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What is a Book?

ISSUE:  Spring 1999

In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, asking myself a question, namely, “What is the canon?” On my way to answering it, I’d like to say I went to hell and purgatory and paradise, like Dante, but all I did was give up on my first question and substitute another, better one that serves as the title to this essay. And I think I have an answer to that one.

Some background: in 1987, Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argued against multiculturalism in the classroom and for the traditional Western canon as most people define it, that is, a list of works beginning with Plato and Aristotle and continuing through Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. No doubt to even Bloom’s surprise, The Closing of the American Mind spent 31 weeks at the top of the bestseller list, ultimately selling more than 800,000 copies and spawning a micro-industry of responses both positive and negative.

Among recent books that take up Bloom’s decade-old argument, the best known are probably David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World and Lawrence W. Levine’s The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History, both published in 1996. These two titles make clear where the authors’ sympathies lie, i.e., at loggerheads. They also suggest that, like the poor, the canon will always be with us, both as a monument to cultural achievement and also a whipping post to which past oppressors can be tied and then flogged by present-day champions of their oppressees.

Okay, so what is the canon? Or is there a canon? Or are there different canons for different audiences? And who decides? A recent attempt at canon-making is described in a Nov.27, 1996 New York Times article describing a survey taken by Professor Kenneth Dauber of the State University at Buffalo, who asked his more than 2,100 colleagues what 10 literary works they would most like their own children to have read by the time they finished college. According to Professor Dauber, putting the question this way (as opposed to simply asking for the 10 most important books ever written, say) resulted in a response “more primal than political.” On the other hand, the results were political anyway because the top 10 books were all written by dead white men—hardly a surprise, notes the professor, since “our faculty is comprised principally of live white men.”

As reported in the Times, the SUNY-Buffalo faculty’s top 10 books include, in no apparent order, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the Bible, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Plato’s Republic, Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, Melville’s Moby-Dick, a collection of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers, and, finally, an unnamed Tolstoy novel. This is a worthy list, of course, if a strangely skewed one.

For example, there are no recent books; the newest is Freud’s, which appeared in 1900. Too, with the exception of Hamlet, none of these works was written between the second century and 1776. Where are the works by, on the one hand, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Boccaccio, and Montaigne, and, on the other, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, and Hemingway? One quick conclusion that can be drawn from a list like Professor Dauber’s is that, if you list 10 great books, you’ve got to leave out 10 or a 100 or a 1,000 that are equally great.

I didn’t let that stop me from deciding to reproduce Professor Dauber’s effort on my own campus, though on a very small scale— using 20 faculty, say. I wanted to keep things simple for several reasons, not the least of which was my own lack of expertise as a pollster; 20 responses would be no problem, I figured, but not a 100 times that many.

By limiting the size of my sample, I also wondered if I couldn’t correct for the bias that Professor Dauber admits to in his results by selecting a deliberately more diverse group than his. Too, it struck me that there is a possibly an additional and unacknowledged problem with the professor’s group, which is that, SUNY-Buffalo’s admirable reputation notwithstanding, there must be quite a range of literary aptitudes among his numerous colleagues, from the highly developed to the less so. That, I knew, would not be a problem with my smaller group, since I could select not only for diversity but also quality as well.

Of the 19 faculty members I eventually chose for my survey, most of whom were from either the English Department or the Department of Modern Languages. Seventeen have what the academy considers the terminal degree, that is, either the Ph. D. or M.F.A. Of the remaining two, one is working on a Ph. D., and the other has a master’s degree. On the whole, they’re a highly accomplished group: 16 have published one or more books. Most importantly, though, these were among the best-read people of my acquaintance; each of them is a prodigious buyer of books of every land, and they all have what Thomas Jefferson called “a canine appetite” for reading. In fact, the lone master’s degree-holder in my group is there for just that reason: of all my colleagues, she reads the most and the most widely.

As far as cultural diversity goes, 10 of the 19 are women, three are African-American, one Cuban-American, and one is a native of the Netherlands. The most important aspect of their diversity, though, is that this group covers a variety of historical periods, from medieval to contemporary, and a variety of literatures, from American and English to French, Italian, and Spanish.

