Arnold Krupat (1941–) from “The Concept of the Canon,” The Voice in the Margin (1989)
The concept of a literary canon is generally understood in either of two ways, each very much opposed to the other. Let me state them in their most extreme form: on the one hand, the canon is conceived of as a body of texts having the authority of perennial classics. These texts, “the great books” (as at least one American college has institutionalized them in a course of instruction), are, as they always have been and always will be, nothing less than the very best that has been thought and said. To understand their content—to have isolated for further meditation their themes or ideas—is to gain or make some nearer approach to timeless wisdom; to apprehend their form is to experience the beautiful or at the least to perceive a significant order. Sympathetic contact with these texts cannot help but make one a better person, or—the phrase is a curious one on inspection, to be sure—more human.
KeywordsGreat Book American Literature Common Culture World Hypothesis Canonical Text
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