Not the Monthly Post

The Choice of a Canon

Last week’s post on the spooky dimensions of reading—the one-on-one encounter, in the silent places of the mind, with another person’s thinking—sparked a lively discussion on the comments page, and no shortage of interesting questions. One of the points that was brought up repeatedly, though, focused on one of the points that I didn’t address at all last week: how do you choose things to read that are worth sustained attention? To borrow the dietary metaphor I used in that post, how do you tell the difference between literary snack food and the kind of robust meat-and-potatoes meal that provides the mental nourishment you need for a hard day’s thinking? For that matter, how do you distinguish between either of these and the kind of fussy gourmet fare that’s great for special occasions but not really suited for the everyday table?

These are valid questions. It’s important, however, not to approach them through the kind of misplaced moral fixations that so many people load on their food choices. Literary snack food has its place. Every person I’ve ever met who’s into serious reading also has a preferred brand of popcorn reading—something light and tasty to munch at intervals between solid literary meals—and there’s nothing wrong with that, any more than there’s anything wrong with popping a pan of popcorn as part of a pleasant evening at home. In the same way, how often you like to push the boundaries of your literary palate with exotic fare is up to you.

With books as with meals, there’s a complex balance to be struck between general principles and individual needs. It’s true that, with books as with meals, no two people thrive on exactly the same fare, and the range of variation in what constitutes a healthy diet is a great deal wider than professional busybodies like to admit.  It’s equally true, though, that a steady intake of literary junk food, unleavened by more nourishing fare, has about the same effect on your thoughts that a steady diet of junk food would have on your physical health.

I’ve come to think, for example, that a very large fraction of the misunderstandings that mess up interactions between men and women in America these days come about because of the popularity of certain kinds of gender-specific popcorn reading. The male characters in the genres of snack fiction marketed to women are just as bizarrely unrealistic as the female characters in the genres of snack fiction marketed to men, and for the same reasons; unless you’ve got fairly refined tastes, having your choice of beefcake or cheesecake going through the motions of being completely devoted to fulfilling your own gender’s emotional and sexual needs gets a predictable reaction. Balanced by something more meaningful, this isn’t too harmful; on the other hand, if the thoughts you send whispering through your mind rehash those stereotypes over and over again, without any more realistic image getting a word in edgewise, those images are going to shape the way you think, and thus the way you try to relate to people in the real world.

This kind of problem arises routinely whenever a society fulfills two criteria. The first is that it’s complex enough to have different subcultures, divided by gender, ethnicity, class, or any other factor.  The second is that it has a rich enough literary culture that members of subculture A have next to no reading material in common with subculture B. Mutual incomprehension is the usual result. Fortunately, as it happens, there’s a straightforward way around this problem. It seems to have been discovered more or less independently in every society that’s developed widespread literacy and a thriving literary culture; it takes a central role in education in most such societies, with very good effects on the level of general education; and in the eyes of educators here in the United States, at least, it’s somewhere on the spectrum between unthinkable and blasphemous.

That is to say, the way to avoid mutual incomprehension is to have a canon.

A canon, in this sense of the word, is a collection of works by dead people that everyone reads, discusses, and thinks about in the course of their schooling. There are three characteristics of a canon that deserve attention here.  First, it’s always changing, as each generation wrestles with the legacies of the past and decides which works by the recently dead should go into the canon, which neglected works by older authors should be added to it, and which existing works in the canon don’t deserve their status and can be dropped with advantage.

Who makes these decisions? Millions of readers deciding what books they’re going to keep on their shelves, and tens of thousands of teachers, authors, and literary critics who bicker incessantly about which books have value and which ones don’t. This leads to the second characteristic of a canon, which is that it’s always contested. In any canon there are certain works that everyone, or nearly everyone, agrees on, certain others that are less unanimously included, and a fringe of works that this or that subculture of fans consider to be canon fodder and everybody else dismisses. This allows the canon to shape itself, and reshape itself, as an organic expression of the experience of a community.

Finally, a canon is always unfair. There are always deserving books that don’t make it into the canon, and undeserving ones that do. Factors other than literary merit and relevance have their inevitable roles, too, ranging from ethnic, gender, and class prejudice all the way to temporary vagaries of cultural taste that make the appeal of this or that literary gimmick irresistible for a while, and incomprehensible thereafter.

Now of course the inevitable unfairness of a canon is one of the standard points raised by those who insist that having a canon is a Bad Thing, and that canons of literature should therefore be abolished. Pay attention, though, to what inevitably happens thereafter. Just as the attempt to abolish hierarchies (as seen, for example, in consensus politics) simply establishes a new, covert hierarchy that’s unaccountable because it’s unacknowledged, when a subculture set out to abolish a canon, the result is simply a new canon specific to that subculture that nobody will admit is a canon, and that therefore can’t be challenged and critiqued the way an explicit canon can. Those of my readers who’ve watched the vagaries of the social justice movement in the universities or in the literary world know this song well enough to sing the verses in their sleep.

So a canon is always changing, always contested, and always unfair. None of these things keeps it from doing its job, which is that of providing a basis for shared understanding in a society diverse enough to require that. Here in the United States, we don’t currently have a canon shared across our competing subcultures, which is an important reason why so few people in this country can communicate with one another across the boundaries of class, gender, and ethnicity. Each of our subcultures has its own implicit canon of Things You Ought To Read, and the predictable attempts to force one subcultural canon on others—for example, the efforts of social justice activists in the universities to bully everyone into acceptingtheir own notions of justice and their own preferences in literature—simply provide further proof for Newton’s law that every action yields an equal and opposite reaction.

The current bickering between the political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right is a familiar phenomenon in cultural history. To judge by previous specimens of the type, we’ve got another few decades before both sides make their way into history’s dustbin, and a new centrism emerges to become the basis of the next round of squabbles over the politics of culture. While we’re waiting for that to happen, though, there’s a point to talking about why a canon is a good idea, and what might go into one when we get around to having one again.

One of the great advantages of having a canon is that it makes it a lot easier to filter out trash.  Even in the most brilliant of literary cultures, a century might see a dozen genuine masterworks and a couple of hundred really good pieces of writing. The rest—all the immense outpouring of novels, stories, essays, poems, and other things to read that come before the eyes of the reading public during a century’s time—are also-rans, ranging in quality from mediocre to dismal to hilariously bad. Mark Twain once did the world a favor by exhuming one of these last, an otherwise forgotten mid-19th century American novel, The Enemy Conquered; or, Love Triumphant by Samuel Watson Royston. Twain’s essay, “A Cure for the Blues,” is uproariously funny, and Royston’s tale read through Twain’s eyes is nearly as much so; still, such cases are rare. Most of the also-rans are forgotten within a generation or so, and let’s be frank.  In most cases, this is exactly what they deserve.

No doubt some of my readers will take umbrage at this claim. Have there been great works of literature that nobody recognized as masterpieces at the time, until they were hauled back up out of obscurity at a later date? Of course. That’s one of the reasons that it’s important that a canon be always changing and always contested. A hundred and fifty years ago, for example, Jane Austen’s novels were dismissed by most serious literary critics as what we’d now call “chick lit;” now, with a century and a half of additional perspective, any history of the English novel that didn’t give them a central place would be laughed out of the academy.

At the same time, it’s worth recalling that there were hundreds of other enterprising writers of romantic fiction in Austen’s time, whose works weren’t revived, and a good thing, too. You can find their novels in online archives of old books if you want, and I dare you to read them without either dozing off or spraying the beverage of your choice across your computer screen. Many of them were wildly popular during their time, as popular as Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey were in ours. All of them slipped into merciful oblivion once the fad for their kind of fiction was over, just as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey will in their turn.

Most of what’s published in any given year deserves the same fate, and will get it in due time. One of the great advantages of a canon, in turn, is that over time it fairly reliably scoops up the Jane Austens of the past and leaves the Samuel Watson Roystons in the obscurity that they deserve. This, I’ve come to believe, is one of the reasons why canons are so heartily loathed by academics in the United States today.

Put yourself in their shoes, and you can easily see why. Let’s suppose, dear reader, that you happen to be an associate professor of English at a third-rate American university who writes stories for the kind of little magazines that have a circulation in three figures and pay only in copies. By the law of averages, if for no other reason, your chances of having any of your own work become part of the canon a century from now are right up there with those of the proverbial snowball in Beelzebub’s back yard. What’s more, if you’re expected to teach students about the genuinely great authors of English literature, you risk having your nose rubbed every single class session in the difference between what those authors were able to do with the English language and what you can do with the same set of tools. Under these circumstances, a certain degree of bitter jealousy and even actual hatred can readily be understood.

The tender feelings of English professors, however, aren’t necessarily the best guide to literature, or to a viable education. That’s another thing to keep in mind about a canon.  Having a list of books that everyone more or less agrees that young people should read in school doesn’t just provide a common ground of ideas that fosters communication; it doesn’t just help budding readers find really good books to read; it also teaches them how to think.

How to think, please note—not what to think. The difference between these two phrases is much vaster than is usually recognized. To teach someone how to think is to educate them in the workings of thought, so that they can then consider the questions that matter to them and come up with their own answers. To teach someone what to think is to prescribe the answers they will come up with. American education these days is obsessed with teaching students what to think, with forcing them to give the right answers.  Since independence of thought interferes with this goal, teaching students what to think ends up teaching them not to think—to parrot the prescribed answers they’ve been taught, as mindlessly as possible, so that they won’t be at risk of doing any original thinking and coming up with an unapproved answer.

How does a canon teach people how to think?  Recall the spooky side of silent reading, the way that it allows you to listen in on the private thoughts of the author. While you read, your mind is following unfamiliar pathways, stringing together concepts and mental imagery in a way you wouldn’t have done on your own. If you just read through a book once, unless it has an unusually strong impact on you, the experience of following another person’s thoughts won’t affect your thinking much. On the other hand, if you read it repeatedly, discuss it with others, and think about what you’ve read—all the things that ought to be part of studying a book in school—you have the chance to add its style of thinking to the repertoire of your own mind, to expand the kinds of thinking you know how to do.

Some books have this as their primary objective. Euclid’s Elements of Geometry is designed with a great deal of practical skill to teach a certain kind of logical thought, and if you work through it step by step, doing each of the proofs yourself, that style of thought will become a permanent addition to your mental toolkit. Philosophers from Plato to Sartre have aimed at the same goal, and a good many of them reached it. Other books achieve the same effect very nearly by accident.  As far as anyone knows, Jane Austen’s goal in writing her novels was simply to tell an enjoyable and moving tale, but you can’t spend a couple of hours inside her thoughts without picking up some of what it means to look at the world from her perspective—a perspective very different from the ones most of us favor these days.

We’ll be talking in the near future about the way that this gives access to the thoughts of the past, and thus provides the one effective cure for the cultural senility that afflicts American society these days. That deserves its own lengthy discussion, though, because it requires attention to the spectacular falsifications of the past common on both sides of the spectrum of cultural politics these days. For the present, let’s move on to the practical dimension of this week’s post.

We don’t have a canon in today’s America. We lack a shared cultural memory embodied in a set of books—however changing, contested, and unfair—that most of us read, discussed, and thought about while we were growing up, and that provide us with a common ground for conversation and a training in diverse ways of thinking about the world. A canon in this sense won’t reappear until the culture wars of the present day have gone the way of their equivalents in past eras, and a rising generation rejects both sides of the current impasse and establishes a new and, hopefully, saner middle ground. In the meantime, though, each of us has the power to choose whatever reading material we want to take in during our spare time, and those of my readers who are raising children have some influence over what they read. It’s worth discussing how that considerable freedom might be put to good use.

As noted toward the beginning of this post, there’s nothing to be gained by approaching the question through the kind of thick moral haze that surrounds food choices in today’s popular culture. Popcorn reading has its place, so does individual taste, and in the rising spiral of turmoil and conflict that increasingly defines life in today’s America, the literary equivalent of comfort food is a necessary resource for a great many of us just now.

That said, I’d like to suggest three options to keep in mind the next time you’re not sure what you’re going to read next.

The first is to read things that were written before you were born. I mean that quite literally. A very large part of the cultural senility I mentioned earlier arises out of the simple fact that most Americans read only recent books, and thus cut themselves off from the thoughts that shaped their own history and culture. It’s only in the stunted imaginations of the clueless that anything written earlier than last week must be stuffy and boring. Plenty of very old stories are thumping good reads; J.R.R. Tolkien’s lively prose translation of Beowulf, for example, is a better tale of swords and monsters than most of what you’ll find in the fantasy shelf of a bookstore today.

The second is to find a balance between works that come out of your own cultural background and works that come from elsewhere. There’s one kind of ignorance that comes from knowing nothing about your own cultural roots, and another kind that comes from knowing those and nothing else. Beowulf, to return to that example, is the oldest surviving masterpiece of English literature; if you grew up speaking English, it’s part of your heritage, and it’s an embarrassment that so few people in the US ever get exposed to it.  At the same time, the experience of reading Beowulf becomes richer still if you know your way around heroic epics from other cultures—the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, the Odyssey, the Volsunga Saga, the Popol Vuh, and more. If you’ve got a taste for swords and monsters, you now know where to look.

The third is to read things now and again that offend you. One of the ways that zealots on both sides of the political spectrum teach people not to think is to insist, first, that you should always be ready to take offense at what you read, and second, that you should not read anything that you consider offensive. That’s a great way to avoid thinking and encourage narrow-mindedness, but that’s all it is. Let go of the habit of passing instant moral judgments, approach whatever you read as something that might just teach you something new about what it means to be human, and your chance of popping yourself out your familiar mental ruts goes up sharply.

All this presupposes, of course, a very different attitude toward the past, and the literary (and other) legacies of the past, than the zealots of left and right like to encourage these days. We’ll discuss that in more detail in next week’s post.


In not completely unrelated news, I’m pleased to announce that a story of mine, “Walpurgis Night,” has just been published in the squamous and rugose pages of Lovecraftiana Magazine. Will it become part of the canon? Not a chance, but it’s a Lovecraftian tale with some sidelong references to the concerns of this blog, and it’s accompanied by a range of other capable tales for those who like a little eldritch horror in their literary fare. You can pick up a copy here.


  1. I am happy to see Ursula K. Le Guin’s books being published in the Library of America collection. She has my vote as a worthy new inductee to the canon.

  2. This is a question for everybody. If you’ve read both (or more) sides of a controversial issue, which writers on each side do you think made their case best? Did you notice anything about how they did it that raised them above the general level of debate?

  3. It’s probably quite a good thing that none of today’s self-ordained societal leaders – on either the right or the left – are attempting to establish a literary canon. Can you imagine the outcome of such a project in our modern education system? Everything accepted would become mandatory memorization (and therefore obligatory thought), everthing rejected would become subject to draconian censorship. It would be a crime committed in the name of justice!

  4. Americans can fairly reliably reference Romeo and Juliet, Psalm 23, and Tom Sawyer without much worry that their audience won’t know what they’re talking about. It’s probably a looser and a smaller canon than we’ve had in previous decades, but your claim that it doesn’t exist at all sounds a little strong.

  5. If I may summarize, you seem to be suggesting that the books making up an effective canon will typically be found to be:

    – Works originating from a wide range of cultures and historical periods
    – Works that communicate effectively between consciousnesses, putting the reader into a reliable simulacrum of the author’s thoughts and experiences
    – Works of the very highest quality among the overall creative output of a given time and place
    – Works that can fire the imagination and stimulate thinking, not just once but multiple times with repeated reading and study
    – Works of intellectual import; that is, in which the authors’ thoughts and ideas are worth thinking in the first place
    – Works whose charge of embodied ideas stimulate thinking, mental growth and achievement in the reader or student
    – A predominance of older works, with enduring value proven over time
    – Works that, notwithstanding the previous criterion, are generally agreed (albeit with ongoing disputation) to be applicable to the thinking of the present time
    – Works that, notwithstanding the previous criterion, are included despite, or even because of, their likeliness to offend some readers

    In other words, when designing a canon, one must consider the range, accuracy, caliber, rate of fire, weight, charge, durability, portability, and overall offensive capability.

    Makes sense!

  6. Thanks for this essay! I think there is a strong age component in canon reading. In high school (German Gymnasium), I only took a basic course in German literature, which included shorter works from the 18th-20th century, and a few 20th century novels (I remember Professor Unrat by Heinrich Mann and Homo Faber by Max Frisch, both of them very good choices for teenagers!), while some of my friends took the advanced course and were forced to read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, which they mostly hated. After I went to university to study biochemistry, I read every single book by Thomas Mann and loved them, but I think I would have hated him at 15 or 16 since he is so slowwwwww…

    Another very important point was made last week by ganv, who wrote “education is: guiding students in choosing wisely about the people and writers whose thoughts they taste and embed into their lives.” That is certainly what I experienced, though my “teachers” were themselved already dead. As a child and teenager I read voraciously, usually already while walking home from the municipal library, but my choices were exclusively historical or fantasy literature from 20th century authors. I didn’t touch poetry or original sources.

    It was thanks to my love for Tolkien and C.S. Lewis that I started to read the books they so highly valued, especially Lewis. So very slowly, over months, I clawed my way through Shakespeare, through the Divina Commedia and the Aeneid and came to love them (though I never, even when trying very hard, managed to like Homer). Non-fiction books, too, like Auerbach’s Mimesis. If you start out in a good place, the literary connections just branch out and never end.

    Iris Murdoch said her two favorite books were The Lord of the Rings and Genji Monogatari. Since TLOR was my favorite book of all, I decided to read Genjj, too, and have never stopped re-reading it.

    It also helps when you are in a place without internet, TV or book stores, as I was for more than a year at twenty. The local library had Brazilian classics like Machado de Assis, Anibal Machado and Guimaraes Rosa and an old German immigrant’s copy of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdottir, for which she won the Nobel Prize in the 1920, but which is almost forgotten today. It is still one of my favorite books in the world, and later I learned to love Guimaraes Rosa’s works (he died before he could get the Nobel…).

    In short, you can assemble your own canon by following the recommendations of (dead or living) people you trust, or by being lucky in when restricted in your choices!

  7. Yes, it’s wise to read some things one initially disagrees with. You might thereby be persuaded that your opponents are not, or not entirely, wrong. I have had that happen, and have over the years changed my views on many issues. But other things really are so offensive that there’s no need to read them to confirm that you don’t agree with them, although you might do so to “know your enemy” if you can do it without paying them royalties or getting on a list. (A couple years ago when JMG assigned us to read something offensive, I chose Rousas J. Rushdoony’s huge, deranged theonomist tome partly for that reason.)

    I think the distinction is whether works are “offensive” because they disagree, even aggressively, on an issue of policy or opinion of specific subjects, or offensive because they attack groups of people as such. For example, you will presumably never accept the worldview of a radical who explicitly desires the ethnic cleansing or mass imprisonment of an ethnicoreligious group to which you belong. You can confidently say that you know he is wrong, so you will not waste time reading his book. Anyone who disagrees with that general statement: if you could do so safely, how much time would you be willing to spend reading Daesh propaganda to see if you can be convinced you should go fight for the “Caliphate”?

  8. I recommend American books from the mid-20th century, too, so young Americans can see what was lost. Berton Roueche’s medical essays for the New Yorker, for example, were collected into three volumes, “The Medical Detectives.” I and II are the best, but in each book we find several instances of public health officials quickly and efficiently stopping epidemics, and of patients being hospitalized for as long as was medically necessary. These will be new ideas to many Americans under 40. And what has been lost can be restored, if enough people work at it!

  9. First, I love how you opened this topic with a metaphor. Mental nourishment really is as important as feeding your body.

    I like that you mentioned how books are models for how people perceive the world to work, and I agree that maybe we have to be careful not to take those models as “the territory”.

    Nevertheless, I think it’s an important point that books teach us how to think and provide us with different ways of seeing the world, as well as giving us new sets of questions to ask.

    I recently started a conversation about how in high school and previously, I never got the message that the knowledge we were learning was “current knowledge” and that the information presented was always established as fact rather than in development. Which relates to what you said about how we are being taught to provide prescribed answers rather than being taught how to think and the questions to ask.

    One of the fruits of that conversation was understanding how textbooks influence knowledge and that different states have different requirements and preferences for their books. If we don’t have a canon, what will it take to make one? States coming together on required reading? Who starts the compromise toward the middle ground?

    Because I believe what you are talking about is a national canon. There seem to be local canons, maybe.

  10. Dylan, it’s way too early yet. I think her best works will find their way into the canon, but give it half a century and we’ll see what people who didn’t experience the same era she did think of it.

    Yorkshire, I’m going to pass, as I generally read all sides of a debate that interests me, and answering your question about any one debate would be a suitable topic of a 10,000-word essay.

    Steve, au contraire, there are people on both sides trying to do so, The good news is that they don’t have enough support to impose their views, so they’re just demonstrating (again) that a canon is always contested.

    Joel, you may run with a better educated (or older) set of Americans than I do. I know a lot of people whose sole exposure to Tom Sawyer is that they watched the Disney movie once on television a long time ago, who have a vague idea that Romeo and Juliet were lovers in Shakespeare, and whose recollection of the 23rd Psalm is on the order of that famous child who thought you saluted the US flag by putting your hand on your heart and saying “I led the pigeons to the flag…” Having a vague sense of the importance of books you’ve never read does not a canon make; as I noted in my comments, what makes something a canon is that most people read it repeatedly, discuss it, and think about it in the course of their educations.

    Walt, funny! And of course it’s a commonplace known to all schoolchildren that canons come in different sizes of bore…

    Matthias, and that’s exactly what every serious reader I know has done. Mine is always changing; I went through a heavy Thomas Mann phase, and still retain three of his books (including Buddenbrooks, which I love); Hermann Hesse, of course, is an enduring favorite, but I was crazy about Tolkien when I was first crazy about Hesse, and these days my feelings toward The Lord of the Rings are like those you might have looking back on a wild, passionate love affair of youth, after you and your then lover grew apart and finally went your separate ways. Ten years from now my tastes will doubtless have changed again.

    At the same time, none of this particularly helps me communicate with other people. Care to guess how many Americans I meet who’ve read Buddenbrooks?

  11. I’m reminded how the work of our “founding fathers” is being culturally obliterated, based on their ownership of slaves, or merely their insufficient condemnation of slavery. Jefferson’s ideas about a nation of people living close to the land has some relevance just now, but he might as well be a devil on the left for his treatment of his slaves. Ben Franklin has some useful wisdom to impart, but alas, he is a patriarchal white guy.

    In that way, cultural zealotry on the left is indistinguishable from the burning of books on the right. My mother once burnt all my books on mysticism and nature spirituality, which should make her endearing in post-modern academia, if only those books had been of the Western Canon.

    Meanwhile the left can turn a central banking elitest hater of the common people like Hamilton into a champion of diversity and progressive thinking, while the right can turn the gospels into a justification for elitism and condemnation of the poor. Such is the pathology of a people who have destroyed any real cultural memory of the past.

    William Hunter Duncan

  12. I’m finding it fairly disturbing watching old books be banned from schools for being “offensive”. That’s going to end in there being nothing left if it’s taken to the logical extreme, and sadly too many people seem determined to do that. It’s really fascinating watching people tear apart our culture in the name of saving it from horrible ideas….

  13. Yorkshire,

    As JMG said, a proper response to your question would take a very large essay, but my thoughts on it is simple: the best people to read on a controversial topic are the ones who actually state the other sides position fairly. It’s amazing how few people do even that….

