Friday, February 1, 2008

How to write your own canon

Over the holidays I picked up this nice little pamphlet from the sparkling next gen intellectual Teen Titans at n+1 magazine:

"What We Should Have Known" (n+1 Research Pamphlet Series #2)

...which consists of the transcripts of two stimulating (if sometimes ridiculously hand-wringing) round table discussions among various formal and informal members of the editorial board of the magazine regarding the important reading material they, upon reflection as to their own undergraduate experiences, think contemporary college students ought to read and won't otherwise be exposed to through a mainstream university education. Even if, as appears to have been the case with most of the n+1 crowd, they are fortunate enough to study philosophy or literature at Columbia or Harvard.

The transcripts are accompanied by appendixes including all the great books referenced within, and lists by each contributor of 8-12 "Books That Changed My Life." It's pretty good stuff. For example, this most worthy selection from the impressive Benjamin Kunkel:

1. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia (1951)
2. Donald Barthelme, 40 Stories (1987)
3. George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871)
4. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (1957)
5. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (1962); The Age of Capital (1975); The Age of Empire (1987)
6. Javier Marias, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (1994)
7. James Salter, Light Years (1975)
8. W.B. Yeats, Collected Poems (1889-1939)

Nice! (If you know an earnest, intellectually curious 18-year-old, n+1 will send them the pamphlet for free.)

As noble as their groping around to discover a new 21st century canon is, it caused me to reflect that the real way to redefine the Canon is for each person to invent their own: a collection of books, great and not so-, that define their own intellectual being. What greater declaration of identity could any reader have?

So, reading this on the plane home from a business trip, I scratched out my own stab at such a list. I have supplemented the n+1 approach by listing the books in the order I actually read them, and the age at which I read them. Some of this is definitely not on the reading list at the Columbia philosophy department, whether the Frankfurt School faction or the postructuralists.

1. Philip Jose Farmer, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973) (age 12)

2. Robert E. Howard, Conan of Cimmeria (1969) (age 12)

3. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1961) (age 17); The Last Gentleman (1966) (age 21)

4. Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (1975) (age 15; reread age 30)

5. Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) (age 19)

6. Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845) (age 19); Das Kapital (1867-) (age 20).

7. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (1975) (age 19); Madness and Civilization (1961) (age 20)

8. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904) (age 20)

9. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899) (age 20)

10. William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984) (age 21)

11. J. G. Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) (age 22)

12. Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths (1958) (age 28)

13. Bruce Sterling, Islands in the Net (1988) (age 30)

(I cheated and added a thirteenth early adulthood book.)

What did I miss?

The first few volumes of Soldier of Fortune magazine, alas, while a seminal part of my adolescence, does not qualify as an actual book. I have to say, this exercise was a somewhat illuminating bit of self-explanation regarding the formation of my own adult identity. You should try it!

So, what were your books? Fellow NFOTF bloggers? Other peers?

P.S. -- For more about the guys at n+1, check out this wonderful NYT Magazine piece from 2005 regarding them and their peers at The Believer.


Hackett said...

Capital idea.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (16)
The Illuminatus! Trilogy (16)
Snow Crash (17)
Heart of Darkness (18)
The Fall (20)
Gravity's Rainbow (26)

Christopher Brown said...

Nice! Fear and Loathing was definitely a close one for my list as well. And as for Illuminatus, I am probably quite remiss for neglecting to mention Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger, which was a huge influence when I read it at age 18. The pleasures of finding subversive works in Midwestern shopping mall chain bookstores of the 1970s...

Dave Hardy said...

Having just finished The Lecturer's Tale by James Hynes, I am fascinated by the politics of literary canons. I may even construct one myself. I'm pretty sure I'd flunk n+1's cultural literacy test. I'd be doing good to get a C in Prof. Finn's class.