Having made up my list of faculty respondents, I realized I had two captive audiences on whom I could perform the same experiment: the students in my classes. There were 28 juniors and seniors in my 19th-century U.S. Novel course, and I was also teaching a graduate writing seminar with 21 students in it, most of whom were poets or fiction writers themselves. In other words, as student groups go, these two were fairly sophisticated, though surely their responses would be different from those of the faculty, and that difference, I thought, might be instructive in some as-yet-unforeseen way. Then, having expanded my initial survey group from one to three, I figured I’d go one step further and poll a fourth group as well, a high-school Advanced Placement English class of 28 students.

From the outset, I was aware of how little science was involved in my data gathering. There was a certain amount of planning, of course, but most of my time was spent cajoling and arm-twisting and trying to get people to give me their lists; anyone who has ever sent a memo to a faculty and tried to get them to reply by a deadline will know what I am talking about. So there was a lot of jawboning, yes, but scarcely more science than it takes to make a lemon-meringue pie and certainly less than is required to program a VCR.

Indeed, if an objective response to the survey question involves a certain amount of thoughtful reflection, I insisted on just the opposite, i.e., a nearly-instant response that would, I hoped, fulfill Professor Dauber’s expectation of a primal reaction rather than one governed by considerations of which books would look good on such a list, which would be most enlightening, and so on.

The three classes, of course, were at my mercy: I told the students to make a rough list at the beginning of the period and then I collected their formal lists at the end. To the faculty I said that I wanted their lists by the end of the day, a stipulation some met and many did not. I finally tracked one slowpoke down in his office and sat by his desk while he wrote down his titles. When he finished, he thanked me for giving him only 10 minutes because, as he said, if he’d had 15, he wouldn’t have been able to do it.


The question I posed to each of my four groups was the same as the one used in the SUNY-Buffalo survey, i.e., “What 10 books would you like your own children to have read by the time they finish college?” Here are the results, beginning with the youngest age group and proceeding to the oldest. The order is determined by the number of times each book was mentioned, with books receiving equal numbers of mentions listed together in alphabetical order; for example, in the first list, the Chopin and Heller novels are equally popular and so are listed as 3 and 4.

25 Advanced Placement English High School Students:

1   Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

2   Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

3, 4   Chopin, The Awakening; and Heller, Catch-22

5, 6, 7   Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front; Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet; and Wright, Black Boy

8, 9   Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities; and Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

10   Alcott, Little Women; Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; Camus, The Stranger; Dickens, Great Expectations; Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; Shakespeare, Othello; White, Charlotte’s Web; and Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

I couldn’t help noticing that at least nine of the works on this list have been made into movies, including William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which stars teen heartthrobs Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes and which was in theaters at the time I conducted my survey. I suspected the students had been shown others in their classes and wondered if the impact of visual images had made these “texts” more memorable than others.

In talking with the high-school students later, I had a conversation with one young woman that I found amusing, though what she said kept recurring to me throughout my data-gathering and, in the end, proved the key to the question posed by the title of this essay. She asked me if I knew of a book called The Phantom Tollbooth, and I said, yes, I’d seen it in the bookstore, and is it a good one? It’s the best, she said, absolutely the best; she’d read it in the fifth grade and then maybe two dozen times in the next two years and had put it on her list.

But since she hadn’t read The Phantom Tollbooth in five years, I suggested gently she might read it again and see if it’s as good as she remembers, because people mature, tastes change, and . . .at this point she cut me off and said, I don’t have to read it again, and she tapped her head furiously to show me where the book lived: not on some dusty book shelf, but in the unsullied world of her imagination.

When I looked at the high-schoolers’ surveys later, I saw that some of them seemed to reveal a great deal about particular respondents. One youngster listed Catcher in the Rye, A Tale of Two Cities, The Awakening, and The Scarlet Letter, but also How to Win Friends and Influence People, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Magic of Thinking Big, Think and Grow Rich, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and How to Have Confidence and Power in Dealing with People. A surprising number of these students listed books by Dr. Seuss and other children’s authors, and three of them listed Anthem, which I’d never heard of and learned later was by Ayn Rand.

