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The Canon Of Great Imaginative Literature

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Since embarking on this literary journey into great works, one question has pulled me from one book to the next: What qualifies as a great work of imaginative literature? The Canon of Western Literature has been under attack since the 60s. Today with movements like #disrupttexts, which is a teacher led movement to remove classics from the curriculum of K-college required reading, this hatred of the West has reached a major turning point. No longer is this an academic debate. We now have thousands of "english" teachers who are applauding the removal of texts like "The Odyssey" from their curriculum.

I believe there is such a thing as great works of imaginative literature. There is a list of "Canonical" works that everyone should read before they die. I believe that this is a primary aim of education. And that being educated is not a knowing about something, but rather a knowing. As the Underground Grammarian, Richard Mitchell put it "[Education] is the cure of folly and the curb of vice, and our only hope of escaping what Socrates once called 'the greatest peril of this our life"—not sickness or death, as most of us would say, but the failure to make sense about the better and the worse, and thus to choose the wrong one, thinking it the other."

In the deep past, mysterious editors have gathered together literary materials into a list. The Bible has a history of which books to include in it and which to exclude. This is the essence of a Canonical list. Not that it is religious, but that it is exclusive. The exclusivity is critical. We cannot read the now millions upon millions of books that have been written. With some of these books, our grand editors of the past chose not to include them. Or, some invader such as the Persians invading the Assyrians, chose to burn rather than preserve. We choose the Roman method of incorporating and preserving the greatest works.

The desire to expand the canon that is so prevalent today is a desire to diminish the great works of the past. A great work cannot be chosen by its authors gender or skin color. It must be chosen by quality and influence alone. Our criteria will be works of universal value. Primarily, works that work toward improving the aesthetic and moral judgment of its reader, whatever their skin color, background or gender.

We have our ear to the past, so that we may stretch to an even better future. To destroy the great works of the past, merely to "make room" for lesser works based on new ideologies, is to make the same mistake that the Persians and others like them made in destroying rather than preserving the great works.

Sappho, considered in antiquity to be one of the great lyric poets in Ancient Greece fell to this kind of thinking. Likely, due to her more sexual content, the Christian editors chose not to preserve her. Her greatness (if it was indeed greatness) is now lost.

My goal with the below list is to compile the best possible list, edited by you and me, for the educated person of the future. We will need criteria upon which to exclude.

Here is my proposal.

Below is a list I have compiled for the Literary Canon Club (this is a paid membership for people dedicated to reading through the great works of imaginative literature. You can view it here). It is not really "my" list as it is a selection from other literary critics, namely Harold Bloom, Leonard Peikoff, Mortimer Adler.

I would like to read your thoughts on the chosen list, and what I may consider removing from it or adding to it.

But there are a few limitations I want to impose.

First, a work must be 75 years or older to be considered Canonical. This is to remove any contemporary bias we may have. But it is also to reduce the list of works. So only works written 1945 or earlier can be considered at this point.

Second, I want the list to be readable by a dedicated but busy professional. This is not a list for the cloistered academic who could lock himself away in a tower for a decade and read thousands of books.

Third, it should be readable, at a steady pace of about 50 pages per week (200 per month) in less than 4 years.

Fourth, the goal is for 50 "works" of imaginative literature. (Give or take one or two.)

Fifth, a "work" can be a book of poetry, a single dramatic text, a novel, or an epic poem.

In poetry, of course, there are individual poems that may not be considered a "work." So we will exclude those, unless someone can make a solid argument. I will consider a "selected works" from a poet as a "work." Also, we want short stories included. We can call a grouping of short stories a "work" when it is approximately 150-200 pages. For instance see the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Sixth, The list should include the major works of imaginative literature only. This is not a full Western Canon list. We will leave Science, Philosophy, History, Mathematics to others. We want works that fall into three categories; Narrative, Poetry, Drama.

Seventh, the list should be focused on aesthetic quality over cultural texts. As an example, though The Confessions of Augustine is often considered a literary text of great influence (and it is that) it should not included because it is more cultural text than imaginative literature.

Eighth, you are encouraged to suggest exclusions and inclusions into this canonical list of western literature. However, simply stating "read this not that" will be insufficient for a change. In order for a change to be implemented, you must include a detailed argument as to why it should be included. Also, to add a new work to the list, you must indicate which one you would remove in its place.

The purpose of this document is that one day in our culture's bright future, this list may be used by free institutions of general education to be required reading for students before the age of 18. This is the literature education that every human being deserves.

*Please use the comment box below to make your suggestions.


