On Contemporary Canons


13 November 2010

Flavorwire recently published a list of “10 Essential Books from the Last 25 Years” — what they call “books that people know about, relate to, and converge around, all from the last 25 years,” “literary touchstones,” and a “contemporary canon.”

This sort of list makes me uncomfortable somehow.  I’m not sure of its value.  The implication here is that we “should” have this sort of common literary bookshelf, a group of contemporary texts that we’ve all read and in which we are conversant.  My skepticism I think has to do with the test of time issue.

I’ve read four of the 10; only one to which I’d consider attaching the word “essential.”  Maybe two.  There’s one text I haven’t read but want to, because I have a feeling it IS essential.  The others I haven’t read mostly because of mixed reviews — professional, and also by readers I know personally/trust.

Maybe in general this idea of what I “should” be reading, just because there’s a lot of cultural buzz around it (James Frey‘s controversial “memoir,” for example) — as opposed to the notion that I should be reading great work that moves/changes me, and also inspires and instructs my own work — rubs me the wrong way.  I’m a fan of the idea of a highly individualized map of literary influence, one that optimizes one’s development as a human being and as a writer.

There is a lot of great work to be read, much of it non-contemporary; and never enough time to read it all.  I’m not saying don’t read contemporary work; but “everyone’s reading it and talking about it” doesn’t strike me as a compelling enough reason to read something, especially when your own “essential” list is already longer than you have time for.




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