Now for the second list:

28 College Seniors in a 19th-century U. S. Novel Class:

1, 2, 3   Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; and Shakespeare, Plays (especially Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream)

4, 5, 6   Foe, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; and Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

7, 8, 9   Chopin, The Awakening and Other Stones; James, The Turn of the Screw; and Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

10   The Bible; Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God; Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird; and Morrison, Beloved

Five of the titles are ones I was teaching to these students at this time, which should remind the reader of my comment about science and lemon pie, above. On the other hand, they are all good books, and I would have no reason not to recommend them. Probably the least-known of these is Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which has always been a real eye-opener for my students since its author was herself a slave and therefore speaks authentically about the horrors of a life which contemporaries like Harriet Beecher Stowe could only describe from the outside. Is this what a good book is, one that makes a difference in how we how we see the world?

As with the high-school survey, the college one too contained its little surprises and major bafflements. For some reason, Dr. Seuss’s books kept showing up, but then so did Laclos’s Liaisons Dangereuses, Lewis’s The Monk, and Mann’s Dr. Faustus. One student listed Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy but also Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, that being possibly the first instance of those two books ever appearing on the same page together.

Here’s the third list:

21 Graduate Students in a Writing Seminar:

1   Shakespeare, Hamlet

2, 3   The Bible and Melville, Moby-Dick

4   Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

5, 6, 7   Conrad, Heart of Darkness; Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury; and Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

8, 9, 10   Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment; Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems; Faulkner, The Hamlet; Hemingway, Collected Stones; Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; Shakespeare, King Lear; and Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

As I moved from readers in their teens and early twenties to ones in their late twenties and over, the lists became not only more canonical but also more homogeneous—no more Boethius or Vonnegut, together or even singly. I wondered if, since the grad students were writers (mainly of fiction) as well as readers, they had listed certain craft models who may have been important to them: Hemingway for style, say, and Faulkner for interior monologue. And the fourth list:

19 Faculty from English and Modern Languages:

1   Shakespeare, Plays (especially King Lear)

2   Ellison, Invisible Man

3, 4   Eliot, Middlemarch; and Melville, Moby-Dick

5   The Bible

6, 7, 8   Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems; Homer, The Odyssey; and Twain, The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn

9, 10   Dante, The Inferno; Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; Morrison, Beloved; and Wright, Native Son

For the first time, I saw the names of Dante, Homer, and Marquez—younger readers, evidently there is more to heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your book lists. As I expected, the faculty came through with the most canonical list of all, even though, as I look at their recommendations, I can’t help but be bothered again by the problem of defining “canon” in the first place. Boethius and Vonnegut don’t try to bunk together here, but do Shakespeare and Richard Wright make compatible bedfellows? T.S. Eliot appears on this list, which raises another question: where has lyric poetry been hiding so far?

Not at all satisfied with my four very different lists, I decided to make a master list. There are two ways to do this, I realized. First,

By Combining The Four Lists Above:

1, 2   Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye; and Shakespeare, Plays (especially Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and King Lear)

3   The Bible

4, 5, 6   Chopin, The Awakening and Other Stones; Melville, Moby-Dick; and Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

7   Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

8, 9   Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; and Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

10   Poe, Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; and Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

It might be argued that this method of combining makes a stripling’s vote equal to a graybeard’s, but, since I was trying to make this exercise credible to students, this radically democratic vote-counting method was an important selling point. A hodgepodge of titles with a definite tilt to the modern, this first master list should offer some satisfaction to both the egalitarian (most great books lists consist entirely of white males, but at least this one has three women authors, two of whom are African-Americans) as well as the canonical (this list includes both the Bible and Shakespeare). In other words, this list will satisfy no one.

