In the back of the Economist one week in 2019, I found the obituary for a professor named Harold Bloom. Bloom, the obituary said, compiled a list of thousands of books that he declared to be The Western Canon. (He later disavowed the list, saying an editor forced him to write it and that he spent no effort or time compiling it.) Intrigued, I checked out the list online, and being a lover of lists and books alike, decided to take on the challenge of reading the Canon. This post will be an intro to some of the works in the Canon, as well as a list of the authors I’ll be reading. Subsequent posts will be reviews, musings, and brief summaries of the works of The Canon.
I know virtually nothing about literary criticism or great literature. I’ve never taken a college-level course on literature, or any other kind of art. I am a somewhat voracious reader, primarily in economics and sci-fi fantasy. You can find my Goodreads here - please do add me as a friend. I had always wanted to read more of ‘The Classics,’ and this project is my plan to get a crash course in the great works of literature.
Harold Bloom was an American professor and literary critic. You can read his Wikipedia bio to get a full sense of his work and accomplishments, but suffice to say that he was very influential in the literary criticism world. He published over 40 books, and is famous for having read thousands more. I will also take this opportunity to note that Naomi Wolf accused him of sexual harassment - you can read her story here. There is obviously a whole discussion to be had on how to approach the creative work of those credibly accused of loathsome deeds, and I don’t want to dive headfirst into that debate at the moment. I will simply say that I think it is possible to separate the work from the creator, as long as the work and the creator’s wrongdoings aren’t inextricably linked. So, keeping in mind the alleged extremely inappropriate behavior, let’s press on.
Bloom’s key idea, and the book he is most famous for, is The Western Canon. In the book, he argues that the major idea behind reading great works is not to improve society, but rather to gain insight into being human and to appreciate art. Further, he lists 26 authors whom he deems to be central to the canon, and details what role they played. In the back of the book, he lists several thousand books that he thinks are key to the canon.
I’m not too focused on Bloom’s arguments here, largely because I feel they go a bit over my head. I have no formal training in literature or any other kind of art, and so some of Bloom’s heady discourse is lost on me. But, from what I can gather, the 26 authors he lists are chosen because of their ‘strangeness,’ and the separation they have from each other and other authors. Further, each author is primarily motivated to create this strangeness, and the truly great ones succeed in breaking away from their contemporaries and priors.
The 26 authors he focuses on are:
- William Shakespeare
- Dante Alighieri
- Geoffrey Chaucer
- Miguel de Cervantes
- Michel de Montaigne
- John Milton
- Samuel Johnson
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- William Wordsworth
- Jane Austen
- Walt Whitman
- Emily Dickinson
- Charles Dickens
- George Eliot
- Leo Tolstoy
- Henrik Ibsen
- Sigmund Freud
- Marcel Proust
- James Joyce
- Virginia Woolf
- Franz Kafka
- Jorge Luis Borges
- Pablo Neruda
- Fernando Pessoa
- Samuel Beckett
To be honest, I had never even heard of many of these. Of the names I recognized, I had only read a handful of the texts (some Shakespeare, Dickinson…and that’s about it.) But if there’s one thing Bloom was good at, it was making you want to read. Some of his descriptions of the works in the Canon are breathtaking: “Sir John Falstaff is so original and so overwhelming that with him Shakespeare changes the entire meaning of what it is to have created a man made out of words.” With a description like that, how can you not want to stop what you’re doing right now and pick up Henry IV?
The book is filled with lines like this, and is an excellent way to get excited and motivated about reading great writers. I also enjoy Bloom’s insistence that reading is not a way for us to learn morals, but instead a self-fulfilling and enlightening activity to better understand the human condition:
Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens. Art is perfectly useless, according to the sublime Oscar Wilde, who was right about everything. He also told us that all bad poetry is sincere. Had I the power to do so, I would command that these words be engraved above every gate at every university, so that each student might ponder the splendor of the insight.
There’s something else I want to stress here: I’m not convinced that the Western Canon is the “correct” list of books, or intellectually superior to any other historic works (from the East or elsewhere.) I’m using this book, and its associated list of books, to narrow down my focus to one list that is easily explainable to others. It’s largely a motivational tool; I simply think it would be cool to say I’ve read all the major books from Harold Bloom’s the Western Canon. But, I’m under no illusion that the books I’ve chosen are the Very Best Books of All Time With No Exceptions. Once I finish the Canon, I will turn to explore authors neglected by Bloom’s specific focus.
So, I decided to read the major works that Bloom lists of these 26 authors (plus, a few works from before Shakespeare: some Greeks, Romans, and religious texts.) You can see the full list I chose on Goodreads. It comes down to 166 books. I’m really not sure how long this will take - I started a year and a half ago and have just now arrived at Shakespeare. Regardless, I’m committed to finishing it in my lifetime, even if it takes a decade or more.
I’ll note that coincidentally, Tommy Collison has started something very similar with his Great Books Project. We arrived at a different set of books (there’s definitely some on his list that I will add to my to-read shelf), but the goal is the same: to learn about human nature and enjoy the finest literature the world has to offer. I wasn’t planning on writing anything about it online, but Tommy inspired me to follow his lead. I highly recommend subscribing to his blog to follow his progress, and I will be sure to join his comment threads when our books overlap.
So, that’s the plan: 166 books, ?? years, 1 aspiring student of literature, and hopefully many blog followers. I’m looking forward to this journey, and I hope you will join me on a tour through The Western Canon.