Lists and Canons

As I write the title I am aware of the ways both “lists” and “canon” (or at any rate “cannon”) have military connections. There is also a certain sense of struggle or battle  when meeting the kind of lists that come my way. I am referring to the “Hundred Books to Read Before You Die” (HBTRBYD) variety. Here is one, the Fifteen Best Children’s Books of All Time.  Yes, Of All Time.

Little White Horses, Hobbits, Boys in Dresses  and Velveteen Rabbits are all in place, along with Pippi Longstocking and the Philosopher’s Stone (I may be wrong about this one). I looked in vain for Michael Rosen hunting bears. I really like Francis Spufford’s The Boy that Books Built, although I wasn’t at all sure why that was there. Perhaps the writer’s lists got muddled, and that was the reference tome. I would have preferred the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature as a guide, but maybe I am misreading the Spufford and it really is “for children” rather than “about childhood” (for a lengthy argument on targets and destinations for older young readers, I’m sure the eloquent and energetic Patrick Ness will give anyone a run for their money, but my mind changed on this – or at least any certainty I had blown up –  when I read The Case of Peter Pan, or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction).  It’s interesting to note how age-skewed these are, although there is some material published in this millennium. I rather suspect there has been a quota system applied, about date of publication, translated or not, maybe even something about “target gender” or some other such idea.

The Bestness has to apply in all sorts of areas.

The Best of All Time has a canonical feel to it.

HBTRBYD is like that. Maybe it’s the intimation of mortality does it.

And here is another, the Top Ten Books About Trees. Because I feel a lot of sympathy for this thoughtful list – and indeed for the project of literature and landscape, I felt I could use this one to explore the idea of a list and a canon. Ignore the fact that the writer is in part writing a plug for her own book, The Long, Long Life of Trees: her motive is subsumed into the choices she makes, and in any case her book does look good. Here is Fiona Stafford’s list, shorn (pleached? pruned?) of her evaluative comments.

Howards End by EM Forster
Meetings With Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham
The Dead by James Joyce
Outline by Paul Nash
Dante’s Inferno
Sylva by John Evelyn
Whispers in the Graveyard by Theresa Breslin
Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery by John Clare
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Apple Acre by Adrian Bell

And of course my removing her comments really removes the point of the article: the list is nothing without the critical commentary. What is Dante doing there? What does Apple Acre have that Wild Life in a Southern Country doesn’t have? Where are the books that are on my desk (somewhere) even now as I type: the rich Arboreal, or the enlightening poetry collection Into the Forest or the quirky Gossip from the Forest?  The chapters from Landscape and Memory? Robert Macfarlane? Rob Cowen? The point of the articles, from Telegraph to Guardian is not that they are canonical, but that they stimulate debate.  You, dear writer, can dress it how you like, but I may not agree that Emile and the Detectives is one of the best children’s books of all time, although I remember it fondly. You might equally howl at my suggestion that we replace it with The Owl Service (a commentary website here) or More Than This or a graphic work such as Nimona.  These are your choices, I have mine (and I would probably include We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, but what might I get rid of?). Trying to make it into something with should and must (and death) is sensationalist.

The debate is what this is about. The danger comes, I think, when it is couched in terms of what you must read. HBTRBYD works on the premise there is an implicit failure in your not having read The Great Gatsby (“The BAE across the Bay” as my daughter described it on the bus to me this morning)  or The Glass Bead Game. Tick, I win: I have read more than you.  There might be arguments, of course, for literary works that are the building blocks of one’s cultural capital, although endless quizzes on the computer don’t seem to be able to come up with a decent answer, and shifting cultural experiences make this a Protean task to say the least (“What book of the Odyssey does Proteus come from, Swarbrick?”) . These arguments seem to me to be ones in which we do see a piece of literature as a building block: no Milton without the King James Bible, no Lord of the Rings without Beowulf, no Matilda without Oliver Twist &c., &c., and I have said enough about Alan Garner whose breadcrumbs of harking-back to other myths and landscapes through all his writings are almost a pedagogic approach in themselves. No Thursbitch without Gilgamesh?

So is there a difference between a list and a canon? At a basic level, no: a canon is just a list. However, the idea of a canon as somehow a required list, a hallowed thing in itself, makes me worried, especially when we come to thinking about children in school. “I think Y6 will love this” is a good day’s trek for Michelle Paver‘s young shaman/hunter Torak away from “They must have read this before Y7 or before University.” Several contributors to the Oxford Reading Spree gave us lists of books that had inspired them, but what was noticeable was that no-one (unless I saw the whole thing through rose-tinted specs) told us what children must read. These were lists, not a canon: an invitation, not a rule.

So what purpose do these lists really serve? They can do one of three things: one, the HBTRBYD method, is to score points like first year undergraduates did to me, to my near-compete despair, in 1976/77; the next is to stimulate debate about what might be on this list or that; the last is to stimulate the reader to move into a new area, pick up a new book. Whispers in the Graveyard sounds worth a look; what’s A Boy and a Bear in a Boat like? I can then make up my own mind about what quality looks like – and the more I read, the better my guess about that might be.

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