The Fell Gard Codices

The Limits of Reading

November 7th, 2012

Back in 1994, Harold Bloom published a book called The Western Canon, and controversy ensued. Mostly, as I remember it, due to the book’s appendices. The main body of the book was a series of essays about various great books of the Western tradition. But the appendices were a set of lists in which Bloom tried to nail down the exact works that constituted the canon. For a lot of writers, the list was very conservative.

Bloom stated that “I have resisted the backward reach of the current canonical crusades, which attempt to elevate a number of sadly inadequate women writers of the nineteenth century, as well as some rudimentary narratives and verses of African-Americans. Expanding the Canon, as I have said more than once in this book, tends to drive out the better writers, sometimes even the best, because pragmatically none of us (whoever we are) ever had time to read absolutely everything, no matter how great our lust for reading.” Much of the debate over the book came over statements like the first sentence I just quoted. What seems to me to be more important, and what I want to talk about here, is the second — specifically the second half of the second sentence. Nobody has time to read everything.

It’s a very real issue. I read something like a hundred books a year; over a lifetime that’s a large number, but still very limited. And at this point, I only have about half a lifetime ahead of me. I’ve started to look at books and seriously think “Am I going to ever read this in my life?” and contrariwise “If I want to read this book, maybe now’s the time to do it” — particularly for great books, what Bloom would call canonical books, which can influence or inspire not only my life but my fiction.

The matter becomes more complicated when you bear in mind that I’ve got multiple reasons for choosing what to read. How I divide up my reading time is guided by a number of factors. A certain amount has to go to research, for Fell Gard and other things. But even among fiction, I’ve got multiple reasons for reading what I do.

Obviously the great works of the past, the things praised for hundreds of years, have a fascination. But so do the works coming out of specific traditions that interest me. The tradition of fantasy fiction, for example. More equivocally, the tradition of Canadian fiction. To say nothing of the reading one does to keep up to date with the new stuff around one. And books by writers from years ago, overlooked in their time but whom one has come to love. And books one reads not only because they come from a certain context but also because they help explain greater books: reading Elizabethan playwrights to get a more rounded view of Shakespeare, for example.

Which is to say, I suppose, that greatness is not a fixed absolute. A book may speak to me as a Canadian, or to me as a long-time fantasy reader, in a way that it wouldn’t speak to somebody else. The books we read help determine how we find greatness in the other books we read.

(Which is why Bloom’s perspective on canonicity doesn’t much matter, and why the debate over his book was in the long run sterile. The reasons we, as a society or a collective group of readers, look to a text change over time. Sometimes subtly and sometimes explicitly our sense of what constitutes ‘greatness’ changes. We come to read things differently. Without perhaps being consciously aware of it, we look for different qualities in a text. The point-of-view of 1994 is probably not that of 2012. Books not only from the current age but past ones enter the canon, and others drop out of it; but we can’t predict what or why.)

All of which is to say that I suspect as time goes on, the idea of a canon will become more diffuse. Those different traditions will become the building-blocks of the individual canon each reader will create for themselves.

Look at Bloom’s list. For me, personally, I notice he doesn’t have any Ann Radcliffe on his list, no Ossian, and very little from the American sf tradition — Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, three books by John Crowley, and Thomas M. Disch’s On Wings of Song. He’s got Peake, but not Tolkien; Huxley, but not Orwell. No Samuel Delaney or Gene Wolfe. These writers matter for me, more evidently than they do for him; so they’ve become part of my canon. That’s what matters to me: what books will I find, in the years left to me, that will become critical to me in the future? That’s something I can only guess at.

Bloom’s lists of canonical texts offer suggestions I might want to consider. But no external list can define for me the books that I ought to read, that I need to read, in the amount of time I have available. I must work out myself what I will read, by guesswork and chance and, sometimes, bloody-minded determination.

Comments are closed.

Proudly powered by WordPress. Theme developed with WordPress Theme Generator.
Copyright © The Fell Gard Codices. All rights reserved.