Less than half a century after John Erskine taught the first college course based on “Great Books” (also known as the “Western canon”), confidence that higher education curricula could center on “Great Books” collapsed. Neither Allan Bloom’s passionate defense of a “Great Books” curriculum (in 1987's The Closing of the American Mind), nor Harold Bloom’s offering of a great critic’s particular list of great books (in 1994's The Western Canon), were able to prevent higher education from sliding over to the “smorgasbord” approach, where students choose to study whatever they want.
Except for a few pockets — St. John’s College, Annapolis, Columbia University, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas at The University of Texas, Austin — there are few places today where people think of college as a time and place to study “Great Books.” All eyes are focused on future employment, a place where people don’t care one way or the other whether students have studied Shakespeare or Stephen King. All that matters is that college graduates read and write well enough to help a company earn profits.
Although my higher education contained many required courses, it was by no means a “Great Books” curriculum. Only by happy accident and sheer will did I find my way to most of the books I’ve read that show up on “Great Books” lists. Yet the serendipitous approach to discovering great books has some benefits. Readers get to figure out that a book is great all on their own, without being told ahead of time that it’s great. More important, readers discover great books that, for inexplicable reasons, never made it onto the “Great Books” list.
I’m not talking about great books written by authors from non-Western cultures that only now are considered part of Western culture (e.g., the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart). And I’m not talking about great books within particular genres, like, say, the best Ross Macdonald detective novels. The books I’m talking about are books that ought to be on just about every “Great Books” list, but for inexplicable reasons never seem to make the cut. I think of them as books that are “off the beaten canon.” Here are five examples of what I mean.
by Paul Bowles
This sharply felt and intensely erotic narrative centers on a married American couple and their friend who are traveling around North Africa after World War II. We see what happens when bored and spoiled Westerners presume to wander around in countries they know absolutely nothing about. This book is actually on Harold Bloom's list of great books, but somehow it's a bit of a sleeper.
by Richard Hughes
Readers who know Hughes tend to think first of A High Wind in Jamaica, or In Hazard. The Fox in the Attic is just as great, if not greater. It's a stunning work of historical fiction, a fast-paced thriller that includes a young Adolf Hitler. The novel tells the terrible story of the early years of Nazism.
by James Salter, Evan S. Connell
The protagonist — India Bridge — makes Mad Men's Betty Draper look liberated. You feel the soul of an intelligent woman while she's slowly suffocated by suburban life. (Connell wrote Mr. Bridge as a sequel, but what with the vastness of her ennui, the wife is far more interesting. Mr. Bridge should stay right where it is — an OK novel, but not a great one.)
by Lillian Smith
Smith is most well know for Strange Fruit, a novel about the pathology of the South. In a more than oblique reference to McCarthyism, One Hour starts off with an ambiguous encounter that leads to a campaign of whispers and innuendo that in turn leads to disaster.
by Junichiro Tanizaki
This story of four sisters living in a traditional Japanese family is set in wartime Osaka. In theory, a Japanese novel doesn't belong on a list of Western literature. Yet for all its Japanese-ness, its form, as a novel, is profoundly Western. Many compare the novel to Pride and Prejudice, although it's rawer than anything that could possibly occur in Meryton. The ending is radically modern.
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About Laurie Fendrich
Laurie Fendrich is a painter, professor of fine arts at Hofstra University, and regular blogger at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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