What is a Canon?

Topics: Literature, Poetry, Novel Pages: 27 (6274 words) Published: January 9, 2014

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What is the canon?

What is literature?

Quality control

The classic

Canon clues

Summing up

Words, words, words

Read and view more

Final words

What is the canon?

When you hear the word ‘canon’, you generally think of a large, heavy weapon on wheels that fires lead balls at some enemy army across a field. That, of course, would be a ‘cannon’ and not what we are talking about here. Although, in the study of English, the canon is indeed made up of what are considered the ‘big guns’ of literature and may even be thought of as a weapon against ignorance, we are not talking about destructive artillery. What we are talking about is an arsenal of knowledge: knowledge of literature. The canon is a list of literary texts that are considered so important that everyone should read a selection of them during their lifetime. Having read them and appreciated their merits, we are considered ‘cultured, educated and well-read’. We are talking mostly about books written in English or works of literature that have been translated into English from foreign languages, such as French and Russian. Of course, this idea of the canon as a list of the great works of English and foreign literature raises all sorts of questions:

Why is ‘the canon’ so called?
How long has the canon been around?
What is literature?
Why is it considered important to read literature?
Which books and authors are on this list and which are not – and why? •Has the list changed over time?
Who decides what’s on the list and what isn’t?

This is not the type of ‘canon’ this
book is concerned with

2 Canon Reloaded

What about books written in Asia, Africa or even Australia? •Will the canon survive in the digital age?
What will happen if you don’t read the books on the canon?

This book addresses these questions, but first let’s begin with what you already know.

Activity 1.1 Your thoughts

1 Look through the lists of creators and texts below. Which have you heard of or read?

2 Match each composer to their text in the table below:

CreatorsText ShakespearePeter Pan ChaucerFrankenstein Jane AustenOliver Twist Emily BrontëThe Great Gatsby

Samuel Taylor ColeridgeAnna Karenina

HomerDr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Alexandre DumasMacbeth

Mark Twain‘Paradise Lost’

F. Scott FitzgeraldWuthering Heights Edgar Allen PoeGulliver’s Travels Charles DickensPride and Prejudice Robert Louis StevensonHuckleberry Finn Mary ShelleyThe Three Musketeers Bram Stoker‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ Charlotte Brontë‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ John Milton The Odyssey J.M. BarrieThe Canterbury Tales

Jonathan SwiftDracula

T.S. Eliot‘The Raven’ Leo Tolstoy Jane Eyre

3 How many texts do you know because you have seen the film or television adaptations? 4 Many people know of canonical texts even though they have never read them. What does this tell you about the canon?


Who and what is on the canon?

Bard refers to William Shakespeare but also (when lowercase) to a poet, minstrel or the name for the winner of the prize for Welsh verse at an Eisteddfod You may not have heard of the literary canon but you will have heard of some of the writers and texts that are a part of it. Of all the writers on the canon, it is most likely that you will have heard of and studied Shakespeare. This is because he made such a huge contribution to literature with his 37 plays and 154...
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