves to some of the most respected writing of the 20th century.  It’s also fair to state that the more modern readings had a tendency to capture the attention of the class, to spark interest in a particular author’s experiences, and led to a more welcoming and eager discussion.  So then what do we make of these seemingly dated texts?  Are they worthless and deserve to be cast from our curriculum, their dreaded titles never to appear on another syllabus?  Do we keep them around as a keepsake, framed and placed on top of the bookshelf, their spines never to be cracked again?  Do we place ourselves in slavish debt to their literary impact and continue to teach them out of mere obligation, highlighting the same passages in our discussions as the ones featured on SparkNotes, so we can make our lives a bit easier?  Or, do we sit down with these texts and try to uncover why they’ve shaped our educational experiences, regardless of how futile our initial attempts may be?  These questions can’t be answered definitively.  A few months ago I would have told you to throw out the canon and give me something I can feel, but emerging from this course, I would select the final option, even if my experiences reading such texts weren’t always satisfying.

The main influence in this decision was the recognition that a great text doesn’t always have to grab you in the first 4 lines, it doesn’t have to hypnotize you by the close of the first chapter, it doesn’t have to induce panic towards the climax, and it doesn’t even have to reward you as it concludes.  Now this is not to say that texts that do not fulfill such criteria are not examples of great writing, most of my favorite writing does in fact fit into this category.  And much of the writing that compiled the syllabus for this class fulfills these criteria as well.  Drown, The Woman Warrior, and Persepolis are all incredibly composed works of art that are inviting, inspiring, exciting, and subtly dense.  However, a great text can also be one that frustrates, troubles, provokes, and ultimately haunts you, as it dares you to return to its pages and discover its relevance, regardless of the hurdles of language, theme, style, or time.  For this simple reason, I feel these titles have been included in the canon, not because their messages are so overwhelmingly brilliant or their compositions so elegantly crafted, which they often are, but simply because they trouble our conceptions of well-written literature and leave us questioning our capabilities as readers and thinkers.

I hate to sound too predictable or too ambivalent to choose a side, but my suggestion for this course lies in the teaching of both the canon and of modern literature, with careful attention placed on where the ideas brought forth in these texts overlap, so we as 21st century readers can gain an appreciation for all texts, regardless of their legacy.

As for the course itself, I feel it was a successful experiment.  I feel that most professors would have taken the safe route and assigned texts that have been proved competent and led the course along in a highly detailed manner, highlighting all the points that literary critics have deemed worthy and assumed the expected role of a required course.  So if for nothing else than daring to do something different, I offer my gratitude and respect to Prof. Gross.  Basing the course on the foundation of the blog was also something I found beneficial.  Having a forum to express ones thoughts and reactions allows for a deeper connection to the text and the ability to participate in a more thoughtful and expressive manner is greatly appreciated, sometimes words escape us and its nice to have a way to capture them when they reoccur.

With the benefit of hindsight I can say that I would have liked to engage more with these texts and brought more to our discussions.  I do, however, feel that I truly gained some insight in the often intimidating and puzzling world of literature through my experiences in this class.   I can’t say that I’ll forever grant my full attention to each and every piece of writing I come across, assigned or otherwise, but then again, how much can one expect of a music-pirating, instant-queuing, iPhone addict who reads all the wrong books?

Sincerest thanks to Prof. Gross and the class in general, especially Michael Z. whose ever-intimidating, inspiring, and impressive blog posts display qualities that very well may be reminiscent of the canon he feels so strongly about.

Cheers.  Go Knicks.

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