The Ancient Greeks

  1. The Iliad - Homer (2 months)

  2. The Odyssey - Homer (2 months)

  3. Aeschylus - The Oresteia (1 month

  4. Sophocles - The Oedipus Cycle (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus At Colonus, Antigone, 1 month)


The Ancient Romans

  1. The Aeneid - Virgil (2 Months)

  2. The Metamorphoses -Ovid (2 months)


Dark Ages to Middle Ages

  1. Beowulf (1 month)

  2. Yvain: The Knight of the Lion by Chretien de Troyes (1 month)

  3. The Divine Comedy -Dante (2 months)

  4. The Canterbury Tales (selections) - Chaucer (1 month)


Late Medieval & Renaissance

  1. Decameron by Bocaccio (2 months)

  2. Don Quixote - Cervantes (2 months)

  3. Shakespeare (2 months)

    1. Othello

    2. King Lear

    3. The Tempest

    4. Midsummer Night’s Dream



  1. Paradise Lost - Milton (2 months)

  2. Gulliver’s Travels - Jonathan Swift (1 month)

  3. Selected poems: (1 month)

    1. Shakespeare, John Donne, Ben Johnson, Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, William Cowper

  4. French Theatre (1 month)

    1. Le Cid - Corneille

    2. Tartuffe - Moliere

    3. Phaedra - Racine

  5. German Theatre (1 month)

    1. Don Carlos & Mary Stuart - Schiller


19th Century (Part 1)

  1. Songs of Innocence & Experience by William Blake (1 month)

  2. Faust pt 1 & 2 - Goethe (2 months)

  3. Ninety-Three - Victor Hugo (1 month)

  4. Persuasion - Jane Austen (1 month)

  5. Ibsen (1 month)

    1. An Enemy of the People

    2. The Wild Duck

    3. The Master Builder


19th Century (Part 2)

  1. Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge (1 month)

  2. Crime & Punishment - Dostoevsky (2 months)

  3. Great Expectations - Dickens (2 months)

  4. Selected poems: (1 month)

    1. Byron, Keats, Shelley, Robert Browning, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold


19th Century (Part 3)

  1. Cyrano de Bergerac - Edmond Rostand (1/2 month)

  2. Nathaniel Hawthorne - The Scarlett Letter (1/2 month)

  3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte (1 month)

  4. Remembrance of Things Past - Marcel Proust (2 months)

  5. Moby Dick - Herman Melville (2 months)


19th Century (Part 4)

  1. Nathaniel Hawthorne (Short Stories) (1 month)

    1. Rappaccini’s Daughter

    2. The Minister’s Black Veil

    3. Wakefield

    4. The Birthmark

    5. Artist of the Beautiful

  2. Herman Melville (Short Stories) (1 month)

    1. Billy-Budd

    2. Benito Cereno

    3. Bartleby the Scrivener

  3. George Bernard Shaw (1 month)

    1. Pygmalion

    2. Saint Joan

  4. HG Wells (1 month)

    1. The Island of Dr. Moreau

    2. The Country of the Blind

    3. The Invisible Man

  5. The Red Badge of Courage - Stephen Crane (1 month)

  6. The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald (1 month)

46 works

48 months


Lorna Wood
Lorna Wood
Mar 26, 2021

I agree with Nabokov that Tolstoy is infinitely preferable to Dostoevsky. I have written on the American Renaissance Canon and what the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas can contribute to our understanding of canonicity. Levinas suggests that a quality of representing the world and other entities without interfering and injecting one's own agenda, and at the same time engaging the reader in hermeneutical partnership are two key criteria of writing that has moral and aesthetic value. I agree with this, and find that Dostoevsky's Christian agenda gets in the way of my enjoyment. Not so the Christianity that Levin arrives at towards the end of Anna Karenina.

For the Greeks, I recommend Euripedes, especially Medea, because he has a unique perspective…


Chuck Salvi
Chuck Salvi
Mar 16, 2021

I think Rostand is conspicuous by his absence. I would prefer Cyrano de Bergerac over anything by Wells, Crane, or Fitzgerald. Although I have never gotten around to reading it, perhaps Sienkiewicz' Quo Vadis should be included, also.

Kirk Barbera
Kirk Barbera
Mar 16, 2021
Replying to

I agree personally. But as I said, we need to remove our personal preferences when choosing a Canonical list like this. Though I do think Cyrano should be up there as that work has had a major influence on later works, and it is a truly great and unique work in itself. I don't think Quo Vadis deserves to be up there.

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