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Essential Books

The power of the personal canon.

Way back at the start of the year, a friend and I decided to read our way through PopChart’s list of 100 Essential Novels. PopChart has posters for 100 Essential everything, from horror films to National Parks, but books are in our friendship’s DNA, so novels were the natural choice.

About three novels in, I (somewhat belatedly) wondered why some of the titles had been chosen. I could understand Things Fall Apart, but Passage to India? Maybe if you were interested in colonialism, but otherwise…? What made these books essential? Our educational hive mind? School is, for many of us, our primary exposure to the “classics”. But why are “classics” essential to Language Art curriculums? Because they’re in the Western canon, of course. And why are they in the canon? Well…because they’re classics.

The logic is clear but pretty unenlightening.

The Western canon is changing. Until recently, it was curated by hawkishly white, straight male academics, and comprised of equally straight, white male authors. Sure, there were exceptions, but they largely proved the rule — for every James Baldwin or Bronte sister, there are still ten Charles Dickens.

In recent years, the canon has finally begun to expand, albeit slowly. It now includes more women, authors of color, and LGBTQ writers than it did in the whole of Western literary history. Cultural reckoning and social change have finally caught up with publishing. In previous generations, readers were content to let the canon’s exclusivity go unexamined, but that’s no longer the case. The discourse around books and reading has changed, and the canon is starting to reflect that, with authors like Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro taking up well-deserved critical space.

Social media is at the vanguard of this change. Hashtags like #BookTok, #Bookstagram, #BookTube, and #Twitterature represent passionate, thriving book-centric communities. Reviews, thoughts, and opinions are traded for free on social media, to say nothing of GoodReads and LibraryThing, two massively popular platforms devoted entirely to reading.

Never before has it been too easy to discuss, geek out and disagree about books. Thanks to the ubiquity of public discourse, the definition of what makes a book “important” has changed too. In the mid-20th century, white academia controlled the discussion because there was no practical way of broadening it. As a result, intellectual exclusivity defined an author’s importance, so Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Thomas Pynchon joined the canon.

Now, the discourse around publishing is broader, more critical, and culturally diverse. Rather than safeguard established academic traditions, social media facilitates new expectations, like critical engagement and authentic representation, so Colson Whitehead, Shirley Jackson, and Alexander Chee have become part of the new generation of essential reads.

It’s no longer enough for a book to be beautifully written or critically acclaimed. It has to successfully run the gauntlet of online discourse. 21st-century discourse forces the canon to face an expanded arsenal of critical lenses. It’s no longer enough for a book to grapple with “the human condition” because the “human condition” is no longer defined by cis, white, neurotypical males.

Cultural appropriation, fetishization, enslavement, neuro-diversity, and internalized misogyny are just a handful of human conditions that the traditional stable of “classics” were not meant to grapple with. Were it not for online discourse, the canon would lose its relevance by failing to expand.

So, broadly speaking, the discourse surrounding a book informs how “essential” it is, but what about on a personal level? Does a book’s impact on one reader bear considering? Well, yes. Discourse is fueled by individual readers reading books on subjects that are essential to them.

In academia, theory distills a book down to its most critically relevant parts. Midnight’s Children is an essential post-colonial text; The Woman in White is essential Victorian lit, but neither is essential if what you want is science fiction. What makes the book essential, is its context. Outside of school, that context is you…the individual reader…fueling discourse, (even if that discourse is just a three-star GoodReads review).

Without context, “essential” becomes shorthand for “written by a famous dead guy”. No book is relevant without context, and the book’s most immediate context is the person reading it. A culturally significant book becomes utterly insignificant when it fails to connect to the person holding it.

The trust is that the thing we call “the Western canon” is just one of many. Every country and literary tradition has a canon. Poetry, works in translation, science fiction, mystery —every genre has one too. You have a canon. Every reader does. It’s that list that you keep going back to when you can’t read anything else. Golden age mysteries saved my reading in 2020. For me, Agatha Christie is essential. So are Bram Stoker, Neil Gaiman, and Sherlock Holmes, but my canon is expanding too. Sayaka Murata, Helen Oyeyemi, Gwendolyn Brooks and Octavia Butler…the list gets more diverse every year — discourse is working on me too.

Canons are essential as windows into a culture. They make great starting points, but the most essential canon is yours, compiled over a lifetime and curated by you. That list of books is gold.

So, what's in your personal canon, and why? We'd love to hear what you think. Let us know in the comments :)