So I’m not bad if I’m not reading the literary “canons”

I’ve often posted about what I call my illiterati status. In other words, despite all the books I’ve read there’s a lot of canonical authors I haven’t read. Well, I’m pleased to announce that at least one British author, James Delingpole, has given us all permission not to worry about the so-called canon.

Writing in The Telegraph, Delingpole seeks to assuage those who may not have read any of John Updike’s works before his death. But he really warms my heart as he explores the subject further:

You can still count as a civilised person, with the right to comment as much as you wish on the key literary issues of our time, without having read all the books you are supposed to have read.

Partly you’re excused by the issue of time. In the early 19th century, it might just have been possible for a sprightly reader with bags of leisure time to whizz through all the great novels that had ever been written. In the early 21st century, it’s an impossibility.

Mainly though, you’re excused by the fact that there’s no novelist out there so essential that an unfamiliarity with his work represents a crime against taste and good judgment.

But don’t take this view as a stance that no literary familiarity is necessary. Delingpole believes “there are certain key authors — most of them Dead, White, European and Male — who jolly well ought to be studied at school by virtue of the quality and intelligence and depth of their writing.” At the same time, “once you’ve had a reasonable grounding in sufficient ‘proper’ literature to form your taste, you should never again read a book out of duty.”

While I jokingly refer to this as support for being an illiterati, the fact is that if we want our country — or any country — to be a nation of readers, saying someone has a duty or obligation to read this or that author isn’t going to help. There are far too many books published each year, with more than 270,000 new titles and editions in both 2006 and 2007. Few of us even have the time to read the books that make the dozens of year end “best of” lists.

Whether it’s school English classes or even programs like The Big Read, we need to provide a grounding in traditional or new literary canons. Once that’s done, if people want to explore more such literature, that’s wonderful. But if they don’t, what does it matter. I don’t care if people are reading the Twilight series as long as it’s encouraging them to read

Our grandparents used to say that we must eat a peck of dirt before we die, and they were right. And you must read a lot of rubbish before you die, as well, because an exclusive diet of masterpieces will give you spiritual dyspepsia.

Robertson Davies, The Merry Heart

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