The Western Canon: Defining Classics


What people and works could be called the West’s most important classics? The Western Canon is a relatively recent (1994) book by Harold Bloom in which the author tries to select the most influential authors and books of all time. Despites the fact that the very idea of such a canon is disputed, the 26 authors listed by Bloom are definitely worth reading. As for the entire book list (about 2400 items), I only wish I could read them all.

The earlier attempts to define canonical books were the Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World book series by Mortimer Adler, first published in 1952, and the Harvard Classics series by Charles Eliot, first published in 1909. Both of them were born out of renowned university curriculums which still remain for us another important sources of information on the subject. One of them is The Core Curriculum of Columbia College, developed in 1919, which later became the framework for many similar educational models. Finally, there are many classic book lists of various lengths, like a reading list for having an intelligent conversation compiled by Joseph Brodsky.

The ongoing controversy about the idea behind the Western canon is focused on what authors are worth including in it. Some people point out to the prevalence of so called Dead White Men in it. A deeper question is what schools of thought or approaches to education get priority there. But I am not going to speculate about this.

My opinion is that the older a book is, the higher priority it should be given, because old books influenced the newer ones. Therefore, I would first concentrate on antique and medieval classics in my self studies. Next, I would turn to the books originally written in English (they make the most of most lists anyway), because English is the new Latin 🙂 My third criterion for my book list is inner chemistry: some books, just like some people, look to us more attractive than the others. The fourth and final criterion is my personal interests laying at the intersection of literature, religion and philosophy.

My first step in this direction will be to compare as many book lists as I can and to make my antique and medieval classics shortlist which I will share in my next post (update: done).

By the way, there is an interesting discussion on Quora about the Eastern canon.

Related links

Here are some resources I found interesting:

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