Literary Canons

OU Forum


In the current module of my Opem University course our lecturer set us a forum question:

I was wondering what/ who you think all children should have read by the time they leave school.  In the course book, you are asked to choose 5 authors/poets.  I’m going to allow up to 10 for your list here.  If you could annotate it, too, to explain your thinking, that would be even more illuminating.

Adam Smith – An Inquiry into The Wealth of Nations.  This work describes neo-liberal economic philosophy which has come to play such a large part in the way our world has become a globalised economy.  It does not provide answers to the issues the world economy faces such as inequality but it does provide a model on which to base analysis on and from which to form opinions.  Further reading to follow would be Marx, Keynes and Galbraith.

Niccolo Machiavelli – The Prince.  What I believe Adam Smith dod for economics, Machiavelli did for politics by providing an explanation, not a solution, about how balances of power influence the interactions between individuals, communities and nations.  Further reading to follw would be Bismarck and Kissinger who both wrote extensive books on diplomacy.

William Shakespeare – all of his works.  His plays describe the human condition such as in his plays about kings and princes.  Oh how they played the power games to gain advantage and how that resonates with what Machiavelli wrote about.  Shakespeare was a prolific writer with a legacy that surfaces with productions of his play still being run either in his original style or adapted to different eras.  I was force fed Shakespeare at school and I went on a diet until Kenneth Brannagh’s work hit the screens giving it life and colour.  Further reading would be Marlowe, Shaw and Stoppard.  (I often wonder how much Shakespeare would have written if he had a laptop?  Probably nothing as he would have been distracted by Google searches, Facebook and Twitter.)

T E Lawrence – Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  For those who want adventure this is the one to read with real life treks across deserts, blowing up trains and surprise raids on enemy camps as well as being involved in peace time events that shaped the world.  I think this volume would be relevant today as the Middle East after all is only Europe’s next door neighbour and any knowledge about this region is better than no knowledge at all. Surprise, surprise the theories of Machiavelli appear in this book as the victors in WW1 vie with each other to gain influence and power in the region.  Further reading Freya Stark, John Simpson, Jeremy Bowen.

Ernest Hemingway – all of his works.  He was American but did spend a lot of time in Europe in his early years.  The Old Man and The Sea with its message that despite age it is still worth having a go at the seemingly impossible.  Also his collection of essays in ‘A MOveable Feast’.  Hemingway presents himself as the macho hard drinking and hard living man which no doubt he was but this collection presents a softer side.  Like when he was so short of money in Paris he would tell his wife he was meeting someone for lunch and walk the streets all day without eating just so there would be enough for his wife and son to eat. For more American literature F Scott Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Styron.

D H Lawrence – all of his works.  For his use of detail set in various parts of England as in Lady Chatterley and most importantly for the breaking down of the censor’s control on what we can and cannot read.  He is sort of the Thomas Hardy type of author but with sex.

Chaucer Canterbury Tales.  His tales still stand true today such as The Millers Tale with acts of infidelity.  Also his work was very important in the history of the English language as it was the first one ever prouced on a printing press marking the advent of the printed word being available to the masses.

I am not a misogynist.

Virgina Woolfe Orlando and a collection of essays.  Her early 20th century writing is full of detail and especially Orlando which came about as a result of reading some archive material at a country house and then producing a book that covered four hundred years and a gender realignment. One of her essays from the collections gave a couple of good lessons for writers.  One, with fiction be honest and write down exactly what you feel. Two, write by all means and aim for perfection but know when to stop when you get close to it.  I think this applies to all of us about to embark on TMA06 and the EMA.

This might be a cop out from making a finite choice but include a biography or autobiography of a successful person depending on the make up the group being taught.  Sports stars for sports fans.  Business people for business fans. Soldiers for those wanting to go into the services. Or politicians for fans of politics.  But make sure that the life story really explains how the individual got from where they started to where they are now without any restraints on the setbacks on the way.  A book of life’s lessons to show it does not all happen overnight.

The penultimate to finally, Jk Rowling.  I have not read any of her books but I know that they have awakened children’s interest in reading and anything that does that has to be good.

And finally, finally we must not forget the part Caxton has played in getting us where we are today with his early development of the modern printing press.

I throw the discussion open.


About alangrenville

I live in southern Britain near the fabulous New Forest. While studying for a BSc in International Studies I have developed a strong belief in 'NIBAW' or 'nothing is black and white'. Hence my favourite saying "Too often we...enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought" (John F Kennedy).
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