Thoughts on a Canon

Tuesday, July 26th, 2005

Some remarks have been made here about the politics of choice concerning human knowledge. It must be made clear that this subject is tricky. What to view and what to see in order to take into consideration human knowledge is a considerable issue. To help, I could be evasive and claim that dogs don’t write books, therefore, I need not bother asking what books I should read by “Rover.”

“What is the latest book of poetry written by Rover?”

“Her output has been very little.”

“Anything, then?”

“No, nothing.”

“What about by Coco?”

I can conclude then that it’s human stuff I have to deal with to know things from a particular point of view. But things are even more complicated because of the issue of commodities. Books are a commodity these days, therefore, to judge human knowledge today also involves certain economic considerations. Poor Henry out there has written a book explaining all of nature, but the agents and the book publishers want nothing to do with him. That’s what I mean. Henry’s also written a novel whose characters are so sweat and sublime that his book puts Cervantes and Pynchon to shame. Unfortunately, he lost the file due to electrical storm and his backups are all crazy-looking, like the symbols of machine language. Henry gives up and ends up reading books on famous grill jockeys.

The point is we have to choose what’s illuminating and what isn’t. “Isn’t” may make the list of your neighbor. You congretate in the backyard over drinks and fight about who contributed more and contributed right. A gunbattle follows. Aliens zoom down and wonder at the two books sprinkled with blood. They conclude that there was really nothing here and zoom off to other happy hunting grounds.

Some people have it easy. The books (or magazines) have been chosen for them, as in the “Great Books” or the “Classics” of the New York Times big sellers lists. Tradition. I enter the library and there’s a huge book on a table. I don’t know who put it there but I sit and open and read. Maybe I don’t like what I see there; maybe I do. Maybe someone’s slipped in a postcard with weird symbols on it. By the way, there’s a painting on the wall. Next door to it is a photograph of the very same subject.

Here we always go back to the notion of modern spaces to fix a context for a potential canon of work. It’s as Neha identifies herself: “I’m a lit major.” It’s as Susan Gibb identifies herself: “A student of the word.”

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