There were lots of interesting comments on my post from yesterday about Seneca’s advice for reading — thank you readers! I wanted to pick up on a few ideas here, one of which Jenclair pointed out, which is that the publishing environment we have here today is surely very, very far from what Seneca experienced. But I couldn’t really tell you what type and amount of reading material was available in his day, and I wish I could. What in the world would he (and others from ancient times) make of the abundance of books we enjoy today? When he says “a multitude of books only gets in one’s way,” what does he mean by a “multitude”? That he feels anxious about the effects of having a multitude of books available shows that the similar worries we have today are nothing new at all.
The other thing I wanted to consider was the issue of the canon; some people felt we should read largely from the canon and others that more variety was better. I liked Hepzibah’s questions on the subject: “who does get to decide what is canonized and what is not? What makes one author more worthy than another?” Very good questions indeed. It’s because of questions like these that I am suspicious of the whole idea of the canon. Danielle’s question is relevant too: “If Seneca were here today do you think many women authors would make his cut?” I’m guessing they wouldn’t.
I don’t think that canons get created solely on the basis of literary merit, although it would be nice if they were — but even here we’re on shaky ground because I think definitions of literary merit shift over time. What people valued in the 18C, for example, isn’t what we value today. I think what ends up in the canon gets there partly because of aesthetic merit, however it gets defined at any particular time, and partly because of publishing trends; political and social forces (racism and sexism, for example); literary scholarship, created by people with biases and blind spots; the literary context, i.e. what other people were doing at the time that readers can later identify as a trend that then becomes a movement and is taught as such; educational trends, meaning what sorts of texts educators want to teach at a particular time; and surely a host of other factors unrelated to merit.
Canons also have a self-perpetuating factor to them, meaning that works that are perceived as important get passed on and on, not necessarily because they are “great” works of literature, but because they are what’s taught and what the people coming before us knew. I realize this is beginning to sound circular, but I think there’s a distinction to be made between the canon defined as a collection of the best literature that’s out there and the canon defined as “the things people have paid most attention to in the past.” I think this second definition is a more accurate description of what we are referring to when we mention the canon; I don’t think the canon defined in the first way really exists.
The marginal figures are the interesting ones to think about — why is Walter Scott in and out of the canon? Or James Fenimore Cooper? Or Aphra Behn? Or Mary Shelley? Writers like these make it clear, I think, that the canon is a shifty, uncertain thing, always subject to debate and controversy.