A Literary Canon? Why Do We Read?

I love to listen to Ideas.
Last night, I listened to the first episode of an IDEAS series entitled Reading with a Grain of Salt. The caption "do you think reading makes you smart?' grabbed my attention. I am a bookworm from childhood who studied French and English literature at university and became a teacher-librarian.
I love reading, sorting, cataloguing and discussing books. I am assuredly a bibliophile so I felt a need to listen to the podcast.

The panel was comprised of authors, educators and literary critics. For all of these people, reading has been an important element of their daily lives. The aspects of a literary élite and literary fiction versus genre fiction interested me. Is there a literary canon, a list of books that you should have read?

Reading is just a sort of badge of being part of a class or being part of a moment where you say, 'yes, I've participated in that thing, too. I'm part of your group.' But you don't really say anything of substance about what that participation is involves. But, I mean, reading is difficult, isn't it? Because how do you know how someone reads unless they tell you about it? And then the very act of talking about what you're reading is a slightly performative statement. You know, it becomes a way of saying something about who you are and the kinds of values that you have.
  Allison Williams, Professor of English, Oxford University

Are readers a special group?  In schools, we value the ability to read and to analyze fiction. The curriculum for high school English hardly varied in 50 years. English Literature 12 was a survey
course beginning with Beowulf and ending with World War 1 poet Rupert Brooke. In my day, there was no Canadian or American content and no literature in translation. In 1994, Harold Bloom published The Western Canon, a list of 26 authors who should be read. Goodreads maintains "canon" lists of influential books.

Which books?
But, realistically, as a reader, I choose mostly what is classified as "genre" fiction. I read mysteries,
historical fiction and novels that are set in places that I have visited or that I would like to visit. I read
Ann Cleeves or Louise Penny because I enjoy the characters and the settings of their mysteries. I don't read much in the way of  science fiction, speculative fiction or dystopian fiction because personally, reading is like a warm, soft blanket. I read to prepare for a book club because I value opportunities to share ideas about books. Literary analysis plays a very small part in these meetings.

I'm looking forward to the next podcast in this series. I'm thinking about different types of reading,
how we value reading (or not), and how we "teach" reading in our schools.

I'm also thinking about different works that have played significant roles in my life and why. Probably, Anne of Green Gables would have been the book that most influenced my childhood reading. What books would be on the list of your childhood favourites?

I visited Green Gables a few years ago.

“There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting.”
― L.M. Montgomery, quote from Anne of Green Gables


  1. Oh thank you for this. Enjoyed your post. I loved Anne with an "E" from the very first moment my Grade 4 teacher read us the book, a chapter a day, right after lunch and before we started the formalities of the afternoon's lessons. Thank you for the link to those podcasts. I love Louise Penny's Gamache stories; I like the characters and the settings. She's a lovely writer.

    1. I loved all of the L.M. Montgomery books. I remember my Grade 4 teacher reading Pierre Berton's Secret World of Og. Reading aloud to children is so important. My daughter, who is dyslexic, enjoyed listening to The Secret Garden and The Bridge to Terabithia.

  2. This sounds like an interesting podcast. Thank you for the link. I've been a reader for as long as I can remember, from The Bobbsey Twins to Anne to the Secret Garden and the Chronicles of Narnia. It would be difficult to choose one with the most influence, but one that I remember well, and read many times was called "Time at the Top" by Edward Ormondroyd. The combination of modern times, time travel, and wishes granted intrigued me.


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