The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books

Matthew Price in The National:

Like many cultural conventions, the canon of great books is one part myth, another part wishful-thinking. At once self-limiting and ever expanding, the western literary and philosophical tradition has grown by means organic and totally artificial. Classics, after all, were once new; but only posterity decides which works survive to be handed down from generation to generation, and which vanish into obscurity.

Few would deny that the likes of Aristotle, Cervantes and Shakespeare are central figures in the western canon. But what, exactly, do we mean when we speak of literary greatness? The very notion is enshrouded in a kind of hoary mysticism. The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold wrote of “the best that has been thought and known in the world,” but that only takes us so far. There is a cloudy, if universal agreement – a convenient fiction, really – that such an elevated category exists, but there are not, and never will be, fixed criteria for determining those books that are entitled to the sobriquet “great”.

Greatness may be bestowed by a kind of collective acclaim, in the accretion of hundreds of years of opinion from critics, academics, writers and thinkers. And it is ultimately the authority of cultural elites that forms the boundaries of what we keep in the canon – by reading it, teaching it, writing about it – and what falls by the wayside. Taking this measure – the wisdom of crowds, if you will – one could define the canon of great books in an expansive sense: it includes those works that have, over time, been esteemed as great. This was the approach taken in 2006 by the New York Times, which polled “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages” in an attempt to crown the best American novel of the last quarter-century. (Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the winner.) In this conception, the canon is a fluid, living thing: its boundaries ebb and flow as new works emerge and older books fall out of favour.

But this descriptive approach strikes a certain kind of mandarin as far too permissive – and there remains always a temptation to prescribe a list instead: to pin down, once and for all, a definitive and precise list of imperishable works that speak to all ages and eras, monuments of aesthetic accomplishment; not just those books we do still read, but what we should read.

More here.