An attempt at a Cross-Cultural Canon
Hubris! The above title implies a ridiculous claim. Who is capable of evaluating the world’s literature (all of it!) and giving it a ranking? Certainly not me. I have read less than half of the books on my own list. Nor do I have any training that allows me to position myself as some sort of expert. Clearly, given these admissions, most of the books on this list are here due to their reputation, which is a perfect recipe for the status quo.
Yet, there’s a reason for this attempt.
Perhaps six years ago, I found myself in a high school English classroom in which the teacher had placed on the bulletin board a list of the “100 Books You Should Read Before You Die,” or something like that. There were a lot of (what I would consider) good books on the list. What struck me most, however, was the list’s Eurocentrism. I loved the exercise, but hated the narrowness of the result.
This was replicated in an email attachment I received last week. It was a compilation of lists sent in by English teachers in my school division showing the books they are using in their classes. Eighty-eight different books were listed. Only two were by non-Western European, non-North American authors. These were both from Sierra Leone, were both about the civil war of the 1990s, and were two of the five non-fiction books among the eighty-eight.
In a division known for its cultural/ethnic diversity, the only taste we are giving our students of the non-White-world is of a tiny corner of Africa in a particularly gruesome period in its history. Read in isolation, these books can easily reinforce Eurocentric, racist stereotypes about Africa and about Black people. The complete absence of (fictional) literature from the non-Western world also sends the message, with all it entails, that writing (and reading) are for certain types of people only – and that only certain stories are worthy of being told.
If we are to try to do better, a decent start would be to break out of our own Eurocentric reading patterns. This list is meant for your interest. It is meant to generate discussion and debate. And it is also meant as a helping hand in pointing you toward some of the great literary works out there. Please check back and enjoy! (Or be furious. But check it out.)
This Cross-Cultural Canon will be released in stages, over the next six months, following this schedule:
The top 25 – January
The next 25 (26-50) – February
The next 50 (51-100) – March
The next 100 (101-200) – April
The next 300 (201-500) – May
The final 500 (501-1000) – June