There are countless reasons to read the great literary canon. It has been under attack these past fifty years, and as they say, the chickens have come home to roost. No one reads the Canon anymore. It’s becoming less a requirement even of PhDs, where there was a time when The Canon was read by all literate men. This was the inspiration for The Literary Canon Club. To save it. And to save any reader who has the desire to take up the challenge.
Though there may be countless reasons to read the canon, below are five reasons you should read the literary canon with The Literary Canon Club.
Build a lifelong reading habit
You may already consider yourself a reader. Reading is an art. And like any art it is one that can be improved. Mortimer Adler, editor of The Great Books of the Western World series, wrote a book called How to Read a Book, which is focused on the various methods for reading books. There are stages or levels to reading a book. You might believe that reading is a project accomplished in school. Rather, reading, like all art, can be performed worse or better. Here at the LCC we will provide you with guidelines as well as tips to make you a better reader and to help you build the habit of reading good and great books. Some of these are learned form Adler and others. While some of these guidelines have been discovered the hard way, through trail and error.
“Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you,” said Harold Bloom, a literary critic and staunch defender of The Canon. It may even provide a healing pleasure. If you aren’t quite sure what he is talking about, then perhaps you could use some improvement in the art of reading. It is a universal pleasure open to anyone of any profession. The philosopher and the engineer, the scientist and the doctor, and yes, even the professor, can all equally enjoy the pleasures of imaginative literature. The literary canon in particular speaks to humans as humans, not as professions.
Francis Bacon explained another reason to read works of all kinds, particularly imaginative literature. “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.” Imaginative literature, more than any other kind of book, has as its fundamental purpose contemplation for contemplations sake.
And as Bloom says, “the strongest, most authentic motive for deep reading of the now much-abused traditional canon is the search for a difficult pleasure.” Meaning, a higher pleasure. Some have called this higher pleasure “The Sublime.” It may be the only secular transcendence we can attain, perhaps next to falling in love.
The pleasures of reading are purely selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone’s life by reading better or more deeply. You should undergo the building and improving of this personal art, because you want to achieve something great within yourself. The flourishing of your own inner world is the prime reason to build the reading habit.
Building Lasting Relationships
War. Love. Art. These are three activities from which are often forged the deepest and longest lasting human relationships. Perhaps it is because they are transformative moments in life. Whatever the case, individuals who experience the hell of war have a shared experience and a deeper knowledge of each other’s true selves. This experience becomes an almost unbreakable bond. Love, the great leap, is a period of extreme openness. Sometimes it is a dangerous openness. From here too can be forged the deepest ties a human can experience. And when it goes wrong, well, much drama has been written on that subject; Othello said he loved too much, though not wisely enough. The last, art, is much less spoken of today, but is no less powerful.
This is the connection forged from shared artistic experiences. We never forget a shared moment of sublime pleasure; and we never forget those who were with us during the process of discovery. You have experienced this, at least in small ways. Recall times when you and a friend are watching a movie you love. When you glance at their face, hoping for the reaction you feel, you are searching for this shared artistic connection. It matters not that you are both viewers. For the creator’s vision speaks for your own. This particular connection of friendship is best captured by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
The Arrow and the Song
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Develop Your Conscious Mind
This is perhaps one of the most important reasons, though the most complex. It speaks to the nature of humans qua humans. Here I will quote the linguist Richard Mitchell:
Language is the medium in which we are conscious. The speechless beasts are aware, but they are not conscious. To be conscious is to ‘know with’ something, and a language of some sort is the device with which we know. More precisely, it is the device with which we can know. We don’t have to…
Consciousness has degrees. We can be wide awake or sound asleep. We can be anesthetized…
Imaginative literature—great works in particular—use the grandest language available to humans. It requires much effort from the mind of the reader. The reader must be fully awake. In that way, among others, great literature acts as a shot of adrenaline to the active mind.
Deal with The Big Themes
The great works are great because they deal with grand themes: Fate, God, Death, Honor, Free Will, Good & Evil. They are abstract concepts that reach universality. Every human deals with these ideas. Often, we do so implicitly or without much thought. Our views on them are dropped down upon our heads in subtle ways by television and movies, popular contemporary literature, podcasts, parents, teachers and college professors. To engage with the great works for ourselves is to understand our own views on these subjects. This will alter the way you behave in the world. Whether you realize it or not, you are acting based on an implicit view of Fate and Free Will that may be contradictory and complex.
Agreement with these authors is not the point. Few people today would wish to live in the warrior culture of The Iliad or the duty culture of The Aeneid. But, then again you can’t know that until you have experienced it. The point, rather, is to see and experience for yourself. Once experienced, like a personal experience from your own past, you can recall it and contemplate it as if it were your own.
Squeeze More Out of Your Reading
Reading is of course a solitary act. This club does not have collective reading times. What we do is help you to gain more from your reading than you otherwise would. We will also help you to stay motivated with weekly emails to ensure you are on track. Think of it like a coach that helps to make sure you are hitting your fitness goals. The monthly discussion group with further help to focus your interpretation.
Our goal in the main monthly online meeting is to ensure all the readers are holding the entire story in their minds as a unity. This is critical when experiencing imaginative literature.
Enrollment for Session I: The Ancients is now open. We are covering Homer’s The Iliad, Aeschylus’s “The Oresteia,” Sophocles’s “The Theban Plays,” and Virgil’s The Aeneid
Club Members gain access to many valuable services including:
Access to the monthly live discussion groups
Guided reading materials
Access to all mixers now and in the future (online and in person)
Access to special future events online or otherwise.
On top of the regular 90 minute Zoom discussion, the guided readings, the motivational coaching, we are planning special online zoom discussions for members only. For instance, one-time meetings to discuss particular works in even more depth, or to discuss aspects of works such as character comparison across various books. As you progress through the literary canon, we can compare Aeneas to Yvain and both to Milton’s Satan and all three to Beowulf. By the time we reach the 19th century, we will be in a prime place to better comprehend the grandeur of that artistic century.
Francis Bacon once said that “reading maketh a full man.” He meant it in terms of empty-to-full. One cannot lead a full life without some reading. And it is these works of imaginative literature that are the most important in leading to that full life.