About The Canon of the World Literature.

Three years ago, I took it upon me to read the top 100 of the Canon of the world literature and have recently accomplished this challenge. The least I can say about this task is that I’ve learned something of this experience. Nevertheless there were a couple of unexpected hurdles along the road that I would like to warn for.

  • First; The Canon itself;  Canon  means  “a standard or  norm  by  which  all  things  are  judged  or  evaluated,   whether   the   perfect form to  follow  in  architecture  or  sculpture  or  the  infallible  criterion by which things are to be measured” . There have always been fierce battles between competing canons, since antiquity, as the case of the Bible makes patent. After some research, I decided to follow the lead of the editors of the Norwegian Book Clubs with the Norwegian Nobel Institute. They polled a panel of 100 authors from 54 countries on what they considered the “best and most central works in world literature.” Among the authors polled were Milan Kundera, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney, Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, John Irving, Nadine Gordimer, and Carlos Fuentes. The top 100 works in world literature by Norwegian book clubs appears alphabetically by author. Although the books were not ranked, the editors revealed that Don Quixote received 50% more votes than any other book.
  • Secondly; It’s impossible. I give you as example the Mahabharata. It’s one of the two pillars of the Indian literature; the other one being The Ramayana. The Mahabharata can be described as the longest epic poem ever written; it contains over 100,000 couplets or over 200,000 individual verse lines. A critical edition contained 13.000 pages in 19 volumes was produced between 1919 and 1966 by scholars at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. I would never have considered to read it if it wouldn’t have been summarized to 141 pages of A4 format.   Another example is Finnegan’s Wake. While I judged Joyce’s Ulysses a work of genius, I find Finnegan’s Wake comparable to the unreadable ravings of a lunatic. I gave it a try, but finally skipped it. Did the same with The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne; after five chapters of philosophy about noses, I was done with this book.
  • Third; You’re not going to like all books on this list. I remember vividly that I was about to give up on this challenge while reading In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. After finishing the last part of In Search of Lost Times, I decided that I’ve got my monthly dose of human jealousy, betrayal, the death of loved ones and platonic romantics. I wanted to read something more lighthearted, but remember that very often the effort equals the gain.
  • Fourth; The Dark Ages don’t exist as a global phenomenon. Carl Sagan propagated the myth of the Medieval Gap and assumed that during the Middle Ages the growth of human knowledge stagnated for about a thousand years. During that time, the Chinese civilization developed four crucial inventions that would fuel the development and spreading of the Western capitalist civilization; the compass, the gunpowder, paper and the printing while their society was ruled by a meritocracy of mandarins who had to pass a heavy literary exam, testing their knowledge of Confucianism. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu is a novel that was written around the beginning of the 11th century in Japan and is probably the oldest novel ever.  The most recent English translation runs over more than 1200 pages and contains over more than 400 characters. Western literary scholars are sometimes still propagating Don Quixote as the oldest novel ever written.
  • Fifth;  When you decide to go forward with this challenge… don’t forget that you still have a life to manage.

2 Comments

  1. If you’re interested to tackle this challenge, chop it up in parcels of 25. Spread the contends of your parcels over different continents and epochs and make sure that each pile contains also some of the more lighthearted works. And keep notes. If you don’t have an electronic book-reader(Kindl or so…), get one. Like this you can read at times that are otherwise wasted (ex. on the airplane).

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