The second master list can be made this way:

By Combining All 93 Individual Ballots:

1   Shakespeare, Plays (especially Hamlet, A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, and King Lear)

2   Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

3   Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

4   The Bible

5   Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

6   Chopin, The Awakening and Other Stories

7   Melville, Moby-Dick

8, 9   Ellison, Invisible Man; and Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

10   Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby; and Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Again, this is a list unlikely to please anyone, though there are some interesting differences between it and the others. For one thing, the rankings of individual books are much more distinct. For example, Shakespeare got 45 votes to Salinger’s 25, and only two books (Invisible Man and The Scarlet Letter) got the same number of votes. As far as names go, this master list differs from the other in that Foe and Vonnegut are dropped and Ellison and Fitzgerald added.


As I looked over my four initial lists, I had these initial reactions.

(1) In deciding what books are important, how big a part does nostalgia play? Notice that The Catcher in the Rye is high on the high-school list, lower on the undergraduate list, lowest on the graduate one, and then it disappears. Think of the conversation I had with the high-schooler about The Phantom Toolbooth and then consider this: have the students who listed Catcher read it recently or are they remembering it as a one of their first big satisfying reads?

(2) Only one high-schooler listed the Bible, even though my guess is that a rather high percentage of these students read the Bible weekly, i.e., when they go to church or temple. Guessing again, I would venture that members of the three older groups are likely to be more indifferent to religion than the high-school students are, even though significant numbers of each of the older groups did include the Bible on their lists. In other words, whereas many older readers think of the Bible as a book written like any other, subject to interpretation like other books, and so on, almost none of the youngest group does, and this despite its colloquial definition as “The Good Book,” a phrase they’re surely familiar with. It could also be that, with more reading experience under their belts, the older groups recognize how important the Bible is as a key to other, subsequent books.

(3) As I compiled the results, the popular titles soon became less interesting than the exceptions to me, who soon wearied of seeing the same titles move to the center. After all, I’ve read most of these not only often but also recently, whereas it’s been a long time since I’ve read all of The Oresteia and Don Quixote, and I’ve never read A Vindication of the Rights of Women, The Incredible Lightness of Being, or The Pillow Book Of Sei Shonagon. By the way, when I handed out my surveys, I didn’t ask for annotations, but I certainly got them, and no one was more zealous than the person who mentioned the last-named book. For what it’s worth, then, let me pass along the information that you shouldn’t really think of yourself as an educated person unless you’ve read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.

(4) As they say on the street, Shakespeare’s da man. If you take the author-is-dead pronouncements of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault literally, the Bard’s a goner. But he’s alive in the hearts and minds of my 93 book-lovers, and in the surveys, his works came in way ahead of anybody else’s.

The MIAs include Hardy, Trollope, Thackeray, and Austen (and with all those recent film adaptations of her novels, too). Dickens is on the high-school list (twice, in fact), but none of the other Victorians. And where are the authors of the 17th and 18th centuries, of the 250-year period between King Lear and Moby-Dick?

The biggest omission, though, is poetry. When I passed out my survey forms to the graduate students, one graduate student said, Oh, we can’t list poems. Like what? I said. And she said, “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” so I said, Just put down Keats’s Collected Odes. But her lament did identify a problem: because we teach poems one at a time, most readers think of specific poem titles rather than collections. Only one person of the 93 listed The Norton Anthology of Poetry— is this because we think of favorite books as pals, as good friends to curl up with, and nobody every curled up with an anthology?

The more I thought about it, the more this anthropomorphizing of books seemed crucial to me in dictating my respondents’ choices. For example, when I remembered what the one high-school student said to me about The Phantom Tollbooth and the way she had defended it against my suggestion that it might somehow be unworthy of inclusion on a list of important books, I realized, from the language she chose and the facial expressions and hand gestures she used, that she was standing up for that book the way she might have stood up for a goofy but lovable brother or smart, dorky friend.

