In a “Book Clinic” column at The Guardian, the critic Robert McCrum recently addressed the question, “What does it mean to be well-read?” And he does not bow to pop fiction or internet poetry as he lays out the tenets of the canon.
I’d suggest that three kinds of reading define the well-read mind. First, I’d want to include the immortals from the classics of Greece and Rome: Homer, Plato, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Virgil, Plutarch, Ovid, Juvenal and Sappho…
Next, from the Anglo-American literary tradition, we can’t forget Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, Byron, Austen, Keats, Dickens, Twain, Thoreau, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Spark, Beckett, Woolf… and certainly another score of contemporary greats, including Baldwin, Pinter, Morrison, Miller, Bellow and Naipaul.
Finally, and this is where it gets contentious, there’s great writing in translation, from Proust, Freud, Fanon and Bulgakov to Grass, Márquez, Kundera and Levi.
I am always lost in a book, and the canon has powerfully affected my life, to the extent that I have lugged The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich in a bike pannier and perused Virgil in coffeehouses. But I do have a few criticisms of the list, as I do of all lists. Why so heavy on the Greeks when Roman literature had the greater influence? Let me add the readable Roman writers Apulieus, Suetonius, and Seneca.
McCrum has chosen a superb collection of Anglo-American writers, but he is light on “women’s work,” so let me recommend the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, and Caroline Gordon.
Judging from the translation category, he needs to read more in translation (I’m being flippant! He’s well-read.). But since the following are not on his short list, let’s add Machiavelli, Dante, Stendhal, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Flaubert…and somebody please add some women!
Yes, reading and rereading the canon shapes us and changes us. What I love about this list is that the recommended classics are readable without academic intervention. (Perhaps there should be a Penguin “Well-Read” kit?) But does being well-read mean different things to different people? Let me hazard that…
…for professional book reviewers, it means reading the latest books; and they must know, or feign to know, Karl Ove Knaussgard, Rachel Cusk, Jhumpa Lahiri, Julian Barnes, Marilynne Robinson, and perhaps, as their wild card, George R. R. Martin. (British male writers have lauded Martin in the Guardian, the LRB, and the TLS.)
…for university professors, it means reading the classics according to their narrow specialty, whether that is ancient Greek drama or modernist poets, as well as every book of criticism on the subject.
…for bloggers, it means writing emoticon-heavy blurbs about romance novels; long personal responses to Victorian novels; short reviews of the soon-to-be-forgotten best books of the month; or even learned essays on, say, the influence of Péter Nádas on European literature.
We women writers and bloggers have much work to do now on important issues like saving abortion rights and reversing global warming (there’s not much time left!), but, in our free time, let’s add great women writers to the canon.