  14. Dewey, I’ve read a good bit of Daesh propaganda; I also read, fairly regularly, the propaganda of the social justice movement and the racist end of the alt-Right, both of which would throw me into a prison camp in a heartbeat if they seized power. It’s not just a matter of knowing your enemy, or even of learning the arguments they use, in order to be ready to slam-dunk them in discussion. It’s crucial to understand how the human mind can run off the rails in those particular ways, so that you can spot the same sort of thinking in embryonic form in yourself, and stop it before it turns you into a mirror of the things you oppose.

    Pogonip, the books in the canon aren’t meant to be the only thing anybody reads! The point is to have some common ground, so that excursions into (say) mid-20th century medical literature can be based on some broader understanding of language, history, and thought.

    RMK, as I see it, the federal and state governments are best kept as far as possible from educational policy. The US had one of the best educational systems in the world when education was handled on a local level, by locally elected school boards answerable to the people whose children they educated; as control shifted to the state and then the federal level, the quality of education collapsed accordingly. I’ve argued before, and will argue again, that there’s a straightforward cause and effect relationship at work here. Thus the best, and indeed the only, place for a new canon to start taking shape is in the personal decisions of parents, readers, and those teachers who have the freedom to choose what to read to their classes.

    Whd8, we’ll be talking about that next week. The reduction of the American experience to one of two competing morality plays with the identical plot, but different value markers, is a huge issue just now.

  15. “So a canon is always changing, always contested, and always unfair. None of these things keeps it from doing its job, which is that of providing a basis for shared understanding in a society diverse enough to require that. Here in the United States, we don’t currently have a canon shared across our competing subcultures, which is an important reason why so few people in this country can communicate with one another across the boundaries of class, gender, and ethnicity.”

    You mention in the paragraph above that the US doesn’t have a canon shared across competing subcultures. You’re saying that individual choices in local areas based around the 3 criteria you’ve presented will be how the nation accomplishes a shared canon?

  16. Will, I’m convinced that that’s the point of the whole exercise. Radical extremists of every kind are always the enemies of culture, because culture doesn’t support the simplistic fantasies that drive radical extremism. Fortunately such attempts always crash and burn sooner or later.

    RMK, that plus a lot of time and the collapse of the current culture wars. The canon we used to have wasn’t legislated into place; it emerged in exactly the way I’ve suggested, as individual choices led gradually to a loose consensus.

  17. As a life-long reader your last 2 posts have been added to my long list of favorite JMG essays. I’d like to suggest “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein as a potential member of a modern canon. I first read it as a teenager in the late 60’s and it had a profound and lasting influence on me. Partly that is because it provided a great deal of food for thought but more importantly because it taught me to question everything, even (or especially) my most deeply held beliefs. I think that attitude is one of the reasons I appreciate your blog so much – you constantly challenge me to see things in a new light.

    While it may not be one of the dozen “genuine masterworks” of the 20th century, it may be among the 200 or so really good reads. Viewing our current culture through the lens of someone raised on Mars by martians has given me a new (almost alien) perspective on modern life.

    Doug Castle

  18. On “How to Think”:

    I was inspired by last week’s article to finally purchase ‘The Trivium’ by Sister Miriam Joseph (it’s a reprint of her book from the 1930s).

    Here’s a wonderful quote from the introduction to the Trivium by Sister Miriam (this would be anathema to the ‘sketpical’ youtube STEM-lords and the silicon valley technocrats who infest society today, as well as the great mass of people who have been indoctrinated to think that ‘learning a skill’ is the apex of life. Imagine their horror at their skills being rated as ‘servile’!) :

    The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant – of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business – and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth.

    Very Aristotelian. Trades are slave work. Philosophy is for the free.

    I can’t imagine that the SJW types would enjoy being lectured on logic by a Catholic either. One wouldn’t want to poke their SJW ‘logic’ too hard, I fear. A group of people who flip from nominalism to idealism and back to nominalism in as much time as it took me to type this sentence have much to fear from the Trivium.

    I am definitely not a catholic, fwiw, but I do enjoy the occasional exorcism.

  19. Longtime reader of your old blog, first time I’ve actually commented here. Thanks for this article and all the work you do!

    When discussing “Canon”, two thoughts occurred to me which you didn’t seem to address, and I wonder if you’d care to comment. The first of course is that most religious people are familiar with the concept of a “canon”, whether or not they know the word. Certain Holy Books are included in the Bible, others are not, and it’s a fascinating history of what the other ones said, and how the decision was made to include or not include for example the Book of Marcyon into the Bible we all know.

    Fans of comic books and movie franchises also talk a lot about “canon”. But most fans know it only in a passive consumer sense. Comic books and other franchises like movies or TV shows often spawn fan-fiction, experimental episodes, or in the case of sci-fi there can be “What-If” stories or “Alternate-Universe” stories. So entertainment consumers discuss which stories are “official, approved” products of the corporate entertainment franchise, even though the same company might have put out some alternate-universe story and then the company changed its mind about whether that episode is “official”. The debates about Star Wars “Canon”, for example, are endless and convoluted. The point is that in the fan & franchise sense of a “canon”, a corporation or for-profit entity (often the original writer) gets to decide unilaterally what belongs in and out of the canon. You didn’t comment much about how exactly canons get decided… but a single company with the unilateral power to decide, doesn’t strike me as a good policy in anything but copyrighted corporate fiction.

    Then my mind wandered into more dangerous territory…

    Your offhand comment that a canon works much like a hierarchy, in that if it is abolished it is simply replaced with invisible and unaccountable ones… sent my mind in an unfortunate direction. It reminded me of how more than one of my friends are sending me lectures and articles about hierarchy, from… **gawd** Jordan Peterson. To borrow your phrase, discussions about Jordan Peterson always seem to “generate more heat than light”. I did a quick search of Ecosophia and near as I can find you only mentioned him in passing, saying that his work didn’t appeal to you. Still I wonder if you might venture a comment. Among his points that have made it into pop-culture understanding is his preachings about hierarchy, that hierarchies are inevitable and beneficial — though they make people feel jealous and resentful, that causes us to strive to improve ourselves, so we all have to embrace hierarchies. Therefore — for example — working towards equal pay for women versus men is “Evil”, his words not mine. You’d likely be wiser avoiding any discussion of him, but I foolishly wonder if you’d comment about his vision of the usefulness of hierarchies versus yours? I foolishly wonder further if you’d consider commenting more about Peterson in general, since to my mind he is manipulating magic forces — his advice books rely a lot on the manipulation of archtypes and his advice for young men to make themselves more attractive to women might possibly even wander towards thaumaturgy.

    This next point is another total tangent, but related to a long-time JMG topic: I found this article very interesting:
    2016: A Liberal Odyssey
    Mainly because of the scathing condemnation of the Religion of Progress, which JMG has often written about:

    > “They plant their flag in the wreckage of history and claim it as their own, assuring themselves that the bodies of the past have fallen deliberately in one direction, paving the slow trail to the golden future we currently inhabit.”

  20. Tangential, perhaps, but I had the good fortune of attending my home town liberal arts college in early 60’s where professors would say, “we don’t care what you think as much as we care whether or not you actually do think”, its not so much “have you learned as it is have you learned how to learn.”

    This was exemplified by a physics prof (my background is physics) who handed us our final exam in Statistical Mechanics. It picked up where the semester had left off and continued on for a couple of chapters. So the question was, had we learned how to learn Statistical Mechanics? (some how, I had)

    I have always appreciated that educational background.

  21. Between the Canon and its second cousin not-far-enough removed, the Book-Burning, there is too much family resemblance to make me rest entirely easy with its notion. Take for instance the near-perfect erasure of women’s thoughts from the St. John’s College standard curriculum some 40 years ago, the bitter taste of which yet lingers on the palate. Yet I know first hand the value of having a chosen body of works fixed upon by a given community for the purpose of shared discourse and intellectual development.

    As a compromise position, I have come up with the idea that every commonwealth of mind should have its own canon as a necessary counterweight and challenger to any canon fixed on by academic, political or religious alpha-clans. Overlaps in canons of subcultural clans such as Environmental Justice and Social Justice could form the basis of working out mutually acceptable goals; and apprehension of their opponents’ objectives would be sharpened. Whereas, total ignorance of the preferred canon of a given field of endeavor would act as a marker of insincerity at best and destructive intent at least.

    Thus, anyone in the political line of work who idolizes Ayn Rand and, on that basis alone, presumes to shape policy and implement laws governing agricultural matters though they have never read 40 Centuries of Farming can be revealed as a charlatan to the farming community. Likewise, those who are outside the closed ranks of modern money and power would be wise to read and at least attempt to comprehend the core emotions informing Neocons’ worshipful adulation of the Rand-y model of the world. On the other end of the force and power scale, anyone who wants to be licensed as a daycare worker who has not read and discussed the implications of relevant extracts from Herland and Lark Rise to Candleford would, in my opinion, be unfit for the post.

    And there is another thing. I do not agree that works chosen for Canonization should instantly relegate contemporary works to the slushpile swamp graveyard. Recent attempts by the Jane Austen Center scholars to bring forward works by women authors contemporary with and just prior to Austen have revealed to me a whole lot of babies that got thrown out with the bathwater by critical opinion. Though useful ideas might be embedded in treacle or truckle, they are hard little nuts nonetheless, that carry their seed-thoughts further than the rotting fruit pulp around them. Charlotte Smith, for example, in whose works I personally have found ideas Austen lifted whole cloth: fictional situations, themes, and even exact phrases that appear later in Austen’s work, neatly trimmed of unfashionable frills and streamlined for rapid plot deployment—but recycled fabrics, nonetheless.

    Therefore, I hold that every author chosen for insertion into the Canon ought to be properly introduced by a long list of folks who constitute his or her wadding and black powder—by which I mean the works that said author is reacting to, stealing from, and/or striving to surpass. Mountain peaks do not appear in gravityless isolation above the plain; there is usually a broad, gradually rising slope that precedes them, or a deep cut ravine that fronts them. These features of the literary landscape ought not to be omitted from view when greatness is conferred by common consent.

  22. JMG – Thank you for this series of essays on reading.


    Recommended books originally written before I was born:
    1) Black Range Tales by James A. McKenna (Rio Grande Press, 1965, has map and biography of the author – who died in the late 1930s; the book was originally published in 1936)
    2) Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing It in the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii in the 1860’s (this edition has a long introduction by A. Grove Day which is well worth reading, if just for a single quote about technology; Published June 1st 1990 by Mutual Publishing. Twain’s book that includes stories re the Sandwich Islands noted as first published in 1872. There are surely better editions out there, but this is the one I came across.)
    3) Through Mexico on Horseback (forty days and nights in the wilderness of old Mexico) by Joseph Goodwin (originally written in 1933, reprinted in 2001; )

    All three books are offensive in parts, yet more importantly, a great deal of humanity, justice and fair play comes through; both are, IMHO, fascinating reads. If, in the unlikely event, either of these books ever made it into a classroom or reading group, it would be instructive to discuss the offensive parts (mainly racial & ethnic slurs; some of which make my skin crawl), both in the context of gaining a greater understanding of the times in which they were written, and of the greater narratives of the book. I wish were better able to express in a few short sentences what I mean about the ‘greater narrative’, suffice it to say, the people and their stories are not mere cardboard cutouts.

    Finally, mostly off topic, a short Ma & Pa Kettle video about math:

  23. JMG, then I can’t criticize you for bias in your reading of nutjob propaganda! However, it sounds like you must have spent some time on it, especially if, as you advise, you read slowly and carefully, trying to think as the writers did. (Some of those writers barely seem to think at all, I’m sure you will agree.) Since my reading time is very limited these days, and my increasingly bad eyesight doesn’t help, I usually won’t read nonfiction that appears to be malevolent or stupid. If it’s fiction, it better be engrossing, or I won’t finish it. Life just seems too short to spend any more of it reading things that, if printed on paper, I would throw in the garbage when finished. (I’ve gotten close to 30 of your books at this point, btw – for me to spend that much time reading one author means I like the way you think VERY MUCH. So thank you for all the happiness, and useful ideas, you have given me!)

    Incidentally, I look forward to your explanation of how to read Dion Fortune correctly – I read the first couple of chapters, indeed slowly and carefully, and was absolutely baffled.

  24. “American education these days is obsessed with teaching students what to think, with forcing them to give the right answers. Since independence of thought interferes with this goal, teaching students what to think ends up teaching them not to think—to parrot the prescribed answers they’ve been taught, as mindlessly as possible, so that they won’t be at risk of doing any original thinking and coming up with an unapproved answer.”

    Well this phenomenon is simply a logical conclusion of the necessity of totalitarianism in modernity (and post modernity even more so). Ultimately WWII was the competition of three different paths to totalitarian society, and the Anglo-American version won out over that war and the Cold War. I think most would agree that it’s preferable to the other two, but it is nevertheless a totalitarian system. It uses less stick and more carrot than the other two visions which makes it somewhat deceptive. This latter feature is why an accurate portrayal is basically 50% 1984 and 50% Brave New World.

  25. Doug, Stranger is already part of the established canon of science fiction classics, and to the extent that science fiction becomes more than a blip in the history of literature, my guess is that it’s one of the three or four major works that’ll probably make it into the broader canon of English literature. I also read it first in my early teens, and while it wasn’t a major influence that was to some extent because its impact had already been felt in the culture as a whole.

    Dermot, thank you for this! I’d been wondering whether to read the good sister’s book on the trivium, but if she was already talking about the servile-arts education of the present when it was in its germinal stage, she’s been advanced to the get-this list.

    Crisispariah, I’m familiar with both of the other senses of the word “canon,” but didn’t want to get into either of them. As for Peterson, I’ve paid very little attention to him; there are a lot of pundits in the world, and the kind who go out of their way to court controversy in the media are rarely the ones I find interesting. Based on what you’ve said about his attitude toward hierarchy, he’s got a typically one-sided view, the precise mirror image of the social justice notion that all hierarchies are bad (except the covert ones they impose under the smokescreen of equality); hierarchies, like canons, are always changing, contested, and unfair, and the movement to pay women equally for equal work is in fact a normal balancing process of the kind that adjusts a hierarchy to fit new conditions and new distributions of power. (Have you noticed that none of the feminists who call for equal pay for equal work are willing to see the women who do their nails and their hair, clean their houses, and take care of their children, paid a salary equal to their own middle class income?)

    Michael, that’s a fine example of a real education. Thank you.

    Gkb, your first point is what I was talking about when I said that every canon is contested. The way that women’s literature has been brought out of obscurity over the last half century or so is a fine example of the way a canon changes over time, and of course the rise of competing subcultural canons is an important part of that process. As for Charlotte Smith et al., though, insisting that every work of romantic fiction from which Jane Austen borrowed has to be included in the canon along with Jane Austen is a quick way to a canon that’s as large as literature itself, and therefore fails in its purpose. Of course people who want to get deep into the kind of literature Austen wrote ought to read Smith, and a great many others, but that’s what specialization is for. In terms of the canon, the basic set of books most people read, discuss, and study during their schooling, Jane Austen makes a fine introduction to that end of English literature, and we can go from there to Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, and so forth.

    Patricia, excellent — and it’s exactly the clash between our expectations and the habits of earlier times, and between the things of the past we admire and those we don’t, that are among the gifts of this sort of reading. Thank you.

  26. @Doug – “Viewing our current culture through the lens of someone raised on Mars by martians has given me a new (almost alien) perspective on modern life.”

    Agreed, Stranger in a Strange Land is among Heinlein’s best, and still well worth reading. And yet, you can pretty well place the author in his time from the fact that, while the “Martian” Valentine Michael Smith and his followers prove their exoticism by accepting free love and ritual cannibalism, they view gay people as “poor in-betweeners” who “would never be invited to share water.” For the huge majority of Westerners today who are comfortable counting gay people among their loved ones, this seems amusingly culture-bound. Rather like Asimov’s infuriating assumption in the Foundation trilogy that in fifty thousand years of Imperial future-history, women would never get out of third-class status, or apparently, sick of it.

  27. JMG
    “canon fodder’ … tut, tut…

    I suppose novels are the last 300 years? There were plenty of written tales and literature before that of course. There was an interesting comment last week from a teacher who got to know expatriate Russians presumably educated in the Soviet Union who had read widely including an English ‘canon’. I guess we could return the compliment?

    I have looked again into Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) and there is overlap with this week’s essay. This is for ‘educators’ as much as for readers of, mostly, poetry. Idiosyncratic but powerful thinking and has some great, what he calls ‘exhibits’. He mentions the beginnings of English language poetry, and The Seafarer (Anglo Saxon) which he had translated. The book is more than about poetry and a great deal more than ‘literary crit’. Pound recommends for our reading, Jane Austen, Trollop and Henry James.

    My popcorn at the most difficult time in my life some decades was PG Woodhouse. The jokes endure.. He placed them like ‘delight bombs’ with clues along the way, but clues never quite sufficient to take away the surprise. Bertie’s enforced bicycle ride in the evening dark – I will not spoil the punch line – for instance stays with me with original impact.

    Minds from another time and heritage are in Chinese Poems translated by Arthur Waley. There is a lot of Waley I guess, but Li Po and company dating back a very long way are terrific company to carry one from youth to old age.

    Phil H

  28. I was roasted in college for reading Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury, etc. In fact the English department has a course called the “Victorian Monstrosity” that is built around ripping Jane Austen, The Brontes, Charles Dickens, Twain and the likes a new one, if you know what I mean. It’s one reason I majored in science, otherwise I’d have double majored.

    There was a creative writing course I took where the professor wouldn’t let a paragraph more than eight sentences longs stand because it is to “victorian” to go into detail or have an allegorical setting. He also taught the Victorian Monstrosity course….. I’m not saying the Victorians were perfect writer or that Charles Dickens didn’t have his flops.

    I think it’s simply that the Victorian way of writing isn’t the modern way.

  29. Reading Beowulf in Old English is a worth while exercise in itself because Old English is an inflected language like Latin. And that even adding inflection into language forces one to chane how they think.

  30. I tired the sharp object under the TV bit on ecsophia.dreamwith the TV now turns on and off half a dozen times before turning on. I’m just commenting here because I think the other website’s user interface isn’t as easy to use.

  31. Just noting that Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s works (Black Swan, Antifragile etc) has lot of parallels with the thoughts discussed here and previously on the ADR.
    His advice and practice is to apply the filter of time to reading material (and other things like ideas). Any book that has survived for 100 years will be around for another hundred, while something has has only 5 years history is unlikely to make it to 100.
    That is probably a poor summary of his approach, but I’d recommend exploring his work

  32. I can imagine Sex and the City entering American canon, if future generations are that literate. The format is as much essay as prose fiction. People who have only seen the show or movies may not know it’s also a book.

  33. Hi JMG,
    already when I was a kid I read a lot of stories by authors from the past: Jules Verne, Robert Louis
    Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper and of course Mark Twain among them (translated into
    German). They were the stories I enjoyed most, maybe because they genuinely were a window into
    another world and time. At a drawing contest by the local bank I once won a prose version of the
    Nibelungensage (Wagner did his ´´Ring´´operas based on that legend) and was fascinated by it .
    Together with The Legend Of Robin Hood it was my first book without a happy ending (In both
    books the hero dies bleeding to death of a spear/arrow wound after being betrayed. Alexandre
    Dumas, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson also were good companions of my
    childhood. After the age of about 10 I once or twice tried reading contemporary books written
    especially for kids, but I found them flat, boring and badly written by comparison.
    In my late teens I discovered Tolkien´s The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, and they quickly
    established their place among my personal favorites (I diddn´t know Tolkien did a prose version of Beowulf; I´ve always wanted to get my hands on a readable rendition of the myth, so thanks for mentioning it). Later on I became a regular visitor to the local library and came upon more ´ghosts of the past´ : H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and Algernon Blackwood to name a few.
    At the moment I´m reading The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengsston (written in 1951), a very good read indeed for those who like adventure stories. So I´ve always followed your advice to read things from the past (and some of the mentioned authors´ political views I do find offensive, at least from a modern perspective) and I can only confirm that it is very good advice indeed; it really helps you to understand other people´s outlook on life.
    On a different note: What do you make of people who don´t read at all (not because they can´t but
    because they don´t enjoy it)? It´s always been a bit of a mystery to me, (I don´t mean to belittle
    these people, some of them are my friends) and I often think: they don´t know what they´re missing.
    Frank from Germany

  34. “…be included in the canon…”
    Not included, just listed’ Noted or offered up as contextual material for further reading. But also, not forgotten, not sneered at, and not tossed in the dumpster.

  35. Greetings JMG,

    Exactly how big a cannon as you propose should be? I recall in my highschool days. the Lit-teacher would come on the first day of the semester and have each of us pick one title from a list. The classes were fifty-ish in size, and there were more than enough books to choose.

    The problem is that, starting from month 2, half of the session would be expended in having a handful of students summarize what they had read for the rest of the class. So we ended up knowing about lots of books, but having read only one (I happen to reread Dante’s Divine Comedy a couple of times, because I had failed miserably in an assigment about the 7th circle of Hell in middleschool and I am stubborn like hat, but the experience was far from common). Please notice there’s practically no room for discussion in that format. It was still one of the best classes I had in my formative years.

    Now that I think about it, it seems that, – for all it’s flaws, – J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series is part of the defacto cannon for the industrial world. Lots of children did read the books, sometimes more than once (I liked it myself, but was a little too old for that and could not stomach a second pass, not with that kind of time commitment) and they *talk* about it with their friends.

    Also, what’s your opinion on the movie series that got made over both this work and Tolkien’s Middle Earth novels? On the one hand that added wider audiences and brought more readers into the communities. But there’s also the issue of the comercialization that innevitably come with that kind of media.

  36. John—

    I’m unsure whether it is an effect of your style of writing or a peculiarity of my thought processes (or, more likely, a combination of the two) , but I often find myself taking your essays and running in analogies and parallels with other subjects. I don’t wish to pull the discussion too far afield — perhaps we could revisit during an open post or a future essay — but I’d like to quickly observe how some of your comments re literary canonapply to thoughts/questions I’ve asked myself re social class:

    — Does class (canon) perform a function? As you’ve suggested, that function could be expressed in terms of a common touchstone for relationships, experiences, and conversation.
    — The notion that functional class (canon) is always contested; that is, that there exists some means of moving in-out or up-down.
    — The idea that some express that the existence of class differences (or the existence of a canon) is, as you say, A Bad Thing, but that those very people then support a subversive class structure (canon) whose existence they deny.

    As usual, a thought-provoking essay. More on-topic, I have been trying to expand my literary experiences to other cultures and will continue to do so, although I have to make do with translations for the most part.

  37. I don’t think anyone has mentioned Allan Bloom and his book, “The Closing of the American Mind.” It was published a few decades ago, and made the case for a Western Canon, but it was widely condemned for not being sufficiently “diverse” or “inclusive.” There’s plenty to be said for some sort of national common denominator such as a standard literary canon – or at least for valuing literacy itself, .

  38. JMG and eveyone else. What are the main works in the various sub cultural cannons? Last week I asked Jen what are the main social justice works and got a good list.
    M Reading this and the last few post what strikes me is how I really wish I had been educated in this old method. It just seems so much better. Also for anyone what edition of Euclid is the best for a beginner? Thank in advance

  39. JMG,
    this sounds very familiar. Didn’t you discuss the canon in your series of posts on education in 2016, the ones where we had homework? Does anyone have the link to the post I’m thinking of?

  40. Personal / common canon:

    Yes, JMG, you are of course quite right that having a personal canon doesn’t help anybody to communicate with others. I should have made clear that I was presupposing what you also wrote: that it will take a long time to establish a new canon and in the meanwhile everybody can try and select the best of the past. The books I mentioned are those that I would try to get students to love if in some weird future I had any influence on school curricula! Actually, if needs were, I would be happy to copy (parts of) Virgil and Dante by hand (not that many people would want to read my handwriting… :-)).

    By the way, I didn’t say in which ways the old books I cited expanded my mind (in addition to their sheer word-music). For example, Dante’s combination of Christian faith and astrology grated on my mind, until I thought that a Christian author using 20th century scientific metaphors might sound equally strange in the far future. Virgil’s ethical paganism was another challenge. Actually, the booby trap you wrote about last week sounds quite plausible. What I don’t understand is how somebody like Chesterton could have ignored everything he had surely read in Plato and Virgil, in order to paint a picture of Pagans as self-indulgent hedonists!

    Finally, I am a bit bemused. I don’t know a lot about contemporary American culture, but I would be surprised if the major obstacle to people’s having healthy relationships with the other sex were books, however bad they might be. Aren’t the screen media much more influential in all but a small minority of people?

  41. At first I thought the topic was kind of dry. However, it got me thinking and led me to this:

    And the cool thing is the list of books links to on-line free versions of most — if not all — of the books, as they are classics old enough to be in the public domain.

    And almost all of them I’ve heard of. And almost none of them have I yet read!

  42. A canon ought to include Bertie and Jeeves—any of the books except “Thank You, Jeeves,” which is too much for the modern mind, although as far as I have been able to determine Wodehouse didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings. The man apparently didn’t have a mean bone in his body.

    You either love Wodehouse, or you wonder what on earth people find amusing in his plot (he re-used the same one in all his books), but I think he still belongs in the canon because of his masterful use of the language.

  43. Well, “Walpurgis Night,” probably won’t make it in to the canon as you said. But it is a heck of a good seasoning for a bowl of popcorn – If only I could eat the popcorn. There are some other good ones in the Lovecraftiana Magazine as well.

  44. Dewey, of course you have every right to choose what you want to read, and if you have better things to read than Daesh propaganda, by all means! I find propaganda endlessly informative — it’s interesting to note, for example, which propagandists are engaged in conscious manipulation and which ones simply can’t think their way out of a wet paper bag, and the particular mental distortions of the latter (by far the most common) are always instructive.

    Djerek, to my mind that’s rather an overstatement, but it’s not completely out to lunch by any means.

    Phil, modern European novels are the last 300 years. The Genji Monogatari is the best of an extensive genre of novels from Heian Japan; The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius is arguably the best Roman novel. Long prose narratives mostly centered on realistic depictions of manners and society — whether or not they have fabulous elements — are a literary form that’s emerged repeatedly in history.

    Austin, yes, I’ve encountered that kind of professor — thus my comment about the bitter hatred that English professors at third-rate universities so often have for authors who can actually write. As for Beowulf, I won’t argue, but I tend to think it’s best introduced first in translation; once you know it in modern English, especially in a really capable rendering like Tolkien’s, it’s easier to make sense of the Old English version.

    AMark, I certainly learned a bit from The Black Swan!

    Lunchbox, so noted. I haven’t followed either version.

    Frank, delighted to hear it! (By the way, I got three copies of this post, and only put one of them through.) With regard to people who don’t enjoy reading, it’s worth remembering that nothing works for everyone; if someone really finds reading an unpleasant chore, why, once they’re out of school, I see no reason why they should have to keep at it.

    RMK, that kind of popularity contest is interesting as a gauge of public attitudes, and I suppose it’s useful if it encourages people to read something they wouldn’t otherwise try.

    Gkb, and again, that’s why a canon is contested. If you feel strongly enough about that, you can encourage reading of those books, support firms that reprint them, or even found a press to do so; that’s how such things happen.

    CRPatino, if everyone’s reading a different book, it’s not a canon. Again, a canon is a set of books that most people read, discuss, and think about during their schooling. The exact number will vary, but given five or six years of secondary school, it’s not going to be that many. As for the movies, I don’t have an opinion on the Harry Potter series — I only watched the first one and found it forgettably bland — and Peter Jackson’s version of The Lord of the Rings was to my mind a shoddy piece of work. There have been very good movies made from books; these were not among them.

    David, excellent! I’m glad to hear it. As for translations, I read almost everything in translation; a good translation into one’s native tongue gets a lot of barriers out of the way. I’m currently reading Sartre’s Being and Nothingness in English translation; I have quite a decent reading knowledge of French, but Sartre’s thinking is complex and challenging enough that reading him in a language I know instinctively helps.

    Phutatorius, I need to reread Bloom, no question. Thanks for the reminder.

    Will, I learned Euclid via one of the old, stuffy translations — a newer and clearer one would be helpful. As for wanting to learn the old way, why, it’s never too late, and the raw material is as close as your local library.

    Shane, why, yes, I think you’re remembering a certain parable about dog barf.

    Matthias, fair enough; from that perspective, what you wrote earlier makes a great deal of sense. As for pop literature and gender troubles, if you ever happen to end up in an American supermarket, you’ll find a big rack of popular fiction aimed at women, nearly all of which retails absurd caricatures of men. The male equivalent is more often found in other venues, and is packed with equally absurd caricatures of women. These things sell literally millions of copies, and since reading guides the mind where visual media by and large simply shuts it down, I suspect the reading material has a disproportionate impact.

    Gnat, fascinating! Thank you for this. Those 50 books would make a very good first draft of a canon, though it’s a first draft that would be (of course) subject to change, contested, and unfair.

    Pogonip, good. You’re contesting the canon by proposing an author for inclusion. I’m on the “huh?” end of the Wodehouse spectrum — a lot of his humor escapes me completely.

    Janitor, thank you! Yes, I’ve been enjoying the other stories as well. It looks like a good issue. I’ve got a story scheduled for publication in a forthcoming anthology from the same editor, Swords Against Cthulhu II: A New Dark Age — how could I resist? My piece there is titled “The Black Goat’s Servant,” and it’s deindustrial fantasy with tentacles…

  45. Brilliant essay, as usual!

    Regarding “how” vs. “what” to think: I work in the AI space. Judea Pearl, one of the pioneers of the field, recently came out as a huge critic:

    He argues that artificial intelligence is stuck in a rut because of a very narrow understanding of what “intelligence” actually is. The state of the art currently amounts to being able to find hidden patterns in huge amounts of data, which is basically large scale curve fitting.

    In other words, given sufficiently large amounts of data, and a rule (a.k.a. algorithm) by which to find patterns, a computer can “find” answers. Which basically amounts to extremely large scale “parroting”. All of this is enabled by easily available and cheap computational power. What a computer cannot do is to determine whether the answer is meaningful or relevant, or how to infer new questions or rules.

    Pearl thinks that the field is stuck in a rut because everyone just wants to keep doing curve fitting. This is, of course, reminiscent of previous ages where intellectuals thought we can solve everything by Logic, or Science, or whatever. But more to the point, it is a reflection of the way the education system programs people what to think” instead of teaching them “how to think”.

    Now, I don’t really think we’re going to get anywhere near what could be called “true” machine intelligence. I see way more intelligence in infants, or even puppies, than from any advanced computational machines (that require lots of electricity to run) so far. But the discussion was interesting and it’s good to know someone in the field is actually thinking about the problem.

    Here’s another interesting bit from that interview that I’ll connect to this topic:

    “Pearl: We have to equip machines with a model of the environment. If a machine does not have a model of reality, you cannot expect the machine to behave intelligently in that reality…”

    Is this not basically what a canon is, a model of the intellectual and cultural environment? And without it, you cannot expect humans to behave intelligently? 🙂

  46. Wodehouse appreciation is unpredictable; people you think would love him, don’t, and people you’d think would never get that type of humor laugh like hyenas.

    Someone mentioned Ursula LeGuin. I’ve had several people rave about her short story about the people who leave Omelas; it left me totally flat. So I understand both sides of the Great Wodehouse Divide. 😄

  47. Your topic last week on having another person’s thoughts enter the mind via reading, reminded me of this quote by Eric Havelock:

    “It is only as language is written down that it becomes possible to think about it. The acoustic medium, being incapable of visualization, did not achieve recognition as a phenomenon wholly separable from the person who used it. But in the alphabetized document the medium became objectified. There it was, reproduced perfectly in the alphabet… no longer a function of “me” the speaker but a document with an independent existence.”

    There’s multiple points here, all of which fascinated me, and none of which I’d thought about previously. Before literacy existed, if spoken words were not wholly separable from the speaker (as Havelock suggests) I’m guessing that a skilled orator could have a spellbinding effect on an audience even greater than is possible today. And the audience, being unable to think philosophically (due to lack of written language) would have to choose one orator over another based on the various nonverbal communicative cues and framing devices you mentioned last week.

    No doubt the audience, through lots of practice, would become very skilled at doing this but I can’t quite grasp how it would feel to have the meanings of words considered less important than everything else. It seems like such a bizarre idea. Maybe there’s an analogy that might help to describe it?

  48. Re sometimes reading texts that “offend”, or at least are coming from a direction one doesn’t like: I made that a habit in my reading on the net years ago, realizing that I was in the process of enclosing my mind in an echo-chamber of my own making. That led me to read a great lot of neo-reactionary texts, and while they never convinced me of their prescriptions and goals, I found and find a lot of their critique of the “left”, to which I belong, to be very accurate, and, while sometimes painful, also very useful. They often hit on points one hardly sees just by trying to be critical of oneselfes thinking.

    As far as real literature is concerned: Reading Gottfried Benn and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, both minds that I dont like a bit, was still very educating: realizing how immensely impressive, aesthetically, people could be who supported the Nazis helped me to avoid for ever a too-simple view of the world.

  49. There has been an attempt to set the established canon in the multi volume set “Great Books of the Western World”. Should be easy to find in used bookshops alongside old copies of encyclopedias and can be had cheaper than shelling out for separate copies of the books you are interested in. And there is the option of expanding your reading with books you would not normally pick up.
    Full disclosure, I still have to pick up the Hesse I committed to reading as the result of an earlier ecosophia essay…

  50. I just finished watching the debut of the “Great American Read” on PBS so I was already thinking about the issue of the literary canon when I started reading this. What I found rather frustrating about the program was the way it tended to emphasize books with popular film or television adaptations. Their list of 100 books was supposedly generated based on a survey of some sort, and, though there are quite a few older works on it, they gave a lot more screen time to books that have had more…screen time. Works with recent adaptations, such as Harry Potter, got several minutes worth of fans or celebrities gushing about them. Works that are more difficult, such as Crime and Punishment, were given just a brief mention. I applaud them for what they are doing, as people aren’t reading nearly enough these days, but wish there was a way of encouraging people to read without having to rely on pop culture.

    On a lighter note, anyone have any idea how I can convince my husband to read Pride and Prejudice? He is still laboring under the misapprehension that it is merely “chick lit”. I need a guy who can explain its merits in a language he can understand. He assumes that it is just like my standard “popcorn” romance novels.

  51. A fascinating topic. I’ve thought about the question of a canon in the context of what fiction would be mandatory bedtime reading if I have the fortune to have children of my own. Lord of the Rings, Dune, and the Kingkiller Chronicles have made my list. I’d be happy to explain why and would be interested to hear some explanations about some of the other suggestions I’ve seen here.

    I feel I may have been a member of the last generation in a long time to benefit from a canon. I would never have finished 1984 without a bribe in the form of a good mark waiting for me at the end, butI benefited a lot from this book which runs so counter to my own taste. I can’t imagine that kind of experience being common in the future I find most likely. I suspect that much of the nostalgia for the ’90s was because that was the last decade with a mass culture before everything fragmented. It’s become beautifully easy to find any subculture one wants, but terrifyingly easy to never leave one. In some ways this might be a good thing – the walled gardens of today may allow new and strange thoughts that could never have arisen had they needed to survive in the wild half-formed. And the determined seeker can find books on a subculture’s ‘naughty list’ for as long as these subcultures exist.

    But while suggesting works from neighbouring gardens may be beneficial and interesting, it’s a completely different experience from having a few works that even strangers have reliably experienced. I can’t help but feel some wistfulness for the age I was around to see the end of – while the cost of communication has gone down since I read 1984, in some ways it has become more difficult.

  52. When it comes to reading and heavy fair, I have very very slow digestion. I wolf a book down, and obsess over it for a period of several weeks afterwards if it’s at all good. Its usually several months before I am very interested in a book that is more than fluff again. Rinse and repeat.

    I say that as I think of how little I have read which I would think of as being proper to a canon, and mostly of the philosophical sub category. JMG and I had an asside in a recent dreamwidt post about the history of English Speaking Philosophers; and the fact that the English language has not be the most gifted with philosophers. That being said, I have been chewing on the philosophical portion of a canon and have come to the following thoughts. I figure Hume’s Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding, and Concerning the Principles of Morals to be the best of the old guard philosophy thought out in English. Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind and E.F. Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed are the best I know of from the 20th century. Round out this with the Origin of Species and a good sampling of Emerson.

    What I suggested would go beyond a common canon, for for those interested in the achievements of thinking in English, this would be some of the best cases I can think of. These are not obviously the best there is, but this grouping covers what are to my values the most important developments in thinking to come from the English language.

  53. I also think that the larger the group you are talking about the smaller it’s canon must be. The battery of canons which all include The Bible, Homer, and Plato covers in time and space a major chunk of European history and the colonies there of. On the other hand I think that Little Britches Father and I were Ranchers absolutely deserves a membership in the canon, of Colorado, alongside Isabella Brid’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

    Also how wide does the canon need to reach through the classes, it seems as though we are moving into an era where a great many are not ‘literate as in literature’? Able to read as in recognize what sounds fit with most words, but not actually able to read decent literature. Does the canon work second hand? How would that fit with literature where much of the population is effectively done by 8th grade, as I think a large minority of people have every right to be.

    For comparison to what I am thinking about a canon woring second hand, in Modern America having seen Star Wars is treated like a canon experience; but I don’t remember seeing it, even if I have a vague memory of an ex trying to force me to sit through the original trilogy at one point. Yet I know the story down to fairly fine details, because I have heard the saga told on many occasions by friends.

  54. I would recommend to the readers of this blog just two names concerning canon. First is Mortimer Adler with his lifetime reading plan and Paideia Proposal. Second is Harold Bloom’s Western Canon.

    It would be good to use their ideas as inspiration to make your own personal canon and reading plan.

  55. I would disagree that their are no Western canon’s, it just is that the canons are not books, they are movies. Ask anyone from the boomers, Gen X, or Millennial’s, and they will all have seen Aliens, the Terminator, the shining, star wars, ect, ect. How many will have shared in the experience of seeing the Hustler, or Steppenwolf however?

    I used to read a book a week in the 80’s, but despite this love of print, I now mostly listen to audiobooks instead. Print is essentially dead. I saw a story recently that high schools in Baltimore were being criticized for graduating students who couldn’t read their own diploma. Education has fallen off a cliff, and the sub-cultures you refer to are the people who are still reading paper books while munching on popcorn.

  56. Hi JMG,
    sorry about the multiple posts; I thought my comment isn´t getting through because when I posted on earlier occasions, the website would show my comment with the indication : ´´your comment is awaiting moderation´´, and it didn´t do that anymore. I´m afraid I´ve tried again this morning before I noticed my comment has been received by you… apologies.
    Frank from Germany

  57. JMG, great post as always. My first thought was that while a canon being established to present some common ground is nice in theory, that’s a tough row to hoe when it comes to today’s world, where many, many people are functionally illiterate. There’s an underlying premise of the influence of books and other materials that are read, and that seems more open to debate these days. This is further aggravated when much of the material, both at the popcorn and “serious” reader levels is influenced and promoted heavily, often for an agenda far from the ideals of light entertainment or enlightenment. But I’m guessing you’ll be hashing through some of that in future posts.

    I like the suggestions you have concerning material by dead authors, differing cultural backgrounds, and the occasional “offensive” book. I’ll be looking forward to your posts as you explore this topic and others, hoping to find suggestions to assist the not-so-literate over the next three decades. Also, I may have to move up 50 Shades into my reading list, as offensive popcorn can be a learning experience.

  58. In teaching English in Japan, I realized we actually do have a sort of “canon” in American English, though I didn’t call it that. I noticed that if you hadn’t seen certain movies, our conversations are simply loaded with references to them, and in the 34 years I’ve been away, all sorts of new idioms and words have popped up that I don’t understand at all without the help of an up-to-date slang dictionary, that strike me as having come from advertisements. There was quite a while when I was a nerd in college when if you hadn’t seen Star Wars, you didn’t know what on earth folks were talking about. Movies and TV seem to have replaced reading, but still seem to be a cultural common point that everyone, left and right, understands and chatters on about.

  59. Mr. Greer,

    The other day I was walking across the pedantically manicured lawn of the university where I study to the library. As I walked it occurred to me how, I have to assume deliberately, segregated the various departments are. The soft sciences are ensconced in two buildings on the far western edge of campus. The hard sciences have their own neighborhood on the northeast end. Of course, since nobody can stand them, the business school is kept well away from everybody else (most pointedly away from the economics department). Only slightly less reviled, so also deliberately kept at arms length, is the Comparative Literature department–its ghetto is in the old part of the university. Of course, department could be a respected and noble one if any of their professors or grad students went about their stated goal of comparing disparate literary cannons. Instead, they devote their time to policing the sexual and aesthetic tastes of the rest of the university.

    In other words, this university, with its literal billions in resources, proposes to be a collection of minds and schools working toward the curation and production of knowledge. In reality, especially amongst the Arts and Sciences, what it actually is is a collection of various departments–each with their own cannon–talking past one another. As for me, I put up with it because it’s not hurting me financially and it allows me unfettered access to the library and various other perks I cannot get elsewhere.

    Furthermore, and this speaks to your idea too, my reputation around my departments suffers as I am perceived, according to adviser, to be less of a “social scientist” and more of a “historian of ideas”– I confess I do not understand the distinction, and I’ll gladly accept the title of the latter. This, evidences your point since it is clear that such “really smart” people, outside of their areas of expertise, tend to be ignoramuses– unless, of course, they devote at least some of their spare time to reading outside their disciplines. An example of this in my department would be God(s) help you if you bring up Freud in a seminar on decision making–he’s a pseudo-scientists. But, bring up Adam Smith, or Hobbes, these are acceptable thinkers as they were proto-scientists or some other nonsense. Even worse, propose all three of them, or the Buddha, or Mary Douglas, or whomever has an interesting take on x, y, or z topic and you’ll either be ignored or excoriated.

    As for my personal canon, I found a mostly complete set of the U Chicago Great Books series in a secondhand store in Lawrence Kansas when I was 19. For the whole kit and caboodle it was something like 50 bucks. Having a vague idea of what a deal that was, I settled with the manager for 35 and some wrapping paper. I lugged the suckers all the way to the bus station and back home to Missouri. Changed my life. Naturally, the collection has been rightly criticized as being very white and male. I also question why Coleridge gets an entire volume but Wollstonecraft is only mentioned in passing. Nonetheless, without those books, and the classical liberal foundation I received, sometimes under duress, from the Jesuits I suspect my interior life would be very dull indeed.

  60. The problem is much bigger than not having a “shared set of books most of which most of us have read, thought about, and discussed.” In fact, the vast majority of people (of whatever class, ethnicity, political persuasion, generation, or other category) never or hardly ever read any book at all, certainly not voluntarily – much less not only read, but think about and discuss a book. If only the challenge were the lack of a canon. People don’t even read anything at all, canon or no.

  61. I’m not particularly suggesting it for inclusion in anybody’s canon (although it wouldn’t be the worst choice), but based on this and the previous post, I believe that you would greatly enjoy Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, if you haven’t already read it… It’s a wonderful book about the importance of literature (among other things) which has a great deal of resonance with the ideas you’ve expressed here.

  62. Hi JMG,
    as for Peter Jackson´s TLOTR movie, I agree with your assessment in respects of the story line of the film, but I think the makers have done a superb job of visualizing middle earth. One of my ínterests is photography and I couldn´t help noticing the immense richness of detail that´s gone into the artwork displayed for example in the elves´ weapons, clothing and dwellings. I also liked the way they gave every culture their distinktive overall look. The faces of the the characters are probably never going to be what one imagined while reading the book, but of course that is a weakness shared by all films based on books. I have to admit though that I never imagined the background of middle earth´s scenery and especially its cultures in that much detail.
    Frank from Germany

  63. @ Random Anomalies

    Re getting husband to read P&P

    Perhaps introduce him via Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. Or suggest that he read P&P first, then the adaption, as the (literary) humor in the latter makes much more sense if one has an understanding of the original story. I laughed out loud in public spaces when I was reading P&P&Z.

  64. When I read the part in your essay about reading literature that one finds offensive, such as the example of propaganda, I remembered what you said in the past about how ‘you imitate what you contemplate’. Your argument in this case, though, if I understand it correctly, is ‘by contemplating, you avoid imitating’.

    But I guess this only applies to reading only one channel, or direction (only reading propaganda from the far right, for example). If someone finds far right propaganda offensive and keeps reading it, they may end up imitating it. But what you’re saying is that it makes sense to read many different viewpoints, especially if they oppose each other, that one finds offensive in order to produce a moderating influence. Therefore the imitating effect is cancelled out. The ‘filter bubble’ phenomenon in today’s society is making it hard to be affected by the moderating influence of reading material from different viewpoints (a service which the education system used to provide).

    That in turn means that there is always a battle to keep on top of all the different viewpoints floating around in a society at a given time. Maybe I’m looking at this wrong, but in order to maintain a position close to the current cultural ‘truth’ of the current era, one has to be involved in a kind of arms race where one is trying to keep on top of all the intellectual and political positions which are important to that time.

    I guess that is the proper job of a culture’s scholars: people who have the time to read literature from all these viewpoints both closely and widely. But I’m hesitant writing that, because that was probably the thought behind the development of experts. Increasing complexity seems to create even more complexity.

    After your post last week about close reading, which made me realize how much of a ‘wide’ reader I am (I love reading, but I read far too many new books in comparison to books that I read again), I decided to re-read Ursula Le Guin’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. And wouldn’t you know it, to make all these bubbling thoughts prompted by your last few posts even more confusing, I found in the first set of chapters an overriding theme of ‘doing by not doing’, verses like (from Chapter 20):

    Ignorant, ignorant.
    Most people are so bright.
    I’m the one that’s dull.
    Most people are so keen.
    I don’t have the answers.
    Oh, I’m desolate, at sea,
    adrift, without harbour.

    Of course, the way as described is not the way. 🙂 But there seems to be something in common in this with what one of your commenters last week described about Socrates: that he refused to write anything down. I can’t tell if I’m attracted to these types of thoughts because I’m simply unwilling anymore to do close and wide reading because I am unwilling to spend the time doing so, or whether I now accept that the best response to increasing complexity is to slow down with what I read.

    The problem is, the only way to decide whether something was worth reading is actually to read it. But in order to put it into context to make sure you’re not being misled or simply reading something that is false, you have to read more. And the cycle continues… in the end, I suppose this is the problem that a canon is supposed to help solve.

    I would welcome your thoughts on this, if you can make sense of my ramblings!

  65. …and if you allow an anecdote from my life that was brought back to my mind by your essay: When I was round 12, I was pretending to be a Nazi and a militarist, wanting to become a general, just to provoke my leftist parents. That time we used to have a wonderful, long champagne breakfast (the term brunch was not yet invented) every Saturday….great food, laughing and discourse, sometimes with guests. One of these days my father’s eyes were wandering over the wall of books, discovering a gap between the book spines, and he asked: “Where is volume 1 of Marx’ Kapital?”

    I told him that I had borrowed it.

    He smiled brightly, saying, “What?! You old Nazi pig are reading Marx?”

    I managed to keep a straight face and said, “Sure, need to study the enemy!”

    ….those were the days….

  66. Dear random anomalies. Jane Austen did write 5 other novels. Perhaps he might like Mansfield Park, which is not at all a comedy of manners, but a study in corruption with a tacked on happy ending–required at the time for lady novelists–but not IMHO convincing. I consider it a flawed masterpiece which belongs on your shelf next to Dangerous Liaisons (sorry, I can’t recall at the moment how to spell the correct, French title) and The Golden Lotus.

    Mr. Greer, might you want to solicit nominations for cannon inclusion from your readers? Mine would include important works of history. Others here could share a list of books which might help us liberal arts types be scientifically literate.

  67. It is interesting that this conversation is so largely centering on fiction. Granted, you mentioned Euclid, but the idea of canon seems to largely concern shared narratives. Like the multi-faceted, instructive fairy tales in hunter-gatherer societies.

    Perhaps this is just a sign of the times with the scientific-reductionist zeitgeist, but the serious readers I know (and there are very few of them) mostly read non-fiction. I imagine this is because non-fiction gives tangible powers. Reading narrative spurs reflection and is subtly transformative, but it usually doesn’t teach real world skills, at least of the STEM variety.

    It is painful to note this, but I believe that it is very likely widespread literacy going extinct in the United States. Most people I know who read, which is a minority, don’t do so seriously. My sense is people don’t view reading as something sacred in its own right, but rather instrumental in acquiring knowledge and power, or a more wholesome distraction than an i-phone. This helps explain as well why Americans are so loathe to learn other languages. People care about the results, not the process. If this attitude persists I imagine we’ll be looking at dark age/failed state conditions of literacy. Sure, their will be a literati, but I imagine that will be in essence little different than the literati of a colonized territory. One could argue that these conditions already prevail today, just with the addition of wildly distributed and enormously complex communication technology in the mix.

    It is my perspective that the written word is rather more than merely an instrument to gain power over nature; I believe it is a gift of the gods and a means of communion on many levels. My thoughts can perhaps be best summed up by Israel Regardie, who writes in The Tree of Life [2006, p.136]: “Hermes is a terrestrial god, described as having invented astrology and geometry, medicine, and botany; who organized government and established the worship of the gods; he invented figures, and the letters of the alphabet, and the arts of reading, writing and oratory in all its branches.”

  68. @ Workdove, I agree very much with what you wrote. Relatedly, recently I read that in Massachusetts around one half of state and community college students struggle to eat consistently and stay housed. It would appear that the collapse is picking up speed all around.

  69. Ray Wharton expressed his worries about the size and level of difficulty of the canon if it is to reach all social classes. I would like to tell an anecdote that ties in with JMG’s Walpurgis night story!

    Goethe’s Faust (I) has about the same position in German literature that Hamlet has in English literature: you don’t get any more canon, there are many expressions that you already knew before reading it, and it’s not actually very long compared to a novel. Still, for some reason whatever, it was not on our curricula in the early 90s, not even for people who planned to study literature at university, and so my friends and I read it for ourselves in order to re-enact the Walpurgis night scene, costumes and all, on the Brocken mountain on the Eves of May 1st (that had a certain zing of newness because the wall had come down only a few years earlier).

    My best friend at the time then told me that his mother had read Faust in school. She had gone through the obligatory eight years of common school in the 50s and 60s, in then-Communist Eastern Germany for good measure, and went on to learn the trade of grocery store saleswoman. In the times before pre-packaged goods and electronic machines, that was a trade to be learned. So in fact this future grocery clerk and all her class mates had read Faust from beginning to end, and my friend told me his mother still remembered quite a bit of the plot and expressions, and was capable of discussing the meaning and importance.

  70. I think “chic lit” is far worse for women’s understanding of men than “chick flicks”, based on some anecdotal experiences. I make a point of watching the occasional chick flick films, and of reading some romance novels: in both cases I ask female friends of mine who are into them to give me recommendations. In both cases, the men act in ways that, frankly, I’ve never seen and never expect to see in real life.

    It was interesting to note that the films seemed to portray men slightly more accurately than the books, which I found odd, but I’ve recently connected it with something from a high school drama class, where there was a girl writing a script, and some of the men involved rebelled. I only heard about it second hand, and I heard plenty of contradictory stories, but what everyone agreed on was she wrote something, and one of the males in the group refused to perform what she wrote, and nearly every other male there supported him. He was fairly popular, so the way the writer and her allies portrayed it was he didn’t like the part, rebelled, and people blindly supported him. He insisted no man would behave the way she wanted him to, that it was offensive, and that was why he refused to play the part.

    It’s possible that the males involved in the creation of chick flicks may do something similar, and tone down the flight to absurdity. I have no other evidence of it, but it seems plausible.

    The other interesting thing is that women seem more open to criticism of the way the movies portray men compared to how the books portray us. It’s interesting to observe this, with women who insist “It’s entertainment” if I critique how a novel handles men being happy to acknowledge the same critiques against movies.

  71. Excellent post, as usual, John Michael.

    As you know, for the last 5 years or so I’ve been in conversation with many ecocentric authors, scholars, activists, and others in service of trying to identify and audio-record what I/we consider to be a first draft “deep sustainability” (in contrast to anthropocentric shallow environmentalism) canon.

    In addition to dead folk, we’ve also included some (such as yourself) who are still alive. All audio recordings are freely downloadable.


  72. Last spring, when I was laid up with sciatica, I spent months reading material that I, as a life-long Democrat, would not ordinarily have read. I began with an admirable book, “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America” by George Nash, and then went on to read about 10 books by a “local boy,” Russell Kirk. I was especially interested in the notion of conservative fusionism in Nash’s book, by the way. I don’t think either of these authors, especially Kirk, would have had much patience with today’s neocons. I found much to like in Kirk, actually, but still you won’t catch me voting for a republican, no matter how much I am harangued by the NRA, the pro-lifers or the other single-issue hot button issues today’s Republicans are so inclined to dwell upon. My list of favorite authors who died before I was born: Melville, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Hawthorne, Sterne, Rabelais.

  73. Nah, if you leave it up to the forces of power, chance, and money you just ensure greater losses. That is why we do not have more Elizabethan era authors to compare with Shakespeare: lack of cash and a friendly cabal. I think it ought to be felt as a duty by future scholars to remember that each pinnacle work is the mere tip of a long-ago melted iceberg, and to hoard secret lists for apprentices to view only when they have proven their worth. If the Discourses on Iron and Salt are any guide, the scholars will have need of hidden resources to meet the exigencies of being ousted from imperial favor by shrewd, calculating capitalists, border-expanding opportunists, and other furry fauna. It is quite eerie, reading about 81 BCE as characters come before you that could be stand-ins for those in present day events.

  74. A few scattered thoughts on this:

    It seems to me that young readers actually do have a sort of “canon.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I think there’s a certain set of books that you can count on any young kid whose really interested in reading to be familiar with (The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time, The Giving Tree). Then people progress from there to school, where there are a few books everyone reads in class but it’s a bit more varied, to college, where there is a canon but it all depends on the whims of your professor whether you get to read it, to adulthood, where there isn’t any shared canon at all.

    In some ways I think your absolutely right that the lack of a canon contributes to our political divide. With SJWs, for instance, they’ve probably all read a certain set of books and view them as sacred, to the point the ideas in those books have become a set of unstated assumptions. So they have their own canon that’s not open to criticism because its not acknowledged. If you want to better understand SJWs you would want to identify the books that shaped their view of the world and go read them. I can’t see this working for the other side though, because when it comes to the right, Trump supporters and the like, I don’t think their worldview comes from books. There’s a huge need for liberals to better understand working class conservatives but I don’t think their going to do it by reading any particular set of books.

    A lot of people are listing off great thinkers they admire and I just want to suggest one of my own favorites: William James. Partly I just want him to get more recognition just because he’s American and I feel like there’s a tendency among intellectuals to see all great philosophy as coming from Europe. But also there’s a great humane quality to James’s work, at least the bits I’ve read. More then nearly any other philosopher he seems to really care about his audience, like he’s really trying to speak to them and help them deal with the anxieties and uncertainties of life. (That said if there was just one 20th century philosopher I wish everyone would read it would probably be Alasdair MacIntyre.)

    If part of the purpose of a canon is to give people a shared foundation for their discussions, couldn’t light entertainment do that to some extent? Obviously not Fifty Shades of Gray or The Enemy Conquered, but sometimes light entertainment can be fodder for pretty deep discussions. For instance, the movie Avatar was obviously intended to get viewers thinking about the environment, our dependence on oil, and our relationship to nature. And for my brother and I it actually succeeded and led to some pretty interesting conversations, even though we both think Avatar is a terrible movie.

    By the way the problem with your blog is you get my mind buzzing in too many directions at once, so when I try to comment I end up writing something like this: excessively long and totally incoherent.

  75. As an avid reader and public library employee, I’m finding these recent posts quite stimulating.

    Someone mentioned their concern about people who lack interest in reading.  Although I am someone who loves to read, I don’t think it’s effective to try to force “bibliophilia” on those who simply don’t.  The desire really has to come organically from the person, or it’s going to backfire. It made me think about the delusional ways libraries try to get people to read more. My library system, like most others, has a summer reading program. I personally find it demeaning to think that you have to dangle cheap plastic prizes in front of me to motivate me to read. I also think it’s a big waste of resources and time on our part, and I’d rather have the money be spent on  quality author talks, a better collection, creating a more quiet and welcoming reading environment (free of digital distraction) etc. (which actually might have better results in creating more readers). But professionals find it unthinkable to abandon this sacred cow within libraries.

    Children and adults who read a certain (small) number of hours get rewarded with prizes.  Implicit in this rewards-based approach to me is the absurd idea that reading is an unpleasant activity one wouldn’t want to do for its own sake, that you need an ulterior motive to want to do it.  I really think the assumptions of behaviorist psychology concerning motivation are long overdue to be thrown out, but they persist in mainstream society’s assumptions about learning.  A few years ago I read Alfie Kohn’s book Punished By Rewards which critiques all these assumptions. He highlighted certain studies showing that even if dangling rewards in front of people (say, to motivate them to read) works in the short-term, in the long-term when there is absence of rewards it may have an adverse effect on the intended goal.

    While I moderately enjoyed reading during my school years, it’s really when I left school that I became a voracious and deep reader — because that’s when the desire came entirely from within, as  I experienced freedom from people trying to manipulate me to do certain things. 

  76. #Mr. Greer – I have a thought. Have you ever thought of yourself a Burkean Progressive? I know you’ve said you’re a Burkean conservative many times. But one of your underlying philosophies is using the lessons of the past to guide our journey into the future – That sounds pretty progressive to me. We’re going somewhere, we’re changing, not staying as we are. Progress isn’t good or bad it’s just change. I might have said something similar in the ADR comment section but remembering past blog lives is hard.

    You said both sides would lock you up in a heartbeat. As I was attempting to put a thoughtful answer to Darkest Yorkshire’s question, I got to thinking about how the many of the Alt-Right sources I read write-off Aspergers syndrome and call people claiming to have it as crazy, lazy, degenerate, take your pick. They put such things down so casually I almost don’t notice them doing but. It occurred to me, that’s a blazing red flag for you.

    #Ray Wharton – I think Star Wars episodes 1-6 will find their way into cannon in the long haul. The new $^#%#*# Disney is making will be tossed.

  77. Dermot, if you don’t know any trades you’re completely dependent on those who do. Slave owners and aristocrats love to sneer at the ‘rude mechanicals’ who support their whole way of life. Considering the trades ‘servile arts’ misses just how much independance they confer – the ability to work on your own house and garden, your own vehicle, to have your own business. Philosophers may talk about changing the world but it doesn’t mean much if they don’t have the skills to actually do anything to the world. Correlli Barnett wrote a book called <The Audit of War that showed how the British ruling class attitude that actually knowing how to do anything useful was a stain on a gentleman’s character, seriously hurt the war effort in WW2.

    Charles Allen, who organised training in the shipyards of WW1 and wrote The Instructor, the Man and the Job noted that trade schools often use more progressive methods than a lot of academic institutions (in the sense progressive is usually used in an educational context – more respect for the individual, more student-centred, more democratic ethos). Henry Ford famously complained how hard it was to get self-assured craftsmen to do what they were told. In Shop Class as Soul Craft Matthew Crawford makes the case that manual work is both more cognitively demanding and more satisfying than a lot of ‘knowledge work’. As someone who studied philosophy and worked both in a think tank and as a motorbike mechanic, he makes a persuasive case.

    I started out with academics and discovered the joys of manual work later, so I’m not suggesting some salt-of-the-earth manual-only ideal. I don’t know enough about it to judge, but I wonder if Booker T Washington was up to something more sophisticated than just being a pawn of white supremacy when he advocated industrial education for black Americans. You can after all become self-taught in the liberal arts in your free time much easier than you can teach yourself a trade, so it could be argued it makes sense to concentrate formal education there.

  78. @Ivan Lukic,

    As I understand JMG’s use of the term ‘canon’, the notion of a “personal canon” is a bit of an oxymoron. But yes, we all take inspiration from many sources in developing our personal reading list. Mine is stacked literally 2 feet high on my nightstand :-/

  79. @JMG and Crisispariah

    If I may, I’d like to insert a comment on Peterson and hierarchies. I have watched many hours of lectures and interviews with Peterson, and I do not at all recognise Crisispariah’s description of his ideas on hierarchy, or gender pay gap, or advice to young men. I am at work presently so can’t go searching for links, but if I could give a very rough paraphrase of what I have heard him say about hierarchies it is “Hierarchies are by no means all good, they are merely inevitable, but we must be constantly vigilant that they do not slide toward expressing tyranny rather than “competence” [competence seems to be his catch-all term for expressing a rebuttal to the idea that hierarchy is always bad and always artificial]…but as for the SJW view as hierarchy as through-and-through an expression of patriarchal tyranny, it’s just wrong, and if they had their way their solutions would be even more tyrannical”. He also talks about society being made of multiple hierarchies, every level of which is being constantly replenished. This doesn’t seem all that far away from some things our host has said, to my mind.

    As for the gender pay gap; it’s highly disingenuous to present his argument as being that efforts to equalise pay are “evil”. His view is the same as many critics of that narrative: that paying people differently for the same work is already illegal, and that inequality of income between men and women is down to a variety of reasons including life-choices and child care, for starters. If he talks about “evil” somewhere it must be in the context of his vehement distaste for what he sees as neo-marxist inspired striving for absolutist equality-of-outcome across all perceived marginalised groups, at any cost. Plenty to push back on there as he does tend over-generalise his arguments, but as said the presentation in above comments is highly unfair.

    I have not read his books, and I think he may come across very differently in writing than in speaking, so that could be a factor, but I’d be very surprised if anything he has written supports Crisispariah’s view. I’m no super-fan of the man I just have enjoyed his debating and found some lecture insights to be helpful; I thought it only fair to speak up. [I think I could be described as a super-fan of our host however :-). You’ve had way more influence on me JMG. I’m currently just about finishing World as Will and Representation as we speak].



  80. JMG and Frank,

    I was inspired to post for two reasons. One is that this blog has been an incredible source of sanity for me ever since taking a job a year ago at one of the “premier” public universities in the United States, and coming to the horrifying conclusion that the situation here (and in our universities in general) is so much worse than even the worst right wing hit pieces written about this place. We are doomed if we continue on this way. I’m so relieved others can see it.

    Secondly, I used to be a terrible “reading” snob, and would look down my nose at non-readers. More than 20 years ago I bought my now husband a copy of “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” as a birthday present (he is a motorcyclist). He’s never even cracked the book, and hasn’t read a book since I have met him, he just hates reading. I was horrified, but learned a valuable lesson in life. Do I dare say, don’t judge a book by it’s cover?. He is the most intelligent, loving, kind person I have ever met, can do absolutely anything. He’s a literal MacGyver in the flesh. And he doesn’t need to read books to have extreme empathy and understanding of others. There’s just something that makes reading physically and mentally challenging for him. But in the case of a zombie apocalypse, you’ll want him on your team.

  81. Your Yoyo, I beg to differ with you on the primacy of meaning of word over delivery of speaker, and propose a modest test:
    Pick your favored political character-Pres. Trump, Pres. Obama, or another-of the last couple decades. Might as well be one you genuinely enjoy, or enjoy hating, rather than one who gives you the cold grues. Find a speech in both video and transcript. Watch the video, then read the transcript. What do you observe?

    My observation is that video as primary medium of consumption of political speeches has neatly returned us to the pre-print days of speech making. Delivery is all, the verbal content can be matched by the average three-year-old!

    In regards to the matter of literary canon, I think Stranger in a Strange Land will eventually be dropped. It is simply not ground-breaking or engaging enough to be a really good representation of science fiction at it’s best. While I’m not a huge fan of short stories, I expect an anthology such as The World Turned Upside Down, or an author like Keith Laumer who works on more levels and manages to be funny as well as overturn social norms, with his Retief stories, will be the prefered canon. Or possibly Asimov’s David Starr books or Caves of Steel.

    I think the current canons are determined by the circle one runs in. Everybody has read certain books if they home school, and we hand them quickly to new home schoolers. Gatto, Wise Bauer, Mason, Sayers . . . I see the ongoing book club here as a very similar thing, a canon of magic. There’s a canon of feminist science fiction, which includes Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood (family keeps giving me them, when I prefer riproaring space opera).

    American Canon should include Ben Franklin’s autobiography, The Fedralist Papers, Mark Twain (I rather favor Huckleberry Finn over Tom Sawyer), in my opinion, as well as Ralph Moody and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

  82. Hi Darkest Yorkshire,

    Having recently inherited a house, I have started learning how to make basic repairs!

  83. Carlos, I don’t see a canon as a model of the environment. If it’s a model, it’s a model of diverse ways to approach any environment. I don’t ever expect to live in a Dark Age society and do battle with monsters, but the ways of thinking modeled in Beowulf can be applied helpfully to many environments that lack swords and monsters.

    Pogonip, well, there you are. De gustibus non disputandum est!

    Yoyo, Havelock’s one of the people who influenced this idea of mine. The point he’s trying to make, as I understand it, is that in oral communication, the words are never found outside the context of the whole oral communicative act; they never stand alone, and so much of their meaning comes from social framing, vocal and postural cues, and all the other nonverbal dimensions of speech. It’s been estimated that in a face to face oral conversation, only ten per cent of the communication that takes place is expressed in words; as someone with Aspergers syndrome, which gets in the way of perceiving all that nonverbal communication, I believe it! So (among people who aren’t Aspies, at least) it’s only when we get to silent reading that the words can be experienced all by themselves, as carriers of abstract meaning outside of the other 90% of oral communication.

    Heinrich, an excellent point. One of the great benefits of reading things that offend you is that it helps avoid the kind of simplistic stereotypes of the Other that people on both sides of the political divide tend to cling to.

    AMark, yep, that’s one; the Harvard Classics, which I own, is another. I have a daydream of someday doing something along these lines — I’ll talk about that in a future post.

    Anomalies, I wonder if the whole thing is just a marketing gimmick. What respect I had for public media has mostly trickled away as I’ve watched them toeing the corporate line over and over again…

    Christopher, fascinating. I found the first volume of The Kingkiller Chronicles all but unreadable — I made it only a short way in before setting it down permanently — which is of course the sort of variation one expects between readers!

    Ray, and both those sets of reflections are important in the formation of a canon.

    Hapigreenman, you’re welcome.

    Ivan, those are certainly good places to start!

    Workdove, people keep insisting that print is dead. Guess what? Printed books keep selling. My books sell substantially more copies in paper forms than in e-book formats. As for movies, I’d encourage you to go back and reread my explanation of what a canon is; the fact that some bit of pop culture is shared by many people doesn’t make it serve the function I described.

    Frank, no problem; I think there’s been a software upgrade — meaning that useful features have been removed and new bugs added.

    Drhooves, many, many people have always been functionally illiterate. The number of people in any society who read regularly once they’re finished with their schooling has never been high. That’s why, again, a canon is introduced in school, so that it can provide some kind of common ground even among people who will never open a book once they leave the classroom.

    Patricia O, yes, but that only fulfills one of the functions of a canon, that of producing a familiar basis for chatter…

    Millennial, I find that these days American universities do so perfect a job of demonstrating everything wrong with modern ways of approaching knowledge that it’s hard not to wonder sometimes if someone’s paid them to do so! The fetishistic veneration for that word “science” is part of that, and will get discussion in due time…

    Mike, er, as I’ve said over and over again, that’s why you introduce it in school, where a passing grade depends on making the effort to do some reading and thinking.

    Dunc, thanks for the recommendation! I’ll consider it.

    Frank, fair enough. I’m not especially visual in my thinking, so that aspect of the films may have been wasted on me.

    Jbucks, exactly. In the best of all worlds, you start with a solid education that introduces you to a meaningful canon, and also to basic intellectual tools such as logic; you then read a wide range of writings from different viewpoints, so no one of them dominates your thinking; you then think about things yourself and make your decisions about the issues that matter to you. Of course it’s a never-ending process, but that’s true of life in general!

    Heinrich, funny! Thank you for that.

    Nastarana, that might be something to do over at the Green Wizards forum.

    Violet, I’m focusing on fiction here precisely because that’s the most vulnerable branch of writing just now, and it could use the support and encouragement. We’ll broaden the discussion as this sequence of posts continues.

    Matthias, I’m appalled to hear that Goethe’s Faust is no longer being taught in German schools! I suppose it was inevitable that the rot would spread…

    Will, I certainly grant that women’s fictional portrayals of men are bizarrely unreal, but I’m sure the women among my readership will be happy to explain to you that men’s fictional portrayals of women are just as bizarrely unreal! It really does cut both ways.

    Michael, thank you — but again, this isn’t a canon in the sense I’m giving to the word, you know.

    Phutatorius, excellent! I also found Kirk very much worth reading.

    Gkb, and you’re also entitled to express that opinion, of course. Since your opinion is merely that — your opinion — and nobody else is obliged to follow it, any more than anyone is obliged to follow mine, why, this is simply another example of the way that a canon is contested.

    Warren, light entertainment can certainly give people something to talk about; so can sports — “How about them Patriots?” et al. It’s the other dimensions of a canon that get left out when there’s nothing around to ground conversation but visual media, or for that matter football.

    Beneaththesurface, oh, granted. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for children — I’ve seen kids drawn into reading by some such bribery, and end up falling in love with reading — but for teens and adults, yeah, it misses the point.

    Austin, I’m not a progressive because I don’t believe in progress. My view of history is cyclical, not linear, and I see change as a matter of repeating familiar patterns in new forms. As for the alt-Right, yeah, that’s one of the issues, though it’s only one.

    Morfran, fair enough. As I noted in response to Crisispariah, I don’t follow Peterson or any of the other controversy-seeking pundits, and was going purely on what Crisispariah had to say.

    Tude, I hear the same thing from pretty much everyone I know who works in the academic industry. I hope you’ve prepared a fallback plan if your university job goes away; the economics of the academic industry are very fragile just now, and it wouldn’t take much to cause cascading bankruptcies and mass layoffs across university systems…

  84. @Justin Patrick Moore

    Thank you ever so much. That is exactly what I was looking for. He probably won’t buy it, but it’s worth a shot.

    As to Charlotte Bronte, I do highly recommend Jane Eyre. It’s surprisingly light-hearted for most of it, but not in the fluffy way people associate with Jane Austen’s works (they’re wrong, of course). I also like the fact that the gothic stuff isn’t nearly as overwrought as what Emily came up with in Wuthering Heights. I’m afraid I wanted to push the main characters in that one off a cliff…

  85. Courtesy of Merriam-Webster:

    What is the difference between cannon and canon?

    Cannon and canon are occasionally confused by writers, but the two words have independent origins, and do not share a meaning. Cannon is most frequently found used in the sense of “a large gun,” and can be traced to the Old Italian word cannone, which means “large tube.” Canon, however, comes from the Greek word kanōn, meaning “rule.” Although canon has a variety of meanings, it is most often found in the senses of “a rule or law of a church,” “an accepted rule,” or “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works.” A loose cannon is “a dangerously uncontrollable person or thing.” There are no loose canons.

    When canon is spelled cannon I always get a mental image of a cannon in the act of firing, and this does not aid understanding, even if it is sometimes hilarious. I suppose one could fire a canon from a cannon, though.

  86. I suspect that there are a number if reasons for dislike of reading. First would be any neurological or physical problem that makes it more difficult than average. For example, my nephew had a problem with his eyes that made tracking across the page difficult. It was corrected, but he had already acquired a dislike of reading because it was associated in his mind with failure and disgrace. Eventually his older brother tutored him and he was able to read well enough to pass the contactors exam. Dyslexia and so for the would be other examples.

    Second, some children, boys especially, are not ready to read at 5 or younger. By 7 or 8 they are ready, but reading has now been something that made them feel like failures for 2 years, so they never develop a liking for it.

    Thirdly, there appear to be some people who do not ‘see’ the action as they read–no internal pictures develop, so the reading of fiction is just not as much fun. This would also apply to they type of non-fiction that could be ‘filmed’ like a travel narrative or history.

  87. Oh, yes, entirely my own opinion. Had it been anyone else’s I would have adduced a citation. I may be a poor* scholar, but I am an honest one! I do not expect anyone, least of all you as host, to feel compelled to act based on my wishes. I merely express my ideals, since I am too lazy at the moment to work up the notion into a story. It has a nagging sort of potential though…
    — — —
    * Used in both senses, dollared and dullard.

  88. I object to Warren’s characterization of Trump supporters as being basically illiterate. That is another stereotype pushed by the liberal side to justify their contention that Hillary should have been president. After all, you wouldn’t want stupid know-nothings having a say in electing the current occupant of the White House.

  89. Sorry for yet another comment – reading old books is very dear to my heart… Some weeks ago we discussed in the comments Peter Wickham’s book “The Inheritance of Rome”. Nobody seemed to be really fond of it, though I found relevant information there. After that discussion, I read the conclusions of the book and found the following personal statement by the author:

    “For, of course, the early Middle Ages was very unlike twenty-first-century western Europe, in which I am writing. Current values, such as liberalism, secularism, toleration, a sense of irony, an interest in the viewpoints of others, however skin-deep in our own society, were simply absent then, or at best only vestigially present, as indeed they have been absent from most of the societies of the past…

    I have amused myself while writing this book by trying to identify which, if any, late antique or early medieval writers (that is, those whose personality we can recapture, at any rate in part, with least mediation) I could imagine meeting with any real pleasure. It comes down to remarkably few: Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Gregory the Great, Einhard, maybe Braulio of Zaragoza and, with less enthusiasm, Augustine, for his remarkable intelligence and self-awareness, however not for his tolerance.”

    Now I can understand that a conversation with somebody from between 400 and 1000 CE (Wickham’s time-frame) would not be as easygoing as with some contemporaries, but I am indeed a bit astonished that he says he would not feel real pleasure to talk with more than these four to five men, and maybe that is why his book feels less lively. I would certainly feel an enormous honor and satisfaction to speak with people like Columban, Boethius, with the anonymous author of Beowulf, with, yes, Augustine of Hippo, Ambrosius, Origen, Gregory of Nazanz, John Philoponus, al-Khwarizmi and many others.

  90. Responding to Morfran: I don’t really want to get into a long debate about Jordan Peterson, and I don’t think Ecosophia is exactly the same person-to-person debate forum that the old ADR eventually became. I agree, as JMG responds to you, that if my assessment of Peterson is inaccurate, then his response to me is also less than accurate. “G.I.G.O.” … From my point of view JMG illuminated the question quite well, thank you Mr. Greer; and I don’t actually expect JMG to respond to this comment, nor to watch the linked vids nor wade further into a debate.

    So I will try to keep things brief… but just to cite my sources…

    I suppose I owe Peterson an apology. He didn’t _actually_ use the word “Evil” regarding equal pay laws; he only said it was “pathological” and “not good”. This link sends the viewer directly to the relevant portion:
    The Fatal Flaw in Leftist American Politics

    Like you, Morfran, I haven’t read his entire written works, (although I’ve read many excerpts by now.) So I have missed any indication, so far, that Peterson believes hierarchies are — or should be — changing/replenished. My other comments about Peterson’s view of hierarchy came largely from here: Inequality and Hierarchy Give Life Its Purpose

    All these links consist of no commentary or distortion by others, but simply Peterson talking into the camera.

    I am always wrong when I put words into JMG’s mouth… but I can’t help wondering whether JMG could even get through the first fifty seconds of this video without falling off his chair:
    Good and Evil
    Y.M.M.V. (Your Mileage May Vary), but what I hear in that last interview is a tremendous amount of Manichean dualism a.k.a. binary thinking; anthropocentrism; and Western religious baggage, all packed into a very short space. His fans are always praising Peterson’s ability to transmit dense and complex ideas… well, I have to agree on that point at least! 😉

  91. You’ve been given a pretty inaccurate representations of Peterson’s views. While he certainly is closer to the opposite end of the spectrum on hierarchy from the SJWs, his position is not the opposite of theirs. Elements within the alt right – traditionalists, monarchists, neo-Nazis etc – are where you find the precise mirror image of the SJW on hierarchy.

    He does not at all view equal pay for women as evil. The wage gap debate has degenerated into nonsense so the devil is in the definition of equal pay here. An airline was required to publish staff average earnings broken down by gender. ‘Shocked’ media headlines proclaim the horror that this misogynist company pays men more than women. People who try to point out that part of the explanation might have something to do with the fact that most men employed by the airline are pilots while most women are stewardesses, that more of the women work part time and more of the men overtime, and that the cause of such differences might not be entirely The Patriarchy, are accused of opposing equal pay for women. That’s the game and that’s all it is. If someone wants to call that manipulative game evil then I’m not going to quibble although it seems a little Voldemort.

    The overwhelming majority of his advice is theurgy. He explains films like Pinocchio and the Lion King as initiation stories and uses the story of Cain to explain the psychology of resentment, school shooters and what not to do when your life seems unfair compared to your brother’s… To the extent that he does offer thaumaturgic advice, it’s offered free in his lectures, no one has to pay for it. And of all the varieties of thaumaturgy out there it’s really pretty harmless stuff. ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ is not exactly The Game territory.

    One can agree or disagree about his interpretation of various archetypes but the idea that he’s manipulating them, presumably to push his secret evil agenda of getting women back in the kitchen or the usual, is nonsense. It is of course impossible to disprove that claim, but then that’s always the point of attacking someone’s motives rather than their argument.

    I don’t think he does go out of his way to court controversy although I think he’s sometimes careless in his words especially on social media. He conducted most of his career in obscurity until the trans pronouns issue arose so he doesn’t fit the profile of a professional attention seeker. He says his motivation to speak up at that point was that he had begun to see therapy clients who were being bullied at work by SJW crybullies and he viewed that trend as the insidious beginnings of the type of totalitarianism that he spent much of his career studying so decided he had a responsibility to speak out.

    The way it works is not that different to when you were witch-hunted for darkly suspicious mutterings about Spengler. If you had happened to trigger the world of trans activism instead you could easily have found yourself in his shoes regardless of your intentions. In the noisiest of trans activists circles today, suggesting that it’s not transphobic for lesbians to not want to give oral sex to a transwoman with a penis would be considered to be courting controversy.

    I don’t agree with him on everything, far from it. I would rather not need to say that, but it’s common for people who object to misrepresentations of him to be accused of being some kind of cult member/fanboy obsessive.

    But I think he and others like him are signs that the Second Religiosity is coming. He’s reached many formerly militant atheists who now get it about insisting on the literal meaning of, say, Bible stories. I haven’t seen much sign of fundamentalist religious people who follow him moving away from literalism but the world certainly has fewer dogmatic atheists in it as a result of his work. He also brings together psychology and religion without reducing the latter to a mere precursor to psychology. He’s clear that there’s much more to human mythology than that. His politics are only a small part of what he actually does but they get disproportionate attention in the current insane climate.

  92. My personal opinion would demand the inclusion of Walden and The Odyssey in any canon I had a hand in creating. And I’d be surprised if something from our beloved JMG didn’t make it into at least somebody’s canon in the future—perhaps that of the Lakeland Republic. But what title will it be? I’d put my money on The Long Descent or Green Wizardry, but only time will tell!

    As far as reading the canon, it’s something I’ve thought about before, but never with the caveat that it must be done silently and solitarily. That part makes me wonder.

    I bought a youth version of the Odyssey for the purpose of reading aloud to my children. My own father read aloud The Lord of the Rings books to me as a child. Will they be missing out? Did I miss out? I confess I never went back and read Tolkien for myself, especially since the movies came out! But I do have a vague sense that my recollection of the tale is rather flat, especially when I hear you and other commenters on this blog wax nostalgic about it from time to time. It’s not very vivid in my memory, but that could just be I was too young to grasp it in full.

    (Hmmm…. apparently Matthias seems to think so….)

  93. My librarian wife particularly enjoyed this piece. She mentioned “50 Shades of Gray” just before we got to that part…got a good laugh.

    PBS has just published “The Great American Read.” A list of 100 books we should all read. Starts off with “1984” and ends on “Wuthering Heights.” Disappointed to see that my current reader, Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” was not on it…oh well, it’s a cracking good read all the same, and I can’t say that I agree with that many of their picks. In fact, I downright despise some of them. The “Left Behind” series??

    You can find it at if interested.

    Fortunately, she and I have spent considerable effort (and some money) trying to build a family library of literary classics for posterity. Our J.M. Greer section is probably larger than most!

    Cheers, good sir.

  94. Dear Mr. Greer – Do you think some things should be read for “cultural literacy? I think of The Bible (or Shakespeare to use another example) are useful to read because they are referenced so often in not only writing, but also just in passing speech.

    Sometimes, a book doesn’t catch my fancy. But I discover that it’s still being referred to, years later. So, I think, “Hmmm. Maybe I should pick up a copy and take a look.” Lew

  95. HI JMG,

    Yeah, now that I think about it, you’re absolutely right – there have always been many functionally illiterate people out there. I guess maybe I should have expanded on that a bit, as now there any many well-educated people who, if not functionality illiterate, are functionality illogical. Just this past week I ran into a buzzsaw of protest over some fiction I was discussing, and while one would hope that all things are possible (and allowed) in that category, apparently my work was not PC. Ah, well.

    If relying on a canon to be introduced in the education system (makes sense), my first impression is that the timeline of several decades appears aggressive. I’m used to thinking changes are coming faster than most of your predictions, so I’m confused thinking it may take longer.

    I will pass on, and give credit to, the suggestions you’ve made about reading content. I’ve already made numerous suggestions to people about the need to read dead authors and shut off the TV, with limited results. But I do get a sense there is a bit of an anti-technology movement growing (ie, “DeleteFaceBook), and perhaps that can be channeled to get some others going down the path of “right” technology, critical thinking, and some day, a new and blessed canon of literature to build on.

  96. Anomalies (if I may), my wife heartily agrees with you about Wuthering Heights! I haven’t read it myself, as i have a very limited taste for that sort of thing.

    Pygmycory, good. I tend to have fun punning off the difference between canon and cannon (thus my wisecrack about “canon fodder” in the post), but of course you’re quite right.

    Rita, that seems reasonable enough.

    Gkb, fair enough.

    Danae, I’d tend to agree with you. Very often in American society today, when somebody uses words like “literate” and “intelligent” they’re using them as euphemisms for “belonging to the privileged classes.”

    Matthias, that’s an extremely revealing statement on Wickham’s part. Where Terence said, “I am human, and I hold that nothing human is foreign to me,” Wickham’s saying, “I don’t want to talk to anybody who doesn’t share my outlook on the world.” That’s common enough these days, but it’s crushingly narrow-minded — and it’s all the funnier that he includes tolerance in the list of things he supposedly values!

    Dot, so noted! As I’ve commented before, I read mostly books by dead people, and I find video very uncongenial, so I don’t pay a lot of attention to Peterson — or to most of the other currently fashionable pundits, for that matter. Those who interest me are by and large those who, as I do, get roughly equal amounts of flak from the left and the right. 😉

    Blue Sun, my praise of silent reading doesn’t imply a condemnation of reading aloud! Those are both valid and praiseworthy approaches to experiencing a book; it’s just that they have very different effects on the mind of the one who experiences them.

    Tripp, glad to hear it.

    Lew, a canon is one core ingredient in cultural literacy, so yes.

  97. Workdove, for what it’s worth, I was born in 1988 and haven’t seen any of those except (I think) The Shining. Possibly I have just seen so many movie posters of Jack Nicholson with the axe that I think I’ve seen the actual movie–I can’t quite remember. I did actually enjoy the book, though, in a popcorn way. I don’t know how much of an anomaly I am–maybe everyone else really has seen them.

  98. Personally, I would nominate “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (a sonnet I have by heart):

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    People might not have been so easily duped into worshipping at the altar of Progress if that had remained part of the canon, methinks!

  99. Did my last comment disappear or did you delete it? I’m not sure why it would be deleted, but if I over stepped a line, I would like to apologize.

  100. Archdruid,

    Coming from a country where we have both an oral tradition and written tradition, I have to say the canon exists in both. It’s one of those weird things that when you’ve heard a story enough times you begin to pick up the whole range of communication, both verbal and non-verbal, of the story teller until it becomes a part of you. At a certain point the story isn’t coming from the teller but from the culture as a whole. I don’t know how to explain it, but having experienced I can tell you its a weird phenomenon.



  101. JMG & friends,
    The link to the NPR “Great American Read” brought to mind a lesson which I have to relearn every so often: if NPR is promoting a book, I won’t like it. This was brought most forcefully to mind about 6 or 8 years ago, where every show seemed to have an interview with the author of “On Ch***l Beach”. I took it out of the library, read it, and promptly forgot it. About 6 months later, I won a raffle of a box of books, including “On Ch***l Beach”. I read it again, having forgotten that I had previously read it. On second reading, it became clear why it was offensive drivel, which hadn’t been sufficiently driven home on first reading. So you’re right in a way: important books are needful of second or even more readings, even if “On Ch***l Beach” was to drive the point home to stay away from the books which our betters want us to read.
    In the canon: I reread War and Peace from time to time. The best part is that my grandfather’s grandfather’s brother was in the Grand Armee, (one of the 10% who made it back), and I can just imagine him lost in the same smoke and confusion and noise at Borodino as Pierre. A link to a time and place and family.
    I also reread The Long Goodbye again and again. It may be popcorn to some, but for me it’s the best tale of what a man will do for friendship, as well as how to make a good cup of coffee.
    I never read Buddenbrooks: I found the Magic Mountain plodding enough. Speaking of plodding and tendentious, I tried to read Mein Kampf in your challenge to read something by a person one detested several years ago……. I gave up after about 100 pages.

  102. Matthias: for early medieval literature, I found “The Venerable” Bede to be lively, readable, and in general, a good read. Also the biography of Alfred the Great – did you know he was also an inventor? The hour candle first, then the candle lantern.

    “The Venerable” is in quotes because, whole it really means “respect-worthy,” it tends to conjure up the image of a dusty old greybeard. Wrong! So wrong!

    Also Aelfric the Grammarian’s Angle-Saxon take on the Bible stories. Especially Judith; with Holofernes putting the moves on her in his own meadhall, and a very realistic-seeming view of the difficulties a young woman might have in cutting off a grown man’s head Especially with an Iron Age sword.

    OH, and also a good translation of poems like The Wall, and The Wanderer

  103. @Danae:

    People who think Trump supporters are illiterate most likely don’t know any. I guess I get it. If one lives in a hip, liberal, urban setting, and mostly spends their social hours hurling insults across the yawning chasm that separates the two worlds, one might come to believe that theirs is the real world, and the other a mere characiture of a happily bygone era.

    It simply isn’t so. I live in a red county in North Georgia, where 85% of the electorate turned out to vote in November ’16, and 85% of them voted for Trump. These people are business owners, teachers, computer programmers, run the local jiu jitsu dojo, live off-grid in tiny houses, read and enjoy the classics, and can discuss them intelligently. One of my Trump-voting buddies absolutely adores Moby Dick, for heaven’s sake! Quequeg this and Quequeg that…drives me crazy.

    But I can’t hold a candle to his literary acumen, and the more time I spend with “those people” the more embarrassed I become that I ever bad-mouthed them.

  104. Blue Sun, nobody is too young for the big stories! My father read TLOR to me until Weathertop, where I got afraid. Some years later I read it alone. One of my first books contained children’s versions of Gilgamesh, Shanameh, the Trojan War, the Aeneid, Beowulf and the Nibelungs. I also had a Bible. All of these books are much more accessible to a child than Thomas Mann, or Henry James, I suppose… And they weren’t obligatory, which makes a huge difference.

  105. What I mean when I say “personal canon” is that we all have to make a choice using canon, we can not read all the books from the canon during our life. It does not mean that we should invent the canon from the scratch.

  106. I have to concede that there isn’t currently an American canon, by your definition. Classwork is structured for one-time or even fractional reading; discussion happens mostly in book clubs. We have a rough consensus on what are canon should be, but our behavior toward those works isn’t what you describe.

    There’s an American songbook of “standards” that get this treatment, and something very like a body of canonical films, but these media aren’t geared to foster metanoia in quite the same way, maybe because they are more immediate.

    >run with a better educated (or older) set of Americans

    Both quite possible: I’ve felt more comfortable with the 50+ crowd than my own generation, ever since I was in kindergarten, and many of my co-workers have advanced degrees. I also run with some schooled-but-uneducated Americans, for what it’s worth.

    This raises a follow-up question: I was working from the understanding that there have been periods in history when a canon has existed, despite there being a large proportion of the society whose training couldn’t properly be called an education, but maybe I’m wrong there.

    >most people read it repeatedly, discuss it, and think about it in the course of their educations

    Now that I read what you’ve written again, this could be interpreted to mean that no canon can exist unless a majority of the population is both literate and educated; my first reading of it included an inference that people who don’t regularly read for their own purposes, don’t count among the number necessary for the existence of a canon.

    So in my strictest reading of your definition, Sparta might have had a canon, but only to the extent that it didn’t count Helots as people. That doesn’t seem right, based on your comments, but neither does my original, more liberal definition; was your original intent somewhere in between?

  107. You probably wouldn’t find much new of value in what he lectures on anyway. He’s a big believer in Progress in economic and technological terms and I think he views monotheism as progress beyond polytheism.

    The criticism he gets seems disproportionate for a few reasons. One is that although he’s a classical liberal by any sane definition of the term, today that makes him closer to the far right so he does actually get less criticism from the right. Another is he doesn’t take the trouble you do to criticize left and right equally when he discusses politics. That’s at least in part because the people bringing garrottes to his talks are not the far right and that would influence most people’s priorities. But in his lectures on the psychological roots of totalitarianism he does treat left and right equally. He spends as much time on Hitler as on Stalin.

    Thirdly, the actual far right mostly hate him but that’s not publicized because it doesn’t fit the narrative that he’s a fascist (and because most mainstream media are under firm instructions not to give the far right any publicity – which is working out just great…). They hate him for opposing them on the Jewish question and white identity politics and for espousing basically civic nationalism. They view people like him as controlled opposition. So the impression you would get from most sources about unbalanced criticism is partly accurate but also skewed for political reasons.

  108. Hi John Michael,

    Great stuff and an excellent suggestion! Culture wars are a drama and have real world impacts. I often wonder about the claim made down here by some politicians that the car industry down could not be supported by the government and tax payers money when it employed something like a quarter of a million people, and yet at the same time I see tax free treatment for some already wealthy segments of the population at a cost that is between five and fifty times more than the car industry ever took. I enjoy working with my hands and physically producing something, but that is considered a low status achievement by the current big guns in the culture wars. It won’t end well. Incidentally as an off topic, but really notable milestone: Petrol (what you call gas) a few days ago hit $1.58/litre here (there are 3.8 litres to the gallon, so that makes it $6/gallon).

    As far as I can understand the world, there are plenty of disappointments – and encountering folk who have a better grasp of the English language, is one such! I applaud those people and their command of the gentle but very effective skills of the wordsmith! 😀 Words have sometimes changed the course.

    Mate, I intersperse serious and very heavy works of non-fiction with total literary fluff. Even the literary fluff has merit and can school a person in language skills as well as basics such as how to tell an engaging story. Life would be rather dull if all we were able to read were heavy tomes of non-fiction. Hehe!

    I hope nobody votes for J.D. Salinger’s work: “The Catcher in the Rye” in the Canon. I was forced to read that drivel in High School and even back then all I could think about was giving Holden Caulfied a resoundingly solid thump to the head with my left fist. The right fist could not have been used as it probably would have seriously injured him as he was such a weak character. Oh, sorry Robert E. Howard’s character “Sailor Stephen Costigan” temporarily took control of my brain. You really do have to be careful who you let in there… 😀



  109. @ Random Anomalies –

    I’m a bit late to the discussion, but I second picking up a copy of ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ at your local library. It’s a quick read which I enjoyed, and it could have the effect you want for two reasons: First, the generous helping of cheese breaks up the… I’ll say stuffyness… of the original setting. Since a lot of Austin’s dialogue made it into the parody, it combines highbrow and lowbrow humour, in a way that leaves one wanting more of the former. Handy if you have a copy of the original then. The second reason is a bit more subtle and harder to describe precisely, but I would guess that many men, your husband and myself included, simply don’t engage on an emotional level with fiction where the primary conflict is of a romantic nature. Austin’s brilliant dialogue allows intellectual engagement, which I suspect is why it’s popular with people who normally can’t stand the genre. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, despite being set during a zombie apocalypse, is still ultimately about the same awkward courtship the original centred on. I found it made my mind go ‘Elizabeth’s more concerned about Mr Darcy than the zombie threat? I guess I should pay attention to it if it’s that important!’

  110. Hi John Michael,

    Almost forgot to mention. One aspect of a taste for diverse sources of reading is that you can get a feel for what an authors intention may indeed be. At the moment I am reading Eli Rogosa’s outstanding book on Heritage Grains. It is an important subject which should concern most of us, although Sara may feel otherwise and she would be right to feel that way. I hope that her health is good in your new digs?

    Anyway, back to the book. The author tracks the history of grains in agriculture and I must say that it is equal parts: flight of fancy; fascinating historical story; and solid agenda seeking. If I had not read widely and diversely, I would not have been able to see the general thrust of the authors agenda in that section of the book.

    What do you reckon about, hmm, how do they put it? Reading between the lines?



  111. I think a ‘gateway canon’ would be a good idea. I was your typical intellectual mesomorph, never reading anything of value until I stumbled upon C.S. Lewis. Then like others have mentioned I started reading everything he read. I started with G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, St. Augustine, Chaucer, etc. He was my gateway, I don’t know what other authors would have had the same effect, but certainly if I had attempted “City of God”, by Augustine first, I would have been dead in the water.

    Lewis agreed with the concept of chronological snobbery, suggesting we “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds”. And “the task of a modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

    Did you have a gateway guide, or watershed author?

  112. Patricia
    Black Range Tales-that’s a rather obscure book. I happened to be reading a copy at the time JMG asked us to read something from before the 20th century. I have done research on Charles McKenna, and a member of the McKenna-Lynch branch of the family lent me his copy. Yes, his views on Indians, and his language, would be offensive today. On the other hand they were repeatedly attempting to kill him…

  113. JMG,

    Apparently this year the University of Oklahoma offered a class in canonical western literature that was very successful. It was modelled on one taught by W. H. Auden in 1941. The article is subscription only unfortunately but this blog has an extract from it:

    “Auden’s course, “Fate and the Individual in European Literature,” had 6,000 pages of reading, writes Mark Bauerlein in The Chronicle of Higher Education…

    The Divine Comedy in full, four Shakespeares, Pascal’s Pensées, Horace’s odes, Volpone, Racine, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, Faust, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Kafka, Rilke, T.S. Eliot. Auden even included nine operas. Opera in the 1940s was a popular art form, with millions of people tuning in each week to the Met’s Saturday broadcast, but it’s hard to imagine anything less consonant with millennials’ attention span than one of Wagner’s Teutonic enormities. Auden assigned three of them….

    The Auden-based course at Oklahoma is a small but significant instance of how it may be done. Western-canon talk offends many people in the humanities these days, the few faculty traditionalists often contesting the progressive orthodoxy….

    I advise the traditionalists to try the Oklahoma way. Design your Western-civ or Great Books course and ramp it up to Auden levels. Be frank about the reading challenge. Boast of the aged, uncontemporary nature of the materials. Highlight the old-fashioned themes of greatness, heroism and villainy, love and betrayal, God and Truth, and say nothing against intersectionality and other currencies. Your antagonists are mediocrity, youth culture, presentism, and the disengagement of professors and students. You occupy a competitive terrain, and your brand is Achilles, Narcissus, the Wyf of Bath, Isolde, and Bigger. Let’s see what happens. Let the undergrads decide.”

    Crisispariah, I really don’t know how you watched those videos and came away with the understanding that you seem to have. There’s even a full transcript underneath one and a summary and partial transcript under another to make it easier.

    Do you genuinely believe that he said he opposes equal pay laws? Did you miss the entire point about policies aiming at equality of outcome vs. those aiming at equality of opportunity? That’s not exactly a new or obscure debate in politics.

    What he said, transcribed word for word, is this: “An example of equality of outcome is attempts being made now to implement the legislative necessity to eliminate the gender pay gap.” That’s slightly garbled grammatically but it’s clear what he means. I explained above that what one side means by “the gender pay gap” is not at all what most ordinary people imagine it to mean. It certainly has nothing to do with equal pay laws (which every western country has had for many years if not decades). That’s why there aren’t constant class action lawsuits against every airline, or engineering company, for paying their male employees on average more than their female ones. Most, though not all, of the so-called gender pay gap is the manipulation of statistics in service of a particular ideology.

    Now if you want to claim that opposition to laws aiming at equality of outcome IS opposition to equal pay laws then you would need to actually make that argument. Especially since he explicitly states in the same video that he fully supports equality of opportunity. People can and do argue that that distinction is wrong and that equality of opportunity must not exist if outcomes are ‘unequal’. That’s an honest and reasonable debate. Misrepresenting the view of those who do make that distinction is not honest debate.
    You say you haven’t read his entire written works. It’s been said so many times now that most of his work is not written. It’s contained in probably hundreds of thousands of hours of video lectures on youtube. Much of his political stuff is contained in video interviews. But this is irrelevant if the real problem is people listening to or reading the same thing and coming away with entirely different understandings.

    The headline of the second video is misleading. If you watch many youtube clips you’ll be aware that it’s very common that the person making the video doesn’t choose the title, much as journalists don’t choose their headlines, editors do, and journalists are frequently unhappy with the choices they make. Some group called The Big Think published that video and would have chosen the title.

    He says clearly in that video that not having any aim deprives your life of purpose and therefore meaning. The corollary is that he is claiming that it is having an aim (or values, as he says later) which gives life purpose and meaning (he’s gone into that in detail elsewhere but again you don’t need to know that to comprehend his statement here).

    He then says that hierarchy and inequality inevitably result from having an aim. Obviously, a person who chooses earning lots of money as their highest aim has by doing so created a hierarchy in which all other goals are subordinated to earning money. He also claims that it produces a hierarchy involving other people in which some are better at your chosen aim than you are. I suspect he’s mostly referring to career-type goals here rather than, say, relationship, diet or spiritual ones, because the video has a strongly political context.

    It’s easy to see why clickbait-minded editors would turn those statements into “Inequality and hierarchy give life its purpose”, it’s harder to see how any reasonably literate person who actually listened to the video could somehow hear that.

    I won’t take up more off topic space here for the last video except to say that he rarely gets accused of Manichean dualism when analysing the yin and yang symbol, of Western religious baggage when deriving concepts of good governance from Egyptian myths, or of anthropocentrism when interviewing the guy trawling the oceans to get rid of the plastics. But maybe you haven’t noticed your own binary in which binaries, western religion and anthropocentrism are evil and whatever their opposites are are good. He certainly could, like all of us, express himself more precisely at times. But that’s not at all the cause of the problem here.

  114. JMG: “These things sell literally millions of copies, and since reading guides the mind where visual media by and large simply shuts it down, I suspect the reading material has a disproportionate impact.”

    Slightly tangential to canons and perhaps more suited to Magic Monday… but:

    If the conscious aware mind is the visible bit of the iceberg, perhaps shutting it down allows unfiltered download into the subconscious. Then, if we were to accept that perception and decision making are heavily influenced by the ‘kernel’ of the subconscious, and that people can seemingly make decisions without thinking (conscious thought), perhaps zombification by little dancing pixels is even worse than imagined.

    Not only is there a need for a craft knife blade to interrupt the glamour, we also need something to shake loose and clean out the crud that is hidden beneath the surface.
    On an energetic level, there are techniques to shake loose and release blockages (emotional and energetic); however, I have not considered tools to root out ‘programming’ designed to create robotic human consumer units.

    I’ve often thought that meditative and other practices work as a ‘firewall’ and ‘system cleaner’ – we don’t watch shows and rarely movies and haven’t had a television since 1992 so only come into contact with it now and again (an advantage of being a quiet curmudgeon perhaps); but now I am wondering… for example – I still remember certain TV adverts from the 60s that I saw as a child… which means that stuff gets deeply entrenched. Not just a tick sucking blood but something that continues to reside in memory 50 years later and could potentially influence behaviour!
    e.g. out of the blue and for no apparent reason a few years ago I was suddenly tempted to try a type of sweet [candy] I hadn’t had for years – we had one each and thought we were going to die because of the intensity of the sugar rush.

    Do you have any thoughts on crud cleaning? I’ve thought about it in terms of esoteric practice but not in this programming context..really but will have to now!

  115. On canons as a basis for assisting communication – okay, an old survey etc etc (from 2015) but:
    “The survey, which was conducted by Pew Research, asked adults if they had read a book in any format. The number of people who answered “yes” has fallen in recent years, from 79 percent in 2011 to 72 percent in 2015.
    Read more:

    JMG: “We’ll be talking in the near future about the way that this gives access to the thoughts of the past, and thus provides the one effective cure for the cultural senility that afflicts American society…”

    Since ‘thinking’ seems to be the last thing the current system wants, and conversation/discussion seems increasingly of the warm fuzzy/cold prickly variety, encouraging people to read seems like no small task and I’m looking forward to seeing where you take this.

    Newspeak – An animated gif emoji
    Who needs to read when we have cat pictures and emojis to express things!?

  116. Pogonip, house repairs always start small, then years from now your bedroom ceiling will be a pile of rubble and you’ll be sleeping in the kitchen. You may also end up with a gardening magazine from 1920 you found between the joists. 🙂 If you’re going down the DIY path there are two tools I’d recommend that most people don’t know about: automatic wire cutters and spring-loaded pliers. I got both of mine from Draper. If you need tinsnips get the spring-loaded kind and not the scissors kind. Also, no nails. Electric drill, screws, electric screwdriver. Your sanity will thank you. 🙂 (Obviously you need regular screwdrivers as well and a hand drill is a good backup to have around.) If you’ve got a garden as well, get a 7lb pickaxe and a 10lb sledgehammer. You won’t know how you lived without them.

  117. I wonder if Samuel R. Delany will make it into a future canon. He is one of my all time favorite writers, a true master of the sentence. His “Neveryona” series should be required reading, in my opinion, for anywould-be fantasy writers. Of his SF Dhalgren and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand remain favorites. But I’ve pretty much loved everything I’ve read by him. Of his nonfiction his essay “Wagner Artaud: A Play of the 19th and 20th Century” is stellar.

    I think his place in the canon may remain because it crosses boundaries between at least 3-4 cultural/subcultural canons: “highbrow” literature, SF & Fantasy, African-American, & LGBQT.

    And just because he is a favorite of mine, doesn’t mean I’ve “agreed” with all aspects of his work. For instance, I’m not a fan of pornography. He is. I don’t mind sex scenes in a book (and I don’t consider Dhalgren to be pornographic. It just has lot’s of sex). His novel Hogg however, I just couldn’t finish, and of course that was one that it took a long time to see anybody be willing to even publish, because it offends just about everybody. Still, what he tried to do with it, I appreciated, on a certain level (For those who want to read it).

    I guess that’s the distinction between how I may not always have the same taste as Delany in subject matter yet I can always appreciate his prose. For me his grasp of linguistics & semiotics is what make him a shining writer, and the way he extrapolates on those in fiction means I like getting inside his head.

    Something interesting I noted at the library was how Ulysses by James Joyce always had “Adult only” stickers on them for the sexual aspect of the story. Today’s young readers who are looking for a thrill probably won’t ever touch the book, let alone most adults. I however love it. Molly Bloom’s chapter is pure music.

    Thanks, JMG, for hosting this space where we can have these conversations, and for facilitating them.

  118. Apologies for a third post, but this has opened not so a much rabbit hole as a sinkhole.

    JMG: “To borrow the dietary metaphor I used in that post, how do you tell the difference between literary snack food and the kind of robust meat-and-potatoes meal that provides the mental nourishment you need for a hard day’s thinking?”

    JMG: “One of the great advantages of having a canon is that it makes it a lot easier to filter out trash.”

    Hell’s teeth:

    “1. Augmented reality, online gaming, virtual environments, and other immersive techniques that can induce “flow,” reduce conscious attention to marketing techniques, and foster impulsive behaviors”

    “5. Neuromarketing, which employs neuroscience methods to develop digital marketing techniques designed to trigger subconscious, emotional arousal”

    If this is being done with food, imagine what might be done with manipulation of the mind in relation to thought processes that influence activities like thinking and reading.

    I was thinking about the need for something more than a craft blade at the tech cloud level… maybe Poseidon and a trident, but after reading that last, maybe Durga might be more appropriate!

  119. Anomalies: this is irredeemably personal, but maybe it’ll be helpful. I’m a man, and I’ve read Northanger Abbey and Pride & Prejudice. The first was okay but the second I really liked. I would like to read Emma next. The three thoughts I have about Austen are: 1) I think of her as the literary equivalent of John Constable, her books give me the same feeling as his landscapes; 2) I recommend the Oxford University Press edition of her novels, edited by Chapman, any of the printings done from about the 1930s to the 1970s – beautiful compact green hardcovers, with lovely plates relating to each novel, and helpful notes and appendices and so on; 3) I’ve seen practically all of the TV & film adaptations of Austen’s novels, but the only one that I really like is the four-part BBC Emma – maybe try watching that first.

  120. @Jen,
    I love the horror of younger generations at people smoking in older movies, and I have to tell them, “yes, people really DID smoke in all those places once upon a time…”

  121. Dear John Michael,

    I wrote a response to Anomalies about Jane Austen, but the system seems to have lost it – shall I write it again?

  122. I recently heard a professor say the only work that he consistently found had universal knowledge was the 50’s movie “The Wizard of Oz”. I don’t know if that will still be true in another 10-20 years, but seems to be true in my experience as well.

    As to your early comments about cheesecake vs beefcake lit, I was in a friendly debate on this topic and would be interested to hear more opinions on the matter. The debate is which is the worse type of R-rated movie for young people: sex or violence?
    As a starting point, we’re all in agreement that both are unrealistic depictions of the world, whether it be over-the-top romance/sex or action/violence.
    The pro-violence view would say that it is more damaging to have incorrect ideals about romance as it is more likely to be confused with real life. Sure, it’s probably dumb to think that you can use a couch to protect you from bullets or a refrigerator to hide from nuclear weapons, but you could probably go through life believing that without any negative personal consequences. On the other hand, if you believe you can be terrible to your love interest and simply make up for it with one grand gesture, you may end up ruining your relationships. Much of the action that takes place in violent movies is simply impossible. None of us can shoot lasers from our eyes or throw a person through concrete walls, so there isn’t much danger to emulating it.
    The pro-sex view is that, yes the romantic depictions are extreme, and silly, but given that we’re likely to have experienced and witnessed it in our own lives we’re much better equipped to understand the errors and notice exaggerations. Additionally, aspiring to romantic ideals (even if poorly depicted) is much healthier than normalizing violent behavior. For example, most superhero movies never saw a problem they couldn’t punch, shoot, or laser beam through; is it then a surprise that a large portion of our society thinks we can solve all of our problems by adding more guns to schools and threaten to nuke other countries?

    Of course I know the correct answer is don’t watch movies, watch baseball. But for sake of argument, which is more damaging to be exposed to in media: sex or violence?

  123. Actually, Peter, the “Great American Read” thing was listed as being a PBS show, not NPR. I know, six of one, half dozen of another.

  124. As an avid reader there is definitely a place for “entertainments” as Graham Greene might put it. Yet a problem with our culture as we stand now, without people reading much of the existing canon anymore, is the restriction it puts on conversation. If you aren’t caught up with the latest stupid show, or game, or potboiler novel, those “common places” seem harder to come by these days. And popular culture is eating itself, to devastating effects. It seems the only reference point for some. And while I like graphic novels as a medium -I’m totally sick of these superheroes, and series that rehash the same thing over and over. Oh well. I don’t have to read or watch it. I just follow my own interests and obsessions.

    @Chris at Fernglade: I totally agree that the Catcher in the Rye is crap. Just look what it did to John Lennon! (He was a much better artist than J.D. Salinger -and Yoko Ono was a much better artist than John (in my opinion:) Give me Conan any day…

    @JMG and Random Anomalies: I guess my melancholic tendencies give me a certain fondness for Gothic literature.

  125. Hi, JMG.
    I was watching a video on tips for university students, and it recommended making student clubs for socializing with like minded people without having to go to parties or that kind of socialization that most of us here do not like.

    So I pitched the idea to the coordinator of the library of starting a philosophy book club and she loved it. That happened earlier today, and i’ve been thinking about how I might go about it.

    I want to focus on a particular time period each semester, with meetings each week, starting this august with the greeks.

    Could you recommend a specific canon that I might check out? Or any piece of advice you could give me to make the best of it and have all of the members build a good body of knowledge? I went to 4chan’s /lit/ board to check out the infographics they make, but they are pretty damn elitist and it was not very useful.

    Thanks in advance!

  126. To the bigger picture, younger people’s total bewilderment at seeing, say, Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson smoking incessantly (everywhere) throughout the Shining, regardless of their 6 year old son, is the fact that the younger the generation (generally speaking) the less they seem to grasp that people in different time periods had vastly different values about things. I notice that this is something they seem to get hung up on and totally flummoxed by.

  127. Drhooves, no question, there are plenty of people who are functionally illogical, and a significant number I’d consider functionally unconscious! You’re right, of course, that a time frame of a few decades is ambitious. It could well take longer, but I figure the sooner the ball gets rolling, the better.

    Jen, I also have that one by heart. I’ll be talking about the value of memorizing good poems in a future post! Your broader point, though, is also important. One of the reasons it’s crucial to read things by dead people, and learn them well enough to recall them, is that it keeps the temporary delusions of the present from having unlimited power over your thinking.

    Will, it must have disappeared. I haven’t yet had to delete any comment to this post — well, other than a bunch of spam and some trolls who have gotten boring, all of which is IP-blocked and goes directly to the trash without my seeing it.

    Varun, that’s fascinating. Thank you! As an inhabitant of a society that lost its oral tradition a long time ago, I wouldn’t have thought of that, but it makes sense.

    Peter, oh dear gods yes. If a book gets splashed around as the must-read event of the season, I put it on the “don’t even use for toilet paper” list. As for Mann, though, The Magic Mountain is the most difficult of his works for me to read; Buddenbrooks is a lot more lively, though the hallucinatory intensity of Doctor Faustus makes that my favorite of his works.

    Joel, that’s a useful point. I suspect I should have said “most people with at least basic literacy” rather than simply “most people,” as canons have certainly existed in societies where the great majority were illiterate.

    Dot, fair enough. Thank you for this.

    Chris, I found Catcher in the Rye tedious; I think you had to belong to a certain generation to get into it. You get those from time to time; Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth is another example, and for that matter, so is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther — hugely popular in its time, but I have yet to meet anyone who can stand it now. Sailor Steve Costigan is much better company!

    As for the book on grains, yes, and that’s also a factor!

    Dave, that’s a very good point. I’ve had more than one gateway author. Winston Churchill’s four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples was my gateway to history; biased, snobbish, and hrumph-laden as it was, it was compulsively readable (at least to my eleven-year-old self) and introduced me to history as a connected narrative unfolding over time, and I never looked back. Nietzsche was my gateway author for modern philosophy — though I also had a gateway to him, which was Hermann Hesse. You’re quite right that a good list of readable introductory books would be worth gathering.

    Dot, that’s very good to hear!

    Earthworm, excellent. Yes, and again yes. As for methods of clearing the gunk out, that’s a complex issue which I’ll have to reflect on…

    Justin, interesting. I never liked Delany’s fiction much — it’s been a good many years, but as I recall it felt very mannered and artificial to me. Still, de gustibus and so on.

    Earthworm, thunder deities tend to be very well suited to such work. It’s not accidental that the Buddhists so often use lightning as a symbol of enlightenment!

    Monk, as you see, it found its way through. All comments made here are moderated, meaning that I have to read and approve them before they appear…and sometimes it takes me a while to get around to it!

    Anton, since I don’t watch movies, and don’t encourage people to watch movies, I don’t have an opinion on the subject. I don’t watch baseball either, for that matter…

    Justin, oh, I know. One of the places where the absence of a canon shows up most strongly is the way that so many people literally have nothing to talk about if they can’t talk about their favorite wretched TV show…

  128. Almost completely off-topic, for poetry lovers:

    Jen, I saw that in Ozymandias there are two end words that in standard pronunciations of English today don’t rhyme: stone-frown, appear-despair. Do you pronounce them like in normal speech, so that the rhyme gets lost, or do you force the rhyme?

    I have been wanting to ask some native speaker about such rhymes for a long time. When they appear in Shakespeare or Chaucer, it is obviously because they did rhyme at that time. But in 19th or even 20th century poets there are pairs like wind-bind that certainly didn’t rhyme anymore in their lifetime! Are those purely visual rhymes, or archaisms?

  129. Juan Pablo, delighted to hear it. If you’re going in chronological order, it’s easy at first; start with the Presocratics — you can settle on a specific anthology of their work for everyone to pick up — and then go to Plato’s Symposium and Republic (his two most influential books) and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Metaphysics; that should fill a semester with a bit to spare. Then you can tackle the Stoics, Epicureans, and Neoplatonists next semester — here the works I’d recommend are Epictetus’ Enchiridion, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, and The Enneads by Plotinus. That gives you another solid semester. Beyond that I don’t have as many easy recommendations — medieval and early modern philosophy aren’t really my thing — but with a year to get there, you should have plenty of time to compile a good list.

    Shane, and that sort of historical senility is something that needs to be countered, in a big way. Who erases the past controls the future; who engages with the past frees the future.

  130. Danae etc. – I didn’t take Warren to be speaking as one of “the liberals” at all. If he were, he wouldn’t have spoken in parallel of “SJWs” – a derogatory term, repeated – vs. the polite, neutral “right” or “working class conservatives”. (Even to say “SJWs” vs. “alt-right” would be letting the latter decide what terms will be used for both.) Nor did he indicate that he had any knowledge of what books “SJWs”, which he referred to as “they”, likely considered “sacred.” All he said to trigger his placement into the liberal category was that the current conservative movement doesn’t seem to derive its worldview primarily from key books.

    So what? That in no way implies that conservative individuals don’t read, nor that there are not plenty of conservative books written, only that the leading influences shaping current ideology are not specific books that everyone is reading or pretending to have read and using for guidance. E.g., the libertarian right used to dream of a society based on Atlas Shrugged and Human Action. Do any books have such status among Trumpian conservatives today? Or are the shared beliefs of Trump supporters being inculcated through some other media or social experience? (If you can’t name canonical works, then the fact that Warren wasn’t familiar with any is not to his detriment.)

  131. Matthias Gralle – You should definitely read poetry with normal pronunciation and not grossly distort a word to make it rhyme. Some of the best poets in English have foregone strict rhyming schemes so that they can use language that best fits what they were trying to say. There was also a practice by some of allowing visual-only “rhymes”, though I really dislike it.

  132. Thank you, Darkest Yorkshire!

    This house was built in the postwar period, so it’s good and solid, thank God. I’ve heard quite a few horror stories about newly built houses in the U.S.

  133. @Mattias,
    there is wind as in “blowing in the wind”, w/a short-i sound, then there is wind as in “wind up the clock” with a a long-i sound, which would rhyme w/bind, which also has the long-i sound

  134. Dear John Michael Greer,

    Thank you for another thought-provoking essay. I sincerely salute what you are doing here.

    Re the comment by @ workdove. My experience in teaching writing workshops over more than a decade in, shall we say, one of the best well-educated demographics in suburban Maryland, sadly enough, was that when it came time to discuss plot, so few of my students had read the same books, we always ended up discussing movies, e.g “Gone With the Wind,” or “Gladiator.” This was a while ago, and I dare not veer off on another tangent to talk about what’s happened since with movies. Suffice to say, I rarely set foot in a movie theater anymore.

    On the other hand, I do read every day and I love talking about books with friends of various ages who also love to talk about books. We recommend books to one another–which doesn’t mean we always end up reading them, but oftentimes I do follow up and read something recommended to me, and I know others read books I recommend.

    For those readers of this blog with children, I would urge you to consider what John Michael Greer has said elsewhere in his blog– the previous blog– about childrens’ literature.

    Turn off the screens, all of them, and sit down and read a real book with your children. There are many options but if you want to get started, as John Michael Greer mentioned, a Newberry Medal winner could be an excellent bet.

    For my money, for small children, THE COUNTRY BUNNY, THE LITTLE FUR FAMILY, WINNIE THE POOH, PADDINGTON BEAR, BREAD AND JAM FOR FRANCES and the other Frances the hedgehog books are all delightful, and exquisitely written. And while they may be old-fashioned, the Beatrix Potter books– the original editions with the author’s illustrations– are also superb, and I would argue, part of the canon of English language literature.

    Books may not dominate our culture at the moment, but they are not going away, and I believe that those who can, with discernment, appreciate books will always have an inestimably richer life than those who do not.

    P.S. Popcorn reading, I love the term. Yes, I have mine, too.

    Kind regards,


  135. I feel like literacy is something that’s hard to maintain in today’s society. The media, TV, computer, internet, etc. all bombard us with programs designed to change the way we think about things. I think these mental pathways, that the media introduces into our brains, create a crevasse into which it’s so easy for a consciousness to fall.

    Like if I watch a bunch of Youtube channels or Netflix and then pop into ecosophia here, I feel functionally illiterate reading comment section/etc. It’s like the transmission in my brain needs a few hours to get back into a conscious state. This kinda goes along with the same reason why we should read things that we disagree with, so we see where each side is coming from. The media just seems intent in putting dysfunctional pathways into people’s heads.

  136. @Crisispariah

    Thanks for your detailed response, and I hope I didn’t come across too narky in my first post.

    A quick response to your clips if I may, then it’s probably time to move elsewhere so as not to try our host’s patience :-).

    Firstly i’d recommend you take a look at Dot’s comment above if you haven’t already. They have articulated my own POV on Peterson far better and more thoroughly than I did.

    Your first video on pay and equality: he makes it clear that he sees it as “pathological” because he argues it would entail a vast and intrusive bureaucracy to make it achievable. Again a clear case, in his view, of the solution outweighing the problem in negativity.

    Second video…I can only suggest that you watch it yourself right to the end with less scathing eyes. As noted by myself and Dot he is deconstructing the flaws in the extreme SJW view of hierarchy, in a very grounded common-sense sounding way, he is not saying hierarchy is all good.

    “Good and Evil” video…again have you watched it yourself right to the end, not just the first 50 secs? He is talking about the worst and cruelest/most violent events of the 20th Century and how they convinced him that Evil is a real thing, along with encounters with patients with post-traumatic stress disorder induced by malevolent people. I’ve been reading JMG’s blog for a long time so I’m quite aware the Manichean language of good and evil is far from his cup of tea, and it’s not necessarily mine either, but I don’t think our host and Peterson are attempting similar projects at all, so what does that matter?



  137. Matthias Gralle,

    I never force a rhyme; I pronounce it with its normal modern pronunciation. Generally speaking, forcing the rhyme with irregular pronunciation would be considered an error, unless perhaps one is doing an historical reenactment or some such thing.

    Sometimes the pronunciation has shifted over time, but often poets will deliberately use “slant rhyme,” or near rhyme, for various aesthetic or practical reasons. Sometimes I actually prefer slant rhyme, since things don’t sound as sing-song that way (Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” for instance, sets my teeth on edge with its extreme sing-song rhyming), but the words still echo one another closely enough to get the kind of coherence you get from rhyme.

  138. Dear John Michael Greer,

    A PS to my previous comment– a clarification.

    It is not that my writing workshop students did not read, on the contrary, they were voracious readers. But they did not all read the same books, for the most part, and this made it challenging to talk about narrative structure. (Alas, there was not time in the workshop to fit in reading a novel –or, ideally, several.) And I believe this underscores your point, that we lack a canon.

    At the same time, we readers live in a world of stunning abundance.

    Also, to add to what I said about reading to children: Another enchanting avenue would be to read childrens’ stories, whether contemporary childrens’ literature or folk tales, from other cultures. Why not Zapotec, Norwegian, Irish, or Moroccan? (The little ones may find some folk tales, especially the original Brothers Grimm, disturbing, so best to read those first, without the kiddies.)

    Again, my appreciation to you for this blog.

    Kind regards,


  139. @chris at fernglade/ JMG

    “I hope nobody votes for J.D. Salinger’s work: “The Catcher in the Rye” in the Canon. ”

    I didn’t like it either, but I hope someone does vote for it, and I hope they give a good accounting of why it ought to be in the canon. Part of establishing common ground with others -through a literary canon- is reading (or reading again) books we just don’t care for.

    I’ve done that with Kerouac’s “On The Road”. I’ve read it a few times and every 3 to 4 years I at least start it again to try and see what others find so special about it. So far it’s specialness still eludes me. I like other works by Kerouac but not OTR. OTR probably just isn’t for me but I wouldn’t object to it being in the canon.

  140. Shane, they certainly seem to be talking (firing) past each other at the moment…

  141. Re: Catcher In The Rye. Salinger was considered very hip in the 50s and 60s, the time of my youth. Even our Methodist pastor talked enthusiastically about Salinger novels such as “Franny and Zoey.” I tried to read all of Salinger back then, and “Catcher In The Rye” was a big part of it for my two brothers and me. I don’t know if we quite caught on to the fact that this was a tale told by a patient in a mental hospital to an attending psychiatrist, though this was set out pretty explicitly in the novel. These days we each consider the book to be unreadable. I’d recommend Plath’s “The Bell Jar” as a better choice within the genre.

  142. Kipling? Malory?

    Richard Adams’s “Watership Down”?

    Although I don’t feel it rises to the level of canon, I would like to suggest everyone read (most of) “The Cockroaches of Stay More,” by Donald Harington, which does for roaches what Adams did for rabbits and is darn funny, up to the end, where it falls apart. Give up where Sam and Tish fall into the toilet, know that there’s a happy ending, and enjoy what leads up to that point.

  143. I second the dislike of Salinger and the praise for The Long Goodbye; although my own favorite Chandler is The Little Sister, TLG is excellent as well. All my Chandlers are 50s era paperbacks, not original first editions but still a pleasure to hold and read. I read them all every few years. My personal opinion, I also nominate Hemmingway along with Salinger for literary oblivion.

    What I love most, in addition to good storytelling, is regional literature, in which an author creates a country of imagination, such as the gay Touraine of Balzac, or the Bahia of Jorge Amado or Chandler’s Los Angeles.

  144. Faust appears to be pretty close to mandatory in German education. Not necessarily if you’re in a vocational track, but even Waldorf schools have it in their plans it seems ( – see on the top right).

    Also see this interview in a left leaning newspaper (TAZ!5081373/):

    Bei Bildungsstandards geht es eher um Kompetenzen als um Faktenwissen. Warum sollte das ernsthaft mit einem Niveauverlust einhergehen?

    Standards sind mir schlicht zu vage. Es ist problematisch, wenn die Schule nur noch abstrakte Kompetenzen vermitteln soll. Man sollte den Mut haben, einen Pflichtkanon festzulegen. Ohne Goethes „Faust“ geht es nicht.

    ^The answer is by the national teacher’s organization representative in 2012. I’m sure there’s enough rot to be found, but one should not rely too hard on unverified anecdotes or inaccuracies to identify it.

    As education is not decided on a federal level and I don’t expect the canon (/Lehrplan) to be overly explicit there will be instances on the school or more likely teacher level that forego Faust – for better or worse.
    Overall though I expect this to result in rather more Faust than less as it is one of the more accessible and entertaining works for the age group.

    Let me see if I can recall my set:
    Der Schimmelreiter, Faust, Iphigenie auf Tauris, Nathan der Weise, some English works, a translation of Madame Bovary, Maria Stuart & Wilhelm Tell (Schiller), Effi Briest, and then some more modern stuff like Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, Die Verwandlung, Die Blechtrommel, Professor Unrat, Biedermann und die Brandstifter, Die Physiker, Der Vorleser.
    I’d expect an overlap of 1/2 to 1/4 with people who have gone through a similar education.
    On philosophers I’d expect a higher variation with the exception of Kant.

    Family that had picked a humanities focus would have significantly more on their shelf.
    Family on the vocational track had far fewer and shorter works (or excerpts) – and I think this is really a critical point with the canon approach.
    I am not sure if the meat-and-potatoes can outweigh the popcorn here. For example I’d argue Harry Potter would easily dominate the female influence (perhaps only checked by Astrid Lindgren) in German speaking areas. In general I am not convinced that similar dynamics are dominant when it comes to (perhaps not just German) female or male canon formation (see also or drilling into non-English canons). I think the dynamics re professors are plausible (if perhaps not new) particularly for English, but for smaller languages or heritage groups dynamics could be rather different. Perhaps this special status is another aggravating factor.

    Also if you wanted a reliably shared semantic corpus this used to be decidedly low brow works such as Karl May (which of course did not tie back very well to the older canon), and in recent decades more shifting towards audio stories (and I have to say it: youtube) – particularly for children. For example have sold more than 45 million copies which would be listened to dozens of times at a very impressionable age. Public TV such as an adaptation of Maya the Bee to or a highly acclaimed educational “Show with the Mouse” would be similarly influential (here is an example of building a stone age house, but there would also be a children’s explanation of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest). I bring this up because I think these ephemeral works could plausible affect the sensibilities that determine which parts of the canon get modernized in what way.

    Lastly I hardly read modern fiction nor enjoy modern painting. Especially the latter point has made me seek out older works and quite naturally the related literature now that it is so wonderfully accessible.

  145. One of my gateway books was Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam by Christian Appy. I read it when I was about 15 or 16 and it showed me how well and how compassionately it’s possible to write about complex history, politics and psychology. It’s also so vivid I was sweating while reading about the experience of jungle patrols.

  146. I’ve just finished reading the comments on the previous post and the discussion of the Oxford University entrance exam reminded me of something. Has anybody seen the entrance exam of the East India Company? I know it was supposed to be phenomenally difficult and require people to be incredibly well read, but I’ve never seen any examples. It’s not something that a quick search turns up.

  147. The best author I’ve ever read, and the one I’ve been by far the most impressed by, is Robert Louis Stevenson. His writing is as sophisticated as it is effortless. I’m always surprised how he isn’t rated more highly.

  148. Hi John Michael,

    Oh no! Sailor Steve is definitely required to thump the daylights out of both Alexander Portnoy, and his much earlier and rather confused contemporary (in spirit), Werther. Conan would ignore them. Both of those two characters (Alexander and Werther) would bore the daylights out of me. I can just imagine that after several hours of exposure to their introspective whingeing that I’d embarrass everyone by expressing a candid and unwelcome opinion like: “Look. I understand that the situation is difficult, and that you’re a sensitive dude. But you know, can you just shut up for at least a couple of years”. It is worth noting that the fictional character young Werther did in fact silence himself in a rather permanent way…That seems like a rather extreme thought process and may have been there to shock people. Alexander on the other hand appears to have just enjoyed shocking people… Honestly, that more recent story sounds as if it has fifty shades of Woody Allen.

    Yes, Eli was rather unsubtle in her approach to history. Oh well, as I remarked that story was at least entertaining.



  149. Hi Justin,

    Good to hear from you, and just to let you know that I am enjoying your book reviews in the quarterly magazine: “Into the Ruins”. Thanks for taking the time to put pen to paper.

    Yeah, I tell ya what. As I read that Salinger book, I could almost feel the lost minutes of my life ticking away! ;-)! I just couldn’t relate to the character and his concerns. He seemed to be doing OK to me, so where did the dissatisfaction arise from? That was the question that was never explored in the book.

    Lennon is a great artist. You are about to lead me down a rabbit hole on that topic though!



  150. Hi Christopher Hope,

    Exactly. Proponents should be prepared to defend their opinions against all comers. Neither Sailor Steve or Conan would shy away from a confrontation about their ideology. I agree too that it is not necessarily a requirement to enjoy a book in order for it to be included in a canon.



  151. Speaking of Plato’s Republic from my own post-retirement field of study: medieval Christendom was about as close an approximation as you’ll find anywhere. It’s the classic 3-part society: the philosopher kings/Brahmins/priesthood, which in this case – very true to Plato, though I doubt they were aware of it – in theory had no families and lived in a mild and disciplined austerity. [Never mind actual medieval practice, except as a warning to those who take The Republic seriously.]

    The Guardians, of course were the warrior aristocracy.

    And, again true to Plato, many churchmen disliked or were suspicious of the Miracle Plays and the actors therein. “Do not allow playwrights in the Republic.”

    Just a thought,


  152. Much reading might well lead to a richer life: but the richness would be related, perhaps, to the quality of observation and thought in those books.

    So, a person who is very observant and reflective could conceivably have just as rich a mental life.

    Someone who knew Virginia Woolf in childhood said that if she asked them what they had done that morning, and they said: ‘We went to the park’, the next question was:

    ‘Ah, but what did you see? tell me!’ ‘And what was the fat gentleman wearing exactly?’ ‘And what colour was the naughty dog?’ And so on.

    And they were grateful to her for that lesson in observation in later life.

    And it was fun recalling what they could.

  153. @muchobliged:
    I simply stated that on my Gymnasium in Niedersachsen in 1992-1994 Faust was not read in Grundkurs nor Leistungskurs. I said I didn’t understand why. Call that unconfirmed if you like.

  154. Archdruid,

    Thinking about the similarities between oral and literary canons further, I realize that both actually allow silently wrestling with someone else’s thoughts in ones own head. The oral tradition accomplishes this by repeating a story multiple times, through multiple tellers. Hear a story once and you’ll absorb the tellers style, hear it a dozen times and you simply absorb the story until it is a part of you. There were times during the retelling of particular stories, particularly from the Ramayana, that I’d find myself telling the story to myself while the teller recited their version. Though I have no way of proving this assertion, I would venture so far as to say that a tellers non-verbal communication standardize because they’ve also experienced the story multiple times, from multiple sources. The standard takes time to develop, afterall not everyone has heard every story, and until it is internalized it probably doesn’t have the same affect as silent reading.

    Another similarity between the literary and oral canons is the way they give every sub-culture a bridge to relate to the mainstream. Each tribe, cast, village, region, sect, and etc… use their oral tradition to relate to the main canon. My favorite example of that comes from an article I read a few years ago about a small village, south of New Delhi, where the residents were Muslim but traced their lineage to both Ram and Muhammad through their story telling. However, due to the intrusive efforts by Saudi trained clerics the link to Ram was gradually destroyed by stories from the Hadith and Koran, much to the anger and fear of the Hindu population of the village.

    The contestantation and unfairness are also both prevalent, since the lower casts and north eastern tribes are constantly attempting to introduce their stories to the main canon.

    I have another thought about the oral tradition that I’d like to share, but I’m going to need a day to flesh it out.



  155. Yes, I know that I am using the word “canon” in a more traditional way than you are in this essay (and elsewhere). I would argue that both are valuable.

    To my mind, a “canon” is a body of writings that a wide number of people in a particular field or tradition discern as particularly helpful or inspiring or essential re two vital questions that pretty much every society must address: (1) What’s real? (How things are) and (2) What’s important? (Which things matter)?

    Given that we are in ecological overshoot and catabolic collapse, I’m simply trying to bring together a list (and free audio versions) of what I and various ecocentric colleagues discern to be the most helpful and inspiring (if also sobering) writings that clarify how we got in this mess and (assuming we don’t cause our own extinction) what are the most helpful tools for moving forward post collapse.

    Your project is much broader and deeper than mine (and youyet I think both are vitally important at this time in history.

    In any event,

  156. JM, not sure what happened, but I think I somehow accidentally hit a key that submitted the comment before I was done typing. In any event, you’re reaching an order of magnitude or three more people than I am, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

  157. Patricia: the difference in structure that the philosopher-kings = clergy weren’t taken from the ranks of the guardians = aristocracy. Gellner says somewhere that Plato was trying to return to the structure of pre-democratic Greece (e.g. 7th century) – but with mathematics and forms instead of rituals and gods. The other important difference is the contrast between the Platonic and Christian ways of improving oneself – Platonism involves intellectual improvement, learning the mathematical arts (as in the Republic’s mathematical curriculum [arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music]), whereas Christianity involves moral improvement, conquering one’s vices (‘climbing Mount Purgatory’: pride, envy, anger, despair, greed, gluttony, lust). I think this is one of the main ways that Nietzsche’s ‘Christianity is Platonism for the people’ quote is right – it takes fewer resources to improve oneself morally than intellectually.

  158. Thanks for the suggestions! The librarian was as thrilled as I am and we’re already working to see what books we’re gonna have to order.

    I have another favor to ask for anyone who has an idea. The librarian told me that there was already a poetry club that didn’t last long. It was called Grupo de Poesía Corazón de León (the lion is the university mascot). So she decided to use that and just turn it into Círculo de Lectura Corazon de León. However, I personally find it quite cheesy. So, I want to propose a better name, that references something having to do with Thomas Aquinas or St Augustine, because it’s a catholic university. Also she was telling me that our challenge will be to make a compelling offer to the profile of students that go there.

    Just like The Well of Galabes (Merlin’s laboratory) is the place for studying Magic, what are good names that reference Aquinas or st. Augustine in a philosophy book club?

    Thanks in advance! 🙂

  159. @petervanerp, Nastarana: It’s certainly good to know some Chandler fans are out there. I would not describe his work as popcorn, but I would not favor it for a literary canon to build common ground on. His essay to open “The Simple Art of Murder” provides quite an insight to his writing and his idea of the hero Marlowe, which he maintains consistently between his novels. My favorite is also The Little Sister, with Marlowe at his most colorful.

    Chandler’s work without a doubt would be included in any fiction writer’s canon, however, as his use of metaphors and gritty realism is top-notch, at least in crime fiction. He provides a lot of praise for Hammett, who is not nearly as good, IMHO. Also, to see Chandler’s early work in the pulps and how he absolutely nails the rewrites in his novels is truly impressive. Oh, and yeah, toss Hemingway on the pile of overrated writers too – his “style” of beating a dead horse makes for a boring read, though he did get the concise approach in with The Old Man and the Sea, which was okay.

  160. Did a quick check of literature on rhyme in English poetry.

    One syllable rhymes – love/above – are masculine
    Two syllable rhymes – whether/together – are feminine
    Triple also possible – amorous/glamourous

    A feminine rhyme using more than one word – famous/shame us is mosaic

    imperfect rhymes include:
    1) rime riche — made/maid – sounds match but spelling does not
    2) eye rhyme, in which spelling matches but pronunciation does not – love/prove, and
    3) half-rhyme or slant rhyme in which vowel sounds do not mach – love/have, or with rich consonance – love/leave

    Now this isn’t in my source, but I would say from my reading that triple rhymes and mosaic rhymes are more common in comic verse, such as Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics.

    In reading aloud, which you should probably do for poetry,, observe enjambment. If there is no punctuation at the end of a line, read on without pause. If you ignore or exaggerate the punctuation you end up with the boom, diddy boom of an inexperienced reader.

    There are worthwhile short poems to start with memorizing. One of mine is “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, who is usually much more verbose.

    Some think the world will end in fire, and some in ice.
    From what I’ve tasted of desire
    I hold with those who favor fire.
    But if it had to perish twice,
    I think I know enough of hate
    To say that for destruction, ice
    is also great
    and would suffice.

    Lines and punctuation may be off, I typed from memory.

    I think an illiterate population can have a canon if they are still an oral culture. Epics were recited to illiterate audiences for decades before being written down. But all of the audience knew the works and could have discussed them. I am sure that American students in the best prep schools are still learning Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Hemingway, the Federalist Papers, etc. It is the working classes who are being allowed (forced ?) to slip into semi-literacy. If I recall my classes on the history of education there were two trends in the U.S. in mid- to late 1800s. One wanted everyone brought up to the standards that had been only for the elite–so that shop workers and children of millhands would appreciate Shakespeare and Tennyson. The other school of thought advocated education for life–which amounted to physical education, household arts, practical subjects for the working classes in the public schools. Oddly, that was considered progressive.

  161. When Wodehouse came up, I felt the need for several cheerfully farcical chapters of Bertie and Jeeves. I am now inoculated against a couple more grimly farcical 21st-century weeks.

  162. I missed Tolkein’s translation of Beowulf! The kids and I spent last year reveling in epic poetry, though we started by reading “The Hobbit” together because I wanted to keep comparing the epic heroes we encountered throughout the year back to Bilbo. We read several retellings of Beowulf, including some graphic novels, and worked up to excerpts from Seamus Heaney’s wonderful illustrated translation, with photos of period artifacts. He reads the entire poem on the accompanying CD, which gave us a wonderful feel for the spoken cadence. (Heaney is a well-regarded poet in his own right.) But I think the kids would have gotten a kick out of reading a bit of Tolkein’s translation too, since we started out with his epic hero. Time for a revisit!

    Homeschoolers looking for some accessible versions of foundational stories which I would argue for including the canon- check out Ludmilla Zeman’ gorgeously illustrated three-part retelling of “The Epic of Gilgamesh”‘, and Sanjay Patel’s very cool “Ramayana: Divine Loophole”. And for anyone who wants to understand some basics of a classic like Beowulf or the Odyssey before you tackle the original, my teenage daughter recommends YouTube’s very funny and aptly named “Overly Sarcastic Productions”, though for younger viewers you should definitely seek out the “clean” versions. (Consider yourself warned.)

    Having these and other stories under their belts, so to speak, has been fun for my kids, as they are able to recognize their outlines in other works, even in popular culture. It makes them feel more of a part of the “Great Conversation”, young as they are. To me, this is a great argument for a canon in itself.

    –Heather in CA

  163. Thanks to everybody.

    I suppose Ozymandias was not a good example for the question I had since the rhymes may be deliberately imperfect. The example that first made me wonder about acoustic or visual rhyme is this:

    The seas were left behind;
    in a harbour of Logres
    lightly I came to land
    under a roaring wind.

    (lines 1-4 of Taliessin’s Return to Logres, from Taliessin through Logres by Charles Williams, published 1937)

    In all other strophes of the poem lines 1 and 4 rhyme. Charles Williams is a very acoustic poet, though he does have some archaizing tendencies.

  164. @ Earthworm, JMG re: crud cleaning:

    If I may, I think that Natural Magic may offer some guidance in this department. Garden Sage Salvia officinalis has been used for a long while as an herb of Jupiter. It is used in the Western Natural Magic tradition to increase wisdom, as noted in the Tables of Correspondences and Uses of JMG’s excellent Encyclopedia of Natural Magic.

    Matthew Wood in Earthwise Herbal and The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism also notes that sage seems to decrease desire as well as presenting several case studies of the sage dissolve long term term blood clots. I imagine that what Sage can do for the physical body it can do for the subtle ones, and help dissolve memory and emotional clots as well.

    Interestingly, it is written in the Yoga of Herbs which looks at western materia medica through the lens of Ayurvedic theory and practice that: “Sage has special power to clear emotional obstructions from the mind and promote calmness and clarity. It helps reduce excessive desires and passions. It is specific for calming the heart.” I always prick up my ears when I see different traditions converge upon the same uses for an herb.

    Of course this takes time, and Matthew Wood notes that taking too much sage for a long period has been known to cause convulsions (!) While I’ve never heard of this happening, even having spoken to an eccentric who spoke of eating nothing but sage for days, this still bears noting.

    For what it’s worth, when I drink sage tea I can feel subtle toxic accumulations leave my mind and heart and be replaced by increased calm and serenity. I’ve also witnessed a friend use a sage smudge to disperse annoying, noisy spirits. Interestingly, reductive science has presented evidence that indeed sage does indeed appear to improve memory and emotional states:

  165. And, in today’s polarized world — (Left &right in unison singing)

    “Well, we fired our canons ’til the barrels melted down then we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round…..(denying the other side’s allegations with our allegators….)”

    Yes. “Good morning! My name is Patricia, and I’m a punster.”

  166. Millicently, thank you. I’m a huge fan of the Newbery Award list — a child who has the chance to read all of those growing up will have a vastly better understanding of the world, and of human beings, and of history, than they could get from just about any other source.

    Austin, that’s quite true. It’s become common for people who are concerned about the effect of media on their brains to do the occasional media fast — turn off the tube, the cell phone, and the internet, and leave them off for a weekend. It does your brain a lot of good. Of course, you can also just make that permanent… 😉

    Millicently, and that, again, is why a canon is a good thing. If everybody reads the classics in the course of their schooling, you’ve got a common basis for understanding, and then you can run barefoot through whatever kind of reading you prefer and still be able to communicate with, and understand, people whose interests are different.

    Christopher, yep. That’s why a canon is always contested!

    Phutatorius, I’d favor Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You A Rose Garden over both of them, but then that was a major fave of my youth.

    Pogonip, I’ll certainly agree on Watership Down; it’s had a lot of imitators, though I missed the cockroach one, but Adams’ novel is a major work of English fiction and will likely be widely read when nearly all of today’s “serious” literature has landed in the compost heap where so much of it belongs.

    Nastarana, I’ll let history decide on Hemingway, but you’ll have to pry Faulkner out of my cold dead hands!

    Muchobliged, Karl May — now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a very long time. Back in the very early 1980s, one of the highbrow paperback presses released a translation of two of his books as Ardistan and Djinnistan in an attempt to cash in the Hermann Hesse phenomenon; I read it and found it hamfisted but fun.

    Yorkshire, that’s what a good work of history should do. Glad to hear you found one!

    Phil K, contest that canon!

    Chris, Portnoy could certainly have used a good punch in the jaw. Werther, on the other hand, probably would have popped like a soap bubble. I use The Sorrows of Young Werther as my classic example of the book that’s wildly popular at one point in history, for reasons that are incomprehensible at any other point in history; everybody I’ve met who’s read it (admittedly there aren’t that many) responded to Werther’s suicide with something between a sigh of relief and a hearty cheer.

    Patricia, reactionary intellectuals who like to fantasize about a perfect society almost always seem to come up with something like Plato’s Republic — the intellectuals on top, then a bunch of armed guards to force everyone else to do the right thing, then everyone else. The Middle Ages have been attractive to thinkers of that calibre for a long time for much the same reason. Exactly how much of the medieval social order was a reflection of Christianity’s wholesale ingestion of Platonism is an interesting question…

    Xabier, but such a person would have the perennial limitations of the autodidact, because they’d never have had to grapple with someone else’s thoughts moving through their own mind. That said, there’s no contradiction between a habit of close observation and a habit of reading, so why not do both?

    Varun, fascinating. Thank you for this.

    Michael, yes, I know we’re using the word in different senses! I simply want to keep this discussion focused on the theme I have in mind, which is the recovery of the thoughts of the past through silent reading. More of this as we proceed…

    Juan Pablo, you’re most welcome.

    Rita, your memory for that poem matches mine!

    Heather, it’s a good solid translation, and the commentary that goes with it — from Tolkien’s classes on Beowulf at Oxford — is also worth its weight in gold. The same volume also includes Tolkien’s conjectural reconstruction of the folktale at the heart of the Beowulf story — he believed that the Beowulf legend as we have it is a conflation between a folktale and historical events in the dark ages — and his version of the folktale is an absolute delight. Finally, please, please, please find, and introduce to your kids at an appropriate age, Tolkien’s essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which is a fine work of criticism and also an effective inoculation against certain kinds of silliness too often found in the lit-crit field.

    Violet, thank you for this.

    Patricia, a fine reuse of Huey Long’s famous comment: “If you want to know who started those allegations, well, I’m the alligator.”

  167. Dear drhooves, I do like meeting persons of impeccable taste (that is to say, taste which agrees with mine)! I couldn’t say about including Chandler in a canon–I would hope that academics keep their mitts off him–but I do recommend his books to persons from other countries who seek a better understanding of the USA.

    Dear Varun, How does a canon come about in a country like India in which, as I understand matters, there are many literary languages, each with its’ own centuries old tradition? Then, in addition, if English is also an official language, do people feel obliged to read the likes of Milton and Shakespeare?

  168. JMG-

    Wait, stop, if your readers take you up on all this I could see the price of used Loeb Classics going up and I don’t have them all yet!

  169. I’ll repost my comment then, or something resembling it, the original being long gone. I’m going to have to keep the comments in a separate file from now on: it’ll be easier than risking it disappearing.

    I have no argument that fiction tends to portray women as caricatures, and not anything resembling the reality. The point of my comment earlier was to add into the discussion happening over whether TV or movies were worse for gender norms. I’m not sure about the situation going the other way for a variety of reasons, one of them being I’ve yet to investigate it.

  170. Regarding reactionary intellectuals and their fondness for Plato’s “Republic”; there’s considerable fondness for the writings of Leo Strauss and Machiavelli, too. Strauss’ “double truth doctrine” might be a near cousin to “close reading.” Actually, I wondered if that was where you were headed when you started discussing close reading.

  171. Hi John,
    Great post. In addition to helping readers how to think, a great canon helps them to ask questions that they had not considered asking. In some cases, questions that were speculative at the time a canonical book was written become all to real in another age, which is one reason a book may enter (or) leave a canon: they’re asking the right question. As to hierarchy, I always considered Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy” of virtue and talent to be mainly competence and character with a dollop of charisma. (We could perhaps add a fourth “c” that of convention, by which a respected person is designated to exercise authority (like directing traffic when the lights are out) as a matter of convenience.” But that leads to the question, “What sort of competence?” What if society has made things unnecessarily complicated, so that certain competencies are actually spurious forms of authority. And what about certain competencies, like persuading people to buy things that are harmful to their health and pocketbooks? Ina society that depended more on simpler, Schumacherian technologies, socially positive competencies (like skill in the mechanical arts) would be more widespread, and the importance of character would become more clearly evident.

  172. Yes, of course, John Michael. Sorry! As you know, an at times overly zealous evangelistic spirit is an all-too-common character trait (defect? / flaw? / gift?) for quite a few in my profession. 🙂

    In any event, keep up the great work!

  173. JMG, this is off topic for this week, but you and others here might find it interesting:

    This has some detailed stats on US deaths over the past decade, broken down by age, year, and occasionally by cause, and compared to projections. Between 2010 and now, Age 5-44, and 55-64 show more deaths, 0-5, 45-54, and 65-infinity show fewer deaths. Age-adjusted has fewer deaths overall than 2010, but not age-adjusted has more.

  174. Thank you Violet – My partner has been experimenting with Salvia officinalis infusions to address effects of menopause (memory and mental clarity) and we’ve both found it to be a pleasant drink to have in the evening and it does seem to have a calming effect.

    We don’t have it every day, but last year we hung bunches of fresh around the kitchen to dry as she had read that it is supposed to put off insects – we like to leave peppers to ripen to wrinkliness before cooking with them (which attracts fruit flies) and whilst we can’t be sure it was the sage, there were definitely less flies last year and we’re about to put out some new stuff to see how things work this year.

    Violet: “I imagine that what Sage can do for the physical body it can do for the subtle ones, and help dissolve memory and emotional clots as well.”

    We’ve had an ongoing project for some years of limiting white goods (e.g. no refrigerator in kitchen) and reducing plastics based on the idea of what we surround ourselves with probably has subtle effects on emotional and energetic states – an extension from avoiding television and microwave ovens. Fast forward to the last couple of years and my partner has been exploring repressed memories and emotional states (e.g. trauma splitting) through inner-child work and how these can be released and integrated. Based on that, I’ve been considering the matter of memory (like recall of old adverts) and connections to mental states/emotions and have thought about some approaches to examining the memory using various techniques. The idea of using sage as part of this was not something I had considered but I definitely am now!

    I’m currently wondering if memories themselves are not necessarily the problem (barring associated earworms!), in that other than the catchy tunes, adverts from the 60s television were relatively unsophisticated in interfering with the subconscious compared to today’s tech vectors, but we’ll see…

    First approach is going to be set a meditative state, then bring up an old advert memory and, rather than concentrating on the tune/words/images, concentrate instead on observing to see if anything changes in emotional/mental/physical state.
    Then repeat but after having sage tea.

    It does intrigue me that an old advert can pop-up in memory when something I actually want to recall can often prove elusive!
    If I immediately start salivating and desire to rush out to buy some sugary abomination… clearly there will be some work to do.

    Thank you also for the reference to Michael Wood… looks like our plan not to buy any more books until we get through more of our ‘on the shelf to read’ list just took a hit 😉

  175. @David, by the lake and @Christopher Hemmingson

    I’m afraid Pride and Prejudice and Zombies won’t work for him because he feels zombies have been overused in Hollywood movies and tv shows in recent years and he is tired to death of them. Otherwise that would be a good suggestion. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters wouldn’t work either because, despite my exceptionally high tolerance for silliness, even I found that one too silly.


    I’ll see if I can find those Oxford University Press editions somewhere. My husband is a sucker for a nicely bound hardcover edition. One of his favorites is a two-volume set of the Iliad and the Odyssey from Chester River Press that I gave him for Christmas some years back. It weighs about 20 pounds and has gorgeous illustrations. The paper and binding for most new editions one finds in stores these days are of such poor quality that they barely hold up to one reading. Publishers like Chester River and Taschen take things more seriously. Their books have a correspondingly high price tag, but they are great for important works that are worth re-reading.

    That might be worth a shot. I didn’t enjoy Mansfield Park as much as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, but he might like it better than those two for the reasons you’ve described.

  176. VERY OT, but for those who observe today:

    Hail to our heroes.
    > Brave they were in battle.
    > Fallen with their faces to the foe.
    > Sleep now in sanctified soil.

    And let’s not start a fight pro-or anti-war. It happened.

  177. I am disappointed that nearly all the books suggested are fiction. The world and society we live in has been shaped more by scientists and engineers than by novelists.

    C.P. Snow was a British scientist and eventually a senior and influential government administrator. Remarkably, in his spare time he also wrote a best-selling novel about once a year. In 1959 he delivered a lecture which was published as THE TWO CULTURES AND THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION.
    He complained about an educational system that promoted the humanities and did not produce leaders capable of understanding the technology that was changing the globe.

    In part of the essay:
    A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold . It was also negative. Yet I was asking the scientific equivalent of “Have you read a work of Shakespeare”s?’
    I now believe if I had asked an even simpler question–such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying -Can you read ?—not more than in in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

    A few books in my “canon’ are
    THE DOUBLE HELIX, James Watson A primer on how scientists think
    SILENT SPRING, Rachel Carson Seminal work on the environment
    SOCIOBIOLOGY, E.O. Wilson Why people behave as they do
    THE SELFISH GENE, Richard Dawkins Important in this era of genetic manipulation
    THE MAKING OF THE ATOMIC BOMB, Richard Rhodes. Now that so many countries want to try

    The intellectuals of the day vigorously attacked Snow with essays in literary journals. Their names are now forgotten, but Snow’s novels are still in print. So is TWO CULTURES which is still germane and I recommend to readers of this blog.

  178. Archdruid,

    There are several barriers to redeveloping a cultural canon in the US. On the individual level, people are incredibly aggressive about defending their cultural territory, and even suggesting that someone step out of their canon is an invitation to conflict. On the next level we’re competing against vested interests in every mass medium, and these factions won’t allow their canons to be contested. The buy-in cost for television, and the fragmented structure of the Internet, make both of those mediums useless for rebuilding a canon. Literature is one solution, but even there reading is largely unpopular with the public, and stigmatized as elitist by the behavior of the educated class.

    For a culture to develop a canon it must be consumed by a large enough portion of the population to provide a common base for communication, correct?

    I think before we start suggesting books and stories that would be good to introduce to a cannon, we need to ask ourselves how canons develop and what kind of information canons normally hold? Because the foundation of a cultures canons are the stories and ideas that grew organically during the times of crisis, right? Then the foundation is supplemented variously by other useful pieces of information?



  179. Nastarana,

    I’ve been thinking about the “how” for a few days now, because I think answering that question will allow us to redevelop a canon here in the US.

    Here’s the general pattern that I see. The single link between all these language groups, sects, regions, religions, and etc…are the vedas. Those documents are the core educational instrument, and to be considered respectable you must be able to memorize the vedas in Sanskrit. After that point, it largely doesn’t matter which language you choose to communicate the teachings of the vedas or which other documents you use.

    There is culture of wandering mendicants and asthetics that then spread the teachings of the Vedas. Spiritual wanderers go from one part of the country to another dropping stories like seeds, and often taking up residence in remote villages to administer to the spiritual needs of the village. They do this mostly outside the control of any central authority, except for those who belong to some temple sect. The aesthetics play a some what comparable role to druids of celtic culture. Finally there are the wandering entertainers, who go from place to place playing music, doing magic, and telling stories.

    The vedas act as a nodal structure, and the teachers and entertainers are the network.



  180. Hi Thanks for the post … it seems to me the left have taken ownership of the term SocIal Justice and define it as some kind of Equality. The right have a huge interest in social justice too I think but can’t define it in terms of a form like Equality … ? Or can they? What do you think the right see social justice is (as a form of … what?)…

  181. A canon of written works, read silently and wrestled with alone, seems counterproductive if the aim is to provide a basis for mutual comprehension. Everybody brings their own personal quirks to the book. That is, I believe, the main point of pre-mordant post-modernism — that the text is interpretable, not fixed in meanings created by the author, but packed with new, fresher meaning by the reader, like stuffing a dead turkey with cornbread.

    Or are you including a component of discussion and comparison of opinions and disputed readings in the idea of having such a canon? If other people are stuffing their turkeys with lead weights, rusty nails, raw sewage, or plastic-wrapped fireworks, we won’t all agree on the nutrient value of the meal, even before it goes into the oven of conversation.

    Likewise, some cultures have a canon of folk dances, folk music, meaningful symbols as used in jewelry, figurines, on pottery, barndoors painted with hexes, and even traditional hairstyles. Why not rely on this sort of commonality to foster a willingness to preserve the Union? The song with the refrain “Shouting the battle cry of freedom!” was never in my ears until I was 62. But you better believe that I knew the words and tune to Dixie! Why do we as a nation not share our songs? Same reason we do not read the same books.

    Perhaps that is why flag-pledging in schools and flagpins in offices are thought to be important: an abortive attempt to inculcate the young and meld adults into a cultural unity based on grafted emotions and outward seemings. Dissensus from such cult-cultural norms is generally not encouraged, and is subtly resisted by many. Why should an enforced literary canon not have the same divisive effect? If chosen voluntarily, that is one thing; if required by Society-with-a-capital-Capitol-S, quite another.

    The Chinese Canon used as a sort of Qualifying Exam for judging who was fit to join the Civil Service (and the similar one used by Oxbridge Brits to staff their CivServ) functioned pretty well for awhile but ca. 81 AD, its adherents were booted out of power by Money, Math, and STEM types. Or anytime there was war on the borders. When Empire was expanding or desperately defending, Canonical thinkers were only able to dislodge a few traitor-types at the top of the heap and introduce a few toothless reforms. But when Canonists *were* in power for a long time, governance degenerated into a dry-as-dust formalism divorced from real-life conditions, relying unrealistically on pre-enlightment standards of behavior and values that were no longer held by the majority of the people.

    Given all that, how long might such a New American canon be expected to hold up under splintering pressures of the non-reading variety before it gets old enough to grow brittle and shatter?

  182. Anomalies: if you want really nice editions, look for the Limited Editions Club ones – super-expensive, but gorgeous, with illustrations, large-size, etc. All but one of the novels was done by them. There are also reprints of them by the Heritage Press – not quite as nice, but cheaper.

  183. I realise suddenly that my early, lengthy, exposure to the Bible, including much memorisation of verses, has been forming the shape of my mind and thoughts for my entire life, even though, in my late teens and early twenties I took a long walk away from my childhood faith, and have not read much in its holy book since.

    However, with distance, and a slowly growing sense of peace and self-acceptance which is no longer in need of targuing with that early faith, I find that an apt biblical passage is likely to pop randomly into my head at any time. For example – “he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone” is a current favourite…

    Without my early exposure to this book which has been central to the canon of the Western world for centuries, I would not know that Jesus himself devoted so much time to wrong-footing the religious dogmatists of his day, nor realise that the words and deeds of Jesus himself are the absolutely best antidote to much of the Christian dogma that assails us from the small group who today feel entitled to stand on their dogma for the purpose of “poke nose” type activity into everyone else’s business.

    Anyway, I’ve decided to re-read and re-appreciate this part of the Western canon, which I personally can say I did inherit honestly, and while I’m at it, dust, polish and redecorate some of the furniture of my own mind.

  184. @Tom Larue,if you are compiling canon of seminal non-fiction for a future post-petroleum civilization, I would add A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin. It is considered to be the definitive history of the Apollo program and contains direct eyewitness descriptions of the planet as seen from space.

  185. @gkb

    “Why do we as a nation not share our songs? Same reason we do not read the same books.”

    i’m not so sure about this. At least not if we go back just a few decades. We used to share music to a considerable extent in the form of records and radio. There was room for odd ball tastes but for the most part it was a sharing of what was broadly popular. The technology of the past made mass sharing almost a necessity. But that entailed some accomodation too. When I think back to “pop” music of the ’60s I’m struck by the room that was allowed for non rock and roll, and the room allowed for adult tastes as well as teenage tastes. Today of course you’re quite correct, we don’t listen to the same music. The new technology allows everyone to listen to their preferences w/o having to accomodate, or even tolerate, other tastes.

    Books, otoh, have always (or at least for centuries) been a technology geared to the individual. For a long time thre have been several thousand different books published yearly, with eveyone, mostly, reading what interested them and ignoring what didn’t. No accomodation of other people’s tastes in literature were required by the technology.

    We could develop a canon of music or dance but it doesn’t have quite the same “mind reading” quality that reading does. We’re unlikely to see another POV, or gain much insight into the human condition by doing the waltz together or by listening to “America the Beautiful” at the same concert. We can share experinces like music or dance, or baseball, but still not comprehend each other’s political, social, moral POV.

  186. Tom Larue:

    I am a working scientist. I have read some books by scientists over the years, but few of them have stuck in my mind – I think the only one that actually changed my mind was Lenny Moss’ “What Genes Can’t Do”. The important discoveries are published as original articles in journals, and the important reflections are published in review articles in journals. That’s unfortunate, but it’s true… And the journal articles, as well as the books that some famous scientists write, are of course one-sided and provisional (Dawkins’ book was written before the discovery of exons, RNA editing and siRNA, which rather put into doubt his theory).

    Books by science popularizers, on the other hand, may be highly informative, but they don’t let you “taste” the original discoverer’s mind. Actually, the best way to do that might be to repeat a famous experiment or even better, design a new one…

    That is why my canon consists of humanities, most of them actually not in the form of a novel, and what they have to teach is much less subject to change.

    I do think historical works like Euclid’s Elements or Newton’s Principia might be worth including, as suggested by our host, but I haven’t made the effort to read them myself.

  187. > Your offhand comment that a canon works much like a hierarchy, in that if it is abolished it is simply replaced with invisible and unaccountable ones… sent my mind in an unfortunate direction. It reminded me of how more than one of my friends are sending me lectures and articles about hierarchy, from… **gawd** Jordan Peterson. To borrow your phrase, discussions about Jordan Peterson always seem to “generate more heat than light”. I did a quick search of Ecosophia and near as I can find you only mentioned him in passing, saying that his work didn’t appeal to you. Still I wonder if you might venture a comment. Among his points that have made it into pop-culture understanding is his preachings about hierarchy, that hierarchies are inevitable and beneficial — though they make people feel jealous and resentful, that causes us to strive to improve ourselves, so we all have to embrace hierarchies. Therefore — for example — working towards equal pay for women versus men is “Evil”, his words not mine.

    You failed JMG’s (or, in any case, mine) criterion – to be able to summarize and represent the other side’s points fairly.

    Neither knee-jerk reactions like “**gawd**”, nor “working towards equal pay for women versus men is “Evil”” (which most certainly isn’t “his words”, and I challenge you to provide any source/link/video where he says so. Out of context quotes were he doesn’t mean anything of the sort don’t count either).

  188. MILLICENTLY LURKING: For my two boys, we spent many hours reading a large-format book of Aesop’s Fables. So many of our idioms are drawn from them: “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, the “lion’s share” of the feast, blowing hot and cold, “crying wolf”, “sour grapes”, and so on. Our volume had color illustrations from the 1920s, I believe, wonderfully detailed.

    PS: I’m in Maryland, too, close enough to a major university to hear the football noise. I’m hoping that a mid-range state school will be somewhat sheltered from the coming whirlwind and have time to adapt as its high-cost private school near-peers fail. For the moment, college towns are prospering on high-profit-margin, debt-fueled, “sales”.

  189. Greg,

    There’s no doubt competence can only be defined in the context of a specific culture and society. Competence for a hunter gatherer tribe looks very different than it does for really any inhabitant of a modern industrial society. Although general cognitive abilities do track who’s rewarded for competence cross-culturally.

    The thing is though who defines what’s unnecessary complication or what are socially positive and negative competencies? That’s the rub. I don’t know that a more appropriate tech society would place more importance on character. But more importantly what do you mean by character?

    The character traits that are valued or not also vary depending on culture. Dark Age warband societies are likely to highly value traits like capacity for violence, fearlessness and interpersonal loyalty. Just as we see with our warbands – jihadists and the likes of MS13 – today. Those living in areas terrorized by such gangs today would probably say that street smarts, subservience, social networks, diplomacy and the ability to keep your head down are the character traits that enable survival for those living in their path. Even an appropriate tech Dark Age is not necessarily going to be an improvement on a world in which marketers of fizzy sugar water are well paid.

  190. hi Dot,

    Good points, all. They help me wrap my head around this core idea: It may be all well and good to speak of a “natural aristocracy of talent and virtue,” but which talents and (among your points) which virtues are we talking about? And over what time scales? If a car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, an honest and competent mechanic is a godsend, and has genuine authority in that situation. This is true even if, on a longer time scale, fossil-fueled transportation (or nuclear fission plants, etc.) are detrimental. I do think that, similar to the universal value of cognitive ability, there are a core of essential virtues. Early western thought spoke of four cardinal virtues: self-control, wisdom, honesty and guts. Different societies may give more emphasis to one or two over the others, but unless all four are present to a significant degree, it’s hard to see how a civilization could survive long term.

  191. Been coming to your blogs for a while. And particularly enjoy on your ideas on the literary Cannon.

    In the olden days, as a young sciences stude, was more interested in Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann and Magic Realism — not to mention Ursula Le Guin— than in “the biographies of Major Mathematical Minds of the World”, that I was recommended to read in my spare time. Must say it didn’t do me any harm.

    Yet, in my later years, as an admitted and proud conspiracy theorist, I find myself leaning towards the Popcorn Cannon of mystery thrillers: Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, John le Carre and Graham Greene (with his “cheap novelettes”). And Sherlock, of course.

    Not to mention the TV Cannon of The Wire, Person of Interest, The Borgias, Foyle’s War and, my latest fave, Rubicon.

    With these I feel I have the necessary toolbox to deal with the 9/11 Wars, the controlled demolition of the economy in 2008, Russiagate, etc, etc.

    Must admit that Shakespeare did a very good job with his palace intrigues but, in the evenings, with your hand tensely gripped around a glass of vino tinto, the thrillers do a very good job of sharpening the mind.

    With that, cheers to your dedication. And, soon enough, a Jolly Mid-Summers Night Eve, una Feliç Verbena de Sant Joan and une Bonne Fête de Sant Jean-Baptiste.

  192. When I was a child and young teen I read books voraciously. But as an adult I always seem “too busy”. Nowadays it’s 400-word news ‘analysis’ and the occasional bubblegum novel.

    This evening I went in search of something a bit more substantial and ended up reading a historical account by an author I’d never heard of on a subject I have little interest in. That was deliberate. It turned out to be a very good read, much more interesting than expected, taught me several things I didn’t know and brought into focus at least two of my own unquestioned assumptions.

    If that’s what can come of an evening, what could come of a year?

    I’m not sure what I think of having a ‘canon’. Reading widely, and outside your own experience, seems like it would bring the most benefit. Since people come from different backgrouds and traditions the books that will most challenge them will also be different.

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