Recommended: My Canon, or my set of lifetime reading requirements pt. 1

Those of us who pay attention to things literary, that is not just the YA community but also the wider world books from schools to prestigious literary review publications, know the importance of the canon. Well, that's a bit of a hyperbolic statement. I'm sure many of you, whether or not you read the Paris Review or care about literary things, know about the literary canon. There are many great book in the most widely accepted version of the literary canon, but it's also highly problematic. In America (and I believe it is somewhat true in other English-speaking countries), the literary canon is dominated by white men. I attended an all girls high school and 90% of our standard English literature curriculum was male-authored. My school did a year of World Literature and so we did have some diversity in the mix, but for some reason we also studied Shakespeare, Flaubert, and Ibsen within that course - even in the World Literature course, white men were given screen time (so to speak).

As a young bookworm I was intrepid enough to read quite far outside the bound of the canon passed on through my curricula and over the years I've created my own version of the canon that I hope to pass onto my future students and/or children. Today I want to recommend three books, from three very different time periods, from my own canon. Certainly these writers are in the 'expanded' canon - they are introduced at more advanced levels and respected by many, but they are definitely not in many people's core curricula for every student to read, even before specialisation. And that is a shame. And so here is the beginning of my Required Reading List.

 

The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish (1666)

There are so many great early modern women writers, but the one who deserves attention from the general population of readers and thinkers (not just specialist critics) is definitely Margaret Cavendish. You can trace the mythology of the female author directly back to Cavendish. Although my research posits that the myth of the extraordinary woman is harmful to the women who were writing throughout history without any persona to single them out as different from the mere ordinary woman. Cavendish cannot be denied as a great writer, though, and it's a disservice to relegate her to upper-division university courses. The Blazing World is part-utopia story, part-sci-fi, part-autobiography, part-adventure story - in it young woman is kidnapped and finds herself in a different, strange realm. It's an amazing book and certainly accessible enough to be introduced to readers as a vital part of literary history.

 

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

The literary canon is very good to include slave narratives from American history, but Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is not one of the famous ones found on literary syllabi...but it should be! A woman' experience of slavehood written in her own voice, the very first autobiographical slave narrative written by a woman. The incidents of Harriet Jacobs life, and her courage in writing about them, was actually so unfathomable to her first readers that many doubted the truth of the book. This book's truth  is an one, though. It tells of how women were sex objects in the culture of slavery and how Jacobs withstood harrowing circumstances to save herself from that sexual debasement. It's a powerful book and an important one.

 

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

 

Clarice Lispector (a Ukrainian-born Brazillian woman) is truly one of the most impressive writers to come out of the 20th century. This, her first novel, was written in 1947 when Lispector was 23 and living in a tiny room in Rio de Janeiro. This is the story of a young woman named Joana, although it less of a story and more of an exploration of identity and self-experience. There are Joycean tones in this book (the title is taken from a Joyce quote), but Lispector is a wholly exciting voice on her own. The louder echoes I found were of Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Both are books of experience and of time and character and voice. Lispector's prose is gorgeous and should be required in every modernist section of literary education.  

 

What books would you include in your literary canon as required reading for all?