I’ve been hearing the advice to “toss out the canon” given to readers more and more of late (most recently in Austin Kleon’s email newsletter). While I agree that there are some wonderful books that are either too new or too overlooked to be considered part of the canon of Western literature, there’s also a reason that certain books are held in such high critical esteem, and not all novels are created equal. I’m not saying we should all read only dead white men, but I am saying that everybody ought to give Faulkner or T.S. Eliot a try at some point. The canon is there for a reason. This is why, as a grown-ass man who somehow got through high school and college (with a degree in English!) without doing so, I finally read Moby-Dick. Turns out it’s pretty good.
Moby-dick is like The Beatles; it’s almost impossible to experience the thing without having it obscured in some way by your knowledge of it’s derivatives. Virtually everything written in the 20th century was influenced in some way by Melville’s work. This was obvious as I was reading (the grim, repeated warning given to Ishmael and Queequeg seems to have birthed its own archetypal scene) but the novel functions so well as a novel the awareness of the tropes that it created begins to recede. The prose is so impressive, the characters are complex and always revealing some as-yet unseen aspect of themselves, and the narrative engages. It’s a book that has been thematically over-analyzed to a sometimes comical degree, but only because the ideas presented therein are powerful and resonant.
You can live a perfectly happy literary life and only read things written in the last fifty years, but there is something uniquely valuable in being classically literate. References have been described as “a hyperlink to a particular experience”. When someone makes a Scarface reference at a party, people get it. They get a picture of a situation that requires an entire film’s worth of narration, neatly summed up and called forth into being by the delivery of the phrase “say hello to my little friend” in someone’s best Tony Montana impression. The problem is that pop culture is transient, and can only be apply a transient value to literature. When Mary Shelley subtitles Frankenstein “The Modern Prometheus” that’s a better hyperlink, communicating vast nuance, emotion, and perspective in three little words -at least to anyone familiar with Greek mythology. The power of reference relies upon an awareness of certain cultural artifacts, and if you can’t appreciate the canon, you’re going through a life that plays in stereo with only one earphone. Also, most of the canon is fucking good.