Recommended Reading and the Western Canon

It’s been a while since I’ve walked the hallowed halls of the alma mater and feasted upon the great works of literature. And although I’m jobless now and far from unfolding the shining secrets of Midas, Morgan and Maecanas, I, too, have the high intention of reading many books and, in the words of Nick Carraway, “become again that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded’ man.”

On the internet, groups and message forums devoted to the classics abound, and since there’s no better way than to stimulate active reading than discussing your experiences with fellow readers, I shall sooner or later sign up for a classics reading group. Thus, if you happen to know such a group that you would recommend, please let me know.

But what to read? The good old Western Canon seems a good place to start. Fortuitously, my edition of Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book features a recommended reading list in the appendix offering just that: the most important works of the Western canon, covering literature, science, philosophy and politics. And for more ambitious readers, there’s Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. (His recommended reading list is available here.)

But let’s be modest, shall we. My aim is not to read the entire Western canon, a feat that seems not precocious so much as illusory.  What I’m interested in at this stage is reading some of the classics well — get a good grip of what they are about and a better sense for what they have achieved. It might be a good idea to complement the reading of a classic with reading lesser known works that treat the same topics. When reading the great books, lazy readers such as myself are tempted by SparkNotes too easily, and the juxtaposition between a great work and a “lesser” work may make the reading much more active and penetrating.

The whole canon-reading project also got me thinking about whether the way we happen upon a book affects our reading. Does our reading experience differ depending on whether we read by inclination, by recommendation, or by prescription? I suspect that if a book is read well the circumstances of how text and reader encountered each other initially matter little, although even the most seasoned of readers are, no doubt, to some degree shaped by how they run into a book. So which kind of reading is to be preferred?  Samuel Johnson has this to say:

If a man never has an eager desire for instruction, he should prescribe a task for himself. But it is better if a man reads from immediate inclination.

There’s certainly something to be said for reading by inclination. The thrill and intimacy of discovering a book on your own, for example. Or the satisfaction of reading a book with no strings attached. Too often, recommendations carry a sense of obligation or create heightened expectations that readers find difficult to shake off and that all too easily spoil the reading experience. It is akin to watching an over-hyped movie or going to a play recommended by your teacher. Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Compulsory Reading” illustrates the killjoy-potential of recommended reading magnificently.

Much of it depends on the book in question too, I suppose, as well as on your reading personality. I, for one, often prefer recommended reading. I think I lack the necessary self-discipline to read well, and I believe the company of fellow readers and the ‘pressure’ of a recommendation can help me delve deeper into a book, at least in the primary phase of the reading experience. On, then, to the Western canon! Once again: should you have a recommendation for a reading group that tackles the classics, drop me a comment.


2 Responses to “Recommended Reading and the Western Canon”

  1. November 24, 2008 at 3:56 am

    We have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

    When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

    For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

    I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

    Please go here to see a clip and learn more:


  2. October 4, 2009 at 3:44 am

    Here’s a recently started classics reading group. We’re currently reading Les Miserables.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: