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Eva T. H. Brann THE CANON DEFENDED I intend t? mount the strongest defense, no punches pulled, for the Canon of the Western Tradition. To be perfectly up front about my allegiances: I shall be making my case from two sources, from principles that articulate my intellectual convictions and from experiences gathered in the course of one-third of a century's teaching at St. John's College, where my ideas were formed. By "the canon" I shall mean a list ofbooks held in high, even reverent, regard by a stable community of readers; by "the Western Tradition," a sequence of books, beginning with the Homeric epics, that stand to each other in a dialectical tradition of mutual response; by "a defense," a cluster of claims, arguing that faculties of universities and colleges should assign these books to themselves and to their students for common study. It goes without saying that I could not mean that teachers or students should read these books exclusively. I think that we should all read, at our choice, whatever book is fine in itself and of consequence to the world, in any language and by an author of any sort. Zest for all books and allegiance to a few is a natural consequence of a good education. My claim is only that a first reading of the books of the canon is a sine qua non of literacy. I am, moreover, acutely aware of the fact that none of my arguments is conclusive. Each has a rational counterargument worth listening to. That is what gives the "canon controversy" such life as it has. Naturally I think that the preponderance of principle and pedagogy is on the side of the canonical books. It must, however, be said that as more mental energy goes into these wars, less is left for those studies that make us competent to fight them. Some of the hubbub is, I begin to Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 193-218 194Philosophy and Literature suspect, diversionary activity. In the time spent arguing which books to read, all the books could be read, especially since the number of books cited as replacements is not vast and the suggested texts are not inherendy difficult. I cannot get over the impression that accedía, the sin of intellectual sloth, does have some part in this affair. Otherwise we could resolve it simply, as eager students always do, by reading beyond the assignment. That seems to be what our students, bred on great books, often do. Quite a few are avid for topical reading and good at finding what speaks to their particular condition. Hence they discover early the revisionist standbys long before they achieve cult status. For example, a decade ago, one of my students, Laura Nakatsuka, gave me as a present a copy of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Warrior Woman, somewhat before it became a standard feminist reference. She set me on a course of Anglo-Asian reading and alerted me to a literature that may be the salvation ofthe English language. Disciplined formal reading seems to engender adventurous personal reading. Typing. In the canon controversy, books are too frequently cited en masse, by genres and types. There is, for example, Literature, the superset , and then there are Black (or African American), Ethnic, Feminist , Women's, and other subsets of books. "Literature" is produced by authors, and the subsets are produced by African American, ethnic, feminist, or women authors. I am not merely expressing a teacher's irritation with a lack of specificity , with the lack of reference to actual books in the public debate, especially the "multicultural" debate. That is very American—I cannot resist citing Tocqueville, who repeatedly points to our democratic propensity for vague generalities and large abstractions (Democracy in America II, xvi, xviii). There is, however, a deeper issue here, a "hermeneutic" issue—that is to say, a question concerning the nature of books and readings. It seems to me that after reading many books one might conclude that Literature (or Art) designates a legitimate class of objects, and the terms "novel," "poem," "essay," and even "fiction" likewise. Or one might have misgivings. But these typings ought to be...


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