One of the graduate students suggested that the overall supremacy of Shakespeare on everyone’s list is proof that the French post-structuralists and their followers are wrong, that the Dead White European Male is more alive now than ever before. My own feeling is that the concept of authorship is almost irrelevant to a survey like this. What counts is the personhood, not of the author, but of the book: whether there was or wasn’t a historical person named Shakespeare and whether he did or didn’t write Romeo and Juliet is less important than the fact that the play itself is a person, a wise and generous pal who is somehow both young and old at once and who tells you more about love and family and the feelings people have and the mistakes they make than you’d ever get from a stadium full of parents and coaches and counselors and psychologists.

The more I looked at my lists and thought about the things that my respondents said to me, the more I realized that they had turned real books into figurative persons, much as books become people in one of the high-schoolers’ favorites, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Surely this is why the novel is the genre that occurs most often on these lists. The novel is a friend like any other: steadfast, there when you need him or her, friendly to you but in need of your friendship (that is, your sympathetic reading) as well. The earliest novels were people, in effect: Pamela is Richardson’s heroine writing for help, and Robinson Crusoe is an outcast telling you of his trials (which you’ve had, too) and triumphs (and you’ve had a few of those as well). The other literary genres are less flesh-and-blood than the novel is. A play is a temporary confection, as Puck reminds at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an array of “visions,” a “dream” created by players who are themselves “shadows.” (The most popular plays on the lists are biographies, though, of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Lear— people, in other words.) A poem is a quick chat over the fence with a neighbor, someone who is smarter than you are and maybe even a little intimidating, whereas a novel is familiar and domestic, a week- or month-long presence on your end table or by your bed.

Just as we all have different tastes in friends, non-fiction will always be cozier to some readers than others, and my lists did include Plato’s Symposium, Aristotle’s Poetics, Montaigne’s Complete Essays, and Descarte’s Meditations on First Philosophy. But we like persons best, especially first persons, which may explain why Ishmael, Huck Finn, Nick Carraway, and Holden Caulfield are on this list as well as the first-person narrators of Ellison’s Invisible Man, Foe’s Pym, and Jacobs’ Incidents. The younger my respondents were, the more novels they listed: often my own students seem to want me to be a father to them, and I think they want their books to be like a benign parent, too. Or perhaps more like an uncle or aunt, say: wise, tolerant, supportive but not demanding.


This essay began with an attempt at defining the canon and ends as an attempt at defining a book. As a result of doing my survey, the whole idea of the canon seems less important to me now. Apparently Professor Dauber of SUNY-Buffalo is satisfied with the list of books that he drew up with the help of his colleagues; the New York Times article reported that he was going to teach a course in the Spring 1997 term called “The Top 10 Books,” based on the results of his survey. More power to him! It’s a splendid list as well as one which, if you’re a scientist, was obviously constituted in a much more reliable manner than any list of mine.

Still, I have a certain affection for my looser, more populist attempt at canon formation, precisely because the end result is no canon at all. It’s the diversity of the books my individual respondents recommended that appeals to me; while I learned something about readers’ tastes (and Shakespeare’s popularity), right now I’d still rather read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon than re-read Macbeth. Also, I’d like to conduct this survey again in five years, 10, 20, and see what, if any, differences there are between the lists I come up with and the ones I have now. The canon is a destination; I’m more interested in the trip.

I hope others will read this article and do something similar and let me know what they find. I hope other, nonacademic readers do a comparable survey with their book club members or local library patrons. I’d like to see somebody redress the poetry imbalance and find out what the top 10 lyric poems are. Or what about the “the 10 books that changed your life”? I bring up this possibility because one faculty respondent told me she put Middlernarch on her list because she’d first read it just as she was about to enter into a bad marriage, and when she saw how important it is to choose a husband carefully, she called the whole thing off.

Or how about, not the 10 books you’d want your children to read, but the 10 you’d want to discuss with your children? How about a wild-card list: pass out copies of one of the master lists and tell everybody they have to put down only books they don’t see there?

So I learned a lot by conducting my survey the way I did, by asking those who were 16 as well as 60, who’d read maybe 40 books in their lives as well as 4,000. The little people are as good as the big shots in this country, the masses as good as their leaders: that’s the American way. That’s one of the reasons why, on my own top-10 list, I put Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

No one else did, though.


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