How to read the canon
find as many books as possible that you can re-read every decade
I am going to add my thoughts to this question at Nabeel’s suggestion, for which many thanks. Here is the MarginalRevolution post that served as his inspiration. Several readers are academics and writers, so I am hopeful there will be interesting and useful comments on this piece. Overall, remember that not everyone will read the classics and that’s fine. I don’t think you have to love Milton to be a good person, but I do think many people are hungry for serious writing and that requires more from you than reading Agatha Christie (blessed though she be). Anyone who is deeply serious about this should probably get a tutor—I’m happy to help with that… Or join the Common Reader Book Club! We read classics, discuss them on zoom calls, and I provide videos and essays with information and context. The next session is Sunday, and you get to learn about Bleak House and utilitarianism in the meantime.
This is the central question of literary study. You should be hesitant about, but highly open to, extensions of the canon. Any attempt to reduce the canon should leave you wary. We want well-considered selections from as wide a base of high quality writing, across modes, as possible.
Read Harold Bloom. Read the authors more recently appreciated, such as the writers in The Portable Nineteenth-Century African American Women Writers. (I like this anthology because it eclectic as to forms: poems, journalism, etc.) The more time you spend reading, the less time you need to spend worrying about what exactly is the canon… We live in diverse times, so go and read.
Taste is real. Don’t be a philistine.
Samuel Johnson. “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” Also this: “A book may be good for nothing; or there may be only one thing in it worth knowing; are we to read it all through?”
Reading is an explore/exploit problem (also this link) and most people are just bad at this. Their search is too limited by their (often genre-based) taste and they don’t exploit things enough. My advice is basically to be good at explore/exploit. More on this below.
Put down bad books. Life’s too short. Do, however, pick a book back up after a long interval. Johnson again: “if a man begins to read in the middle of a book, and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it, to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.”
You are looking for writing that you will never get over. This will often mean books that are beyond you right now. If you haven’t read Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Great Expectations, Harriet Jacobs, or Elizabeth Bishop you really should. If these books confuse or bore you, go away and come back. Or force your way in or exploit someone else’s enthusiasm (see below).
Read anthologies, obituaries, and blogs to improve your search for new authors. Trust very few book reviews in magazines and newspapers. If the Penguin Book of Dragons is what gets you excited about Edmund Spenser, that’s great. Be catholic in your taste, but look for the best. (This week, Diana Wynne Jones stole my heart with Charmed Life and Howl’s Moving Castle. I’m now on a binge.)
Don’t become one of those people who only reads certain sorts of books.
Read the first few pages and decide if you want to continue. If it bugs you after you put it down, go back to it.
If you see someone in public who is obviously thrilled by the book they are reading make a note and read the first few pages on Amazon.
In general, although not exclusively, don’t watch the movie of the books you love, but do read the book of the movies you enjoy.
Trace lineage. If you love Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell then read Susanna Clarke’s influences: Ursula LeGuin, Tolkien, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Dickens, Austen, Meredith, Mason & Dixon, etc. If you then trace their lineages, you will end up very well read indeed.—You will note how eclectic that list is by the way (and limited, I could add many more….) I have never read Meredith or Sutcliffe but as part of my ongoing project to read Clarke’s influences, I plan to. It will be interesting to see them in light of her, even if I find them dull in themselves. This sort of thing is easier to do with music, somehow, for most people. This one might be the best advice I can give you. If you take this seriously, you’ll end up reading a lot of the best work.
Some stuff is foundational. If you are serious, you need to know Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, Ovid, etc. Follow the footnotes. Dip in and out. Go back to them. Read children’s editions. Whatever. Just stick at it. The more you know, the more you get from what you read. This is what stops most people exploiting what they read.(See 6, below.)
Memorise the things you love. Wallow. Swoon. When you are walking down the street and feel overcome with a line of Wallace Stevens just say it out loud to yourself. Why not? One day you’ll be dead and you won’t get the chance. Listen to poets reading their own work wherever possible. Chant it to yourself. How high that highest candle lights the dark!
Put your phone in the other room while you read.
Keep a commonplace book. (I am bad at this these days.)
Write essays about what you read.
Re-read the great books. When I was seventeen I **loved** Jane Eyre and Brideshead, reading both more than once in short order. I recently re-read Jane Eyre and a few years ago reread all of Waugh’s early novels. Now I am re-reading Dickens. How much have I read Mill? God knows. If I had to put my advice into one sentence it would be: find as many books as possible that you can re-read every decade. Note that re-reading might also be immediate. That seems harder to do as an adult though.
Absorb other people’s enthusiasm. I disliked a lot of medieval literature at university. I had an impassable ideological opposition to the utterly non-aesthetic way my tutors viewed such writing, especially Anglo Saxon poetry. Ugh. Then I sat in the basement of the faculty building and listened to Carl Schmidt play tapes of himself reciting The Dream of the Rood and The Battle of Maldon. Wow! Whoosh! the whole thing lit up for me. I then read some romance quest stories and have never forgotten them. Henryson, Chaucer, it all began to unlock. Medieval literature now sits much more deeply with me than I ever imagined it could. (I call this exploit because I was using my knowledge of the English faculty to appreciate something I already knew but disliked.)
Force your way in. I once saw someone quote “why the extraneous plant” and looked it up. The poem meant nothing to me. I couldn’t even quite fathom that she was talking about a petrol station. After I had read it dozens of times over the next few days, it became one of my favourites.
Read biography. I would say that, but it’s more direct and accessible than criticism. For the common reader, criticism might best be accessed via a blog like this, simply to save time on the explore side. If you can do it without getting lost, you should read good criticism. Just be aware that there’s a lot of criticism out there and much of it is unhelpful, to say the least. Either way, do something to build on your reading of the books themselves and get context and interpretation. Again, if you are serious, join the Common Reader Book Club (or hire me as a tutor).
I will leave you with this quote from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.
I have been reading Twiss’s Travels in Spain, which are just come out…I have not, indeed, cut the leaves yet; but I have read in them where the pages are open, and I do not suppose that what is in the pages which are closed is worse than what is in the open pages.