The Great Conversation

03 February 2005 · 1 comment

I once knew a man who claimed to have read every book in the English canon.

I took a writing class at Clackamas Community College in the fall of 1995. One of my classmates was an Hispanic man for whom English was a second language. This fellow loved to read and he loved to write, but felt his grasp on both was rather tenuous. How could he improve? He decided to read every great book in the western canon. To this end, he found a list of the hundred greatest books and, over the course of several years, he read them all.

Obviously, any such list of “the hundred greatest books” is going to be, by its very nature, somewhat limited and somewhat arbitrary. This is irrelevant. The point is this man had picked a pool of great books, had read them, and he was much the better for it. Of all my writing classmates, his stories had the greatest depth and texture. Was this solely because of his reading experience? Probably not, but I’m certain that his breadth of knowledge helped him.

How could it not?

I’ve come to view the whole of literature as a vast, interconnected web. Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins, in their The Great Books of the Western World, termed this “The Great Conversation”, a dialogue between authors which spans centuries. (Millennia!)

If you are new to the classics, this great conversation is not immediately apparent. If, say, you pick up and read (as your first classic) Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, the book’s connection to the western canon is not visible. You don’t know what to look for.

The more classics you read, the more apparent the connections become.

Maybe you read a dozen more books, and familiarize yourself with the plots and details of twenty more. If you then pick up Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, you’ll begin to sense tiny filaments connecting the novel to others you’ve read; you’ll note references to The Odyssey and The Tempest; or, looking forward, hints of things to come in Crime and Punishment and The Stranger. (What’s more, you’ll begin recognize connections to stories outside the canon — isn’t Disney’s 1978 film The Black Hole nothing more than 20,000 Leagues in space? Is this intentional?)

Eventually, you will have read a large portion of the canon. (Half, let’s say.) Now when you read a classic, the threads connecting it to other great works are obvious and everywhere. (They were there before, but you hadn’t the experience to note them.) You can not only see the connections to books you’ve read, but you can also sense connections to books you haven’t read. Sometimes you know where the connection leads (“Oh, a reference to Becky Sharp. Gosh, I need to read Vanity Fair sometime.”), sometimes you don’t (“I wonder what this whole thing about a madeline is…”).

Moreover, references to the canon abound in everyday life. (At least in my everyday life.) The more you are familiar with the great books, the more you notice these references, the richer your everyday experience becomes. Sure, an average issue of Harper’s or The National Review is laden with classical allusions, but even a copy of Time or Newsweek or — gaspEntertainment Weekly contains several references to literature. The greater your familiarity with the canon, the more of these references you catch, and the richer your reading experience, even if you’re only reading an article that makes a passing comparison of Madonna to Becky Sharp.

Why the rhapsody about English Lit?

Last night we watched the recent film adaptation of Vanity Fair. Actually, to begin with, Kris watched while I used my laptop to surf the internet. I paid only a sliver of attention. As the movie progressed, I found myself drawn into it. Though it was obviously watered down, I could sense the “great book” quality beneath it. Eventually I was fully engrossed in the story, and I regretted having not paid attention earlier — how are these Crawley people related to Pitt?

By the time the film was finished, I was hooked. I want to read this book. The story seems so Dickensian, but without a happy ending; and, from what little I’ve seen of its story, Vanity Fair is completely entangled in the web of the western canon.

I’m downloading the book from Audible later today. Perhaps soon I’ll actually understand with perfect clarity when another great book refers to Becky Sharp.

The western canon is a very real presence in my life. I know this makes me sound even stranger than is usual for me, but it’s true. I have three books that contain reading lists constructed from the canon, my favorite of which is Clifton Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan.

Lisa and I discuss this book from time-to-time. We both like it, but we don’t like some of the recent changes. I have the third edition, and like its reading list, but I think Lisa has the fourth. While the structural changes to the list between editions makes sense (works are now organized chronologically rather than by type), we think the changes to the reading list’s content are more for political correctness than for quality.

