Time to fire off our own canon

Around 1200, when the first universities were popping up in Europe, books were hard to come by. Although this had its advantages — students did not have to pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks each term — the average student in the middle ages was forced to spend hours in the library, carefully transcribing the texts from a master copy that was chained to a desk.
Students, as lazy back then as they are today, quickly became bored with the endless copying, and demanded that their professors give them a list of the books that really needed to be read. They wanted a primitive syllabus that would include only those books that any educated man should have studied.This list, called the Canon — not to be confused with a cannon, something you use to blow up your neighbors — originally included works by Aristotle, Homer, Aquinas and all the literary big-wigs of the day. Over the centuries, despite periodic efforts by groups like the Roman Catholic Church to formalize it, the Canon has remained an unofficial entity, allowing additions not by decree, but by popular consent among academics.These days debate over what belongs on the Canon rages on. Over 600-odd years the list has grown quite lengthy, but people are always finding problems with it. Political correctness thugs make sure that we call it the “Western Canon,” and have proposed a plethora of alternatives from the African Canon to the Feminist Canon to the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Canon — recently renamed the Queer Canon. But what about a canon just for our generation?Those of us born in the ’70’s, riding the tail end of Generation X or leading the way for whatever is coming next, may not be the most voracious bibliophiles, but we have managed to read a few books along the way. These books bind us together; they help explain our generation, where we are coming from and how we got the way we are. They are the books that come up in our conversations, the ones to which we make reference when we need an example or a joke. These are the books every child of the ’70’s should have read, The Twenty-Something’s Canon. Dr. Seuss – “Green Eggs and Ham” was one of our first books. Dr. Seuss taught us not to be afraid of trying the unknown, that a cat in a hat can make a rainy afternoon fun, that Christmas is about more than presents, and that a fox in socks might have some very interesting ideas. Not only have we all read these books, but we all enjoyed them. Have you ever met anyone who hated Seuss? “Where the Wild Things Are” – Maurice Sendak’s story of Max, who thought he could find happiness as king of the wild things. His discovery of a hot meal at home where someone really loved him goes a long way to explain why so many of us live with our parents until an older age than did any generation before. Besides, who has never thought that it would be cool to have a pair of Max’s monstrous pajamas?
The Bible – Sure, it’s a bit obvious and it is on the Western Canon. Sure, it’s Christian-centric; you won’t find the Koran or the Dead Sea Scrolls on this list. But the Bible not only provides more literary allusions than any other single book, it is also essential to know the stories and ideas when you get into one of those drunken debates on religion. Most of us learned in high school that the protagonist of every novel is a Christ-figure. The good news is that you do not have to read the whole thing. Just go for the highlights: Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, and Revelations, i.e., how it all began, what we’re supposed to do while we’re here, and how it will all end. “A Tale of Two Cities” – Charles Dickens gave us one of the most memorable opening lines of all time. We were all supposed to read this in high school, but many did not. This one is part of our generation, not on its own merit, but because it was the first time most of us discovered Cliff Notes. Go back and check out the original, it’s actually enjoyable. “Where the Sidewalk Ends”– Shel Silverstein’s masterpiece of nonsense poetry. We had to get on the waiting list for it at our grade school libraries. We may not remember all the individual poems today, but we found out that poetry could actually be entertaining. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelle – Then high school came along and we found out that poetry can also be a lot more complicated and painful. “She Walks in Beauty,” “Ozymandias,” and “Ode to the West Wind” all demonstrated that poetry can get too artsy for its own good. When we had to stop to analyze rhyme and meter, any hope of enjoying the poem itself disappeared. Some Platonic Dialogue – Even if you have never taken a philosophy class, you need to know how Socrates went about his business. Pick up any dialogue and find out that Socrates was not really executed for corrupting the youth of Athens; everyone just found him too damn annoying. Nancy Drew/The Hardy Boys – Carolyn Keene and Franklin Dixon really cranked these things out and we gobbled them up in the heady days of third grade. We found out that adventures might be lurking just around the corner, we only need the gumption to go find them. In the right circumstances, even we children could find the killer and show up the adults. “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” – By fifth grade, C. S. Lewis was taking us on flights of fancy to different worlds. Again the kids were ones solving the problems, but now they were traveling to Narnia, a world more exciting than our own. So what if the Christian symbolism — see The Bible — was lost on us. We all wanted to be able to escape once in a while just by walking into the closet. Judy Blume – And then we started facing the world. In books like “Blubber,” “Forever,” and “Freckle Juice,” we recognized preteen angst; the teenagers did not have a monopoly. It was OK to be a geek, a loser, overweight or just different. Other people felt the same things we did, even if we could not always identify with them. “Frankenstein” – Mary Shelley wrote a fantastic book that was butchered by Hollywood. When you find out who the real monster is, and that the creation was not so mindless, you can never watch a film adaptation the same way again. “The Old Man and the Sea” – How could Ernest Hemingway write an entire book about some guy who goes fishing? This was the granddaddy of the “Why do we have to read this?” books in high school. “Romeo and Juliet” – The only Shakespeare play that we have all read. Although this was another Cliff Notes classic, this was our first introduction to the Bard. A good story can be clouded by archaic language, and iambic pentameter gets old real fast. “Animal Farm” – George Orwell realized that there is just something cool about talking animals. We discovered that symbolism and metaphor could actually work and be fun and that some animals being more equal than others is not the way to run things. Marvel Comics – They are not great literature, but everyone has picked up a comic book at sometime or other. We know who Spiderman is and how he got his powers.If you find that you have not read something on the list, someday you will not recognize a reference in conversation or, even worse, you will be completely left out of a debate, being called an illiterate ignoramus by your peers. But don’t despair; it’s not too late to catch up. Early in the quarter when the work load isn’t too heavy, pick up one of our classics and rediscover who we twenty-somethings are and how we got this way.
Chris Trejbal’s column appears every Tuesday. He welcomes comments at [email protected]