(Tangent: I’m all in favor of an inclusive canon, one which represents of all genders, creeds, and colors, but not at the expense of quality. It is a part of our history that certain segments of the population were oppressed. The remedy to this situation is not to rewrite the past, to argue that works of lesser quality deserve a place in the canon simply because they’re written by someone who was oppressed at the time; the solution is to allow these people to craft a legacy now, to encourage them to create works that will stand the test of time. A stop-gap measure is one in common practice: the creation of specialized “mini-canons” featuring, for example, the best writing by women through the centuries, etc. I believes a rich cultural history is evident when one is able to look at the canon and see, with the advent of Jane Austen, the presence of women in the canon. This tells a story, and an important one.)

It’s surprisingly difficult to find comprehensive reading lists on the web. Some brief googling revealed the following:

Whichever list you choose, the important thing is to begin reading the classics today. Your life will be the better for it.

Tony stopped by to visit for a while yesterday. “Your weblog has been boring lately,” he told me.

“Boring?!” I said. “I’m sorry. What can I do to make it better.”

He grinned. “Write more entries that make you look like an ass.”


While these entries may be entertaining to read, they’re not pleasant to live through. Obviously I can recognize the humor inherent in the situations — drinking whiskey while making sales calls, crawling under the trailer to retrieve a dead skunk, leaving bean soup on the stove — and that’s why I post them. But I’d rather not actually experience them if I don’t have to.

“What about my entry on the birds?” I asked.

“I didn’t read it,” said Tony. “It looked boring.”



On 03 February 2005 (09:39 AM),
J.D. said:

What books are part of your personal canon? By that I mean, which books that you’ve read do you feel ought to be considered classics (whether they already are considered such or not)? I’m not asking which books are your favorites, but which books do you think are of sufficient quality, importance, and breadth of appeal that they ought to be read by others for years to come?

I’m going to try to compile a list of my own later…

On 03 February 2005 (10:39 AM),
J.D. said:

Here is a humbling list:

The ten greatest novels of all time
1) The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki
2) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
3) Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
4) The Dream of the Red Chamber (a.k.a. The Story of the Stone) by Ts’ao Hsueh-ch’in
5) Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
6) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
7) Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
8) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
9) In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust
10) Ulysses by James Joyce

I’ve read part of #8 and part of #9. That’s it. And I don’t know whether these are the greatest of all time, but I do know that many of them are referenced constanlty by other books I read. There are Proust references everywhere. There are Ulysses references everywhere. There are Don Quixote references everywhere.

On 03 February 2005 (11:12 AM),
Janet Eder said:

Very interesting musing on books….I have realized this also over the years in my reading, but could never put it into words….thanks for doing it for me!

On 09 May 2005 (05:54 PM),
Chelsea said:

I’m doing a research project at the moment and was searching the web for some information. You are an icredible writer, I might add.

My paper is on examples of Great Works of Literature relating to Gods, characters, and events of The Odyssey.

What would you consider Great Works of Literature?
Do you know of any books that reference the Odyssey.

I would really appreciate if you could write back.
I also have a love of reading and writing. Although I am only 15 so I am not well acquainted with the classics.

Thank you in advance!!

1 Bonnie Rothman February 4, 2007 at 15:03

Not only will reading the “classics” make your life richer and more fun because you will be able to recognize those references in modern literature, but you will find yourself quickly recognizing self-delusion, public BS when you hear it, and truly bad historical/political choices when they are made by modern politicians — e.g. Iraq, Vietnam. Why? Because the reasons for these poor choices, no matter the geographical location involved, is often the same: arrogance, greed, ignorance, bravado, lack of historical perspective. Unfortunately, it’s a bit like being Casandra — no one will listen to you until it is too late.

The “classics” usually refers to Homer, the great Greek theater [Euripides, Aeschylus etc.], Aristotle,Tacitus, the great Romans, some of the medievalists, Dante, Shakespeare etc. Some of the writers mentioned in the post are wonderful but not what I would call part of the ancient Western canon. They are part of the modern canon but be aware that they themselves will reference the more ancient writers — might as well get to the originals first, no?

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