A good friend of mine, who always drills me with questions on language and literature, once asked me about my canon or my “must-reads”: “In your opinion, which authors should everyone read once in a lifetime?”, he wanted to know.
And honestly, on the fly, I could think of the most different kinds of authors for even more different reasons; but I couldn’t think of a canon you just had to know out of common decency.
Since I’ve spent the greater part of my student days within German and English medieval studies, my first spontaneous ideas were informed by my previous reading material or by my notion of what might be uniquely representative with an eye toward German language and literature – Walther von der Vogelweide, Parzival, Martin Luther…
Today, I would approach this question differently, the more so as it can be broken down as far as I’m concerned.
On the one hand, you can ask about a canon, and on the other hand, you can ask about what you “should read.”
I’ll try to get into both questions today, and I hope to learn something new during exchanges in the comments, emails or on social media.
The goal determines the canon
If it’s your goal to read a representative digest of the German-speaking literary landscape, your reading list will differ from that of a hobby photographer digging into the work of Robert Frank* or Ansel Adams.
Before I go further into the question, I’d like to describe my own reading behavior by way of illustration.
Here, too, there are constant changes and deviations, which is why this segment shouldn’t be read as a prescription catalog. I did, however, learn those routines by watching others. So there might be something in here for you, as well…
Also, I might simultaneously be following different goals and therefore reading several books, which is not to be recommended for everyone. I still hope that the examples can show the rationale behind my reading.
Non-fiction in the morning
In the early morning, I treat myself to a little non-fiction literature, usually between 10 and 20 pages.
My day typically starts between 5 and 6 a. m. (I know, disgusting), so that I have time for a couple of pages before the first emails await me. Nine times out of ten, I read those pages on my Kindle Paperwhite*.
Why in the morning? And why non-fiction?
To be completely honest, I stole that idea from Hal Elrod, among others. In the morning, you’re still fresh, and your mind can more easily focus on new ideas and contents.
Most of the time, I’ll draw on the ever so frowned-upon guidebooks; here and there I might add something historical.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my studies, it’s that you’re never really “done” learning. That is why by this time my library includes books on photography, calligraphy*, on Winston Churchill*, data visualization*, and many other topics.
If I have set my wits to fresh contents in the morning, I feel more productive and have more ideas myself throughout the whole day.
No input – no output.
Besides, you have already reached your daily target that way, and you don’t have to struggle with feelings of guilt late at night when you’re too tired, just because you didn’t get to read once again.
Why on the Kindle?
Granted, German and English studies did turn me into a total bibliophile and book collector, but that doesn’t mean I have to put every book I ever read on the shelf.
Especially with guides and non-fiction, I’m often glad and thankful for the lessons learned; however, I’d be loath to look at the 300-page introduction to a Linux distribution from 2003, while my book-shelf creaks and moans beneath it.
Thankfully, technology allows us to consume those books quickly as a PDF or as an ebook.
Another advantage is that these books become searchable.
So, in case I can’t remember specific details in the distant future, the search bar at my mac will help me out. It might be that e-ink displays take less of a toll on your eyes than LCD displays do; it might also be that the absence of apps that might distract you from reading is one of the Kindle’s unbeatable “non-functions.”
Still, for me, the late evening remains “analog time,” which means I don’t want any buttons, screens or notifications near me. That’s why even the Kindle* stays in its corner at night. Sorry, Kindle!
Audiobooks to bridge the time
After breakfast, I usually take a big walk with the dog. And on some days, I might be listening to an audiobook through my smartphone’s headphones via the Audible app (or sometimes Librivox), or a podcast, although that choice has become somewhat rare.
Sometimes, I need total silence, that’s when the headphones stay at home.
In order that the dog doesn’t come up short, there have to be at least a couple of minutes without headphones. However, that way I can fill the minutes in between, walk longer walks and learn something at the same time.
It might also happen that I kill time with audiobooks while washing the dishes, driving or vacuum-cleaning. That way, a couple of hours might add up throughout the day, even though not every single day.
Read in order to live.Gustave Flaubert
In doing so, my selection of audiobooks is widely spread: Some books, authors, and contents are entirely unknown to me when buying; they fall into the experimental category of those books which one would like to “try out.”
Sometimes there are also classics, in case I’m looking for value added through dramatic reading.
It might also happen that I relisten books that I had actually read a long time ago.
Then there are the books that I am less interested in, that might have been recommended to me or that have received some award. For these, I might sacrifice a couple of hours to get acquainted with the audio version, even though I wouldn’t have “read” the book – political history or biographies often fall into this category.
Everyone else who reads out of a sense of guilt of not having paid attention in school, raise your hand!
The audiobook as a medium remains reserved for those moments when I usually couldn’t read. And due to the Audible subscription, it’s reasonably cheap to get the books which would be more expensive under other circumstances.
Librivox, on the other hand, is free, but it brings along some hassle in respect of search and organization.
Connoisseurs of earlier works are on the inside track here, as most of the books read – due to copyright laws – are classics that sometimes come a little short in the Audible catalog. Naturally, you pay with not entirely professional readers or sometimes even readers switching by chapter.
But who wants to whine when it’s free?
If I do read during the day, that will mostly happen on an LCD screen, be it a tablet, a smartphone or the mac.
Novels in the evening, but only paper, please!
In the evening, I’ll attack poetry and fiction – even though not with the same regularity as my morning reading – old school!
Whether it’s hardback, leather binding or softbound, I don’t really care.
And what I’m reading at times strongly depends on my mood or possibly “goals” that I’ve set. At the same time, it’s become scarce that I read one piece of literature multiple times; perhaps, because that used to be the rule during my student days.
Contentwise, the list contains almost everything from Middle High German poetry to Goethe’s Elective Affinities or Kindred by Choice to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (both for the second time) all the way to contemporary authors like John Gardner, Julian Barnes or Jochen Malmsheimer (a German cabaret artist).
Normally, I follow a certain rotation procedure loosely guided by era and geography.
Once in a while there’s a Roman author like Ovid or Marcus Aurelius in the mix, then I might jump into the modern era with Günter Grass and back again to Fischart. Lately, I’ve read a bunch of “classics,” just because I didn’t find time or leisure for some in-depth reading. If the book happens to be in English, I’ll also have a notebook right next to it, for all the beautiful words that I might still learn.
In the past, I fell back on audiobooks in the evening, usually those I had already listened to. Audible veterans will know that the app includes a sleep mode, meaning it’ll run until the chapter ends or for a predefined period before the app stops playing.
This vespertine conclusion was reserved for those days when concentration wouldn’t suffice for reading or when my eyes were just tired. That’s also why I stayed with books I already knew. To a certain extent, that was by habit from bygone times when I used to listen to audio dramas by the Augsburger Puppenkiste (a German marionette theater whose plays were recorded) which my father had recorded from LP to cassette.
“Fly, fish, read and heal!”Jochen Malmsheimer
Mostly I listened to lightweight audiobooks which I already knew. A lot of times Mark-Uwe Kling (a German cabaret artist) was in there, sometimes Jochen Malmsheimer again, then some Timur Vermes or John Niven.
Not long ago I accomplished the last step of banishing all digital devices from the bedroom. The excuse to listen to audiobooks at night (if only occasionally) had still lead to endless sessions of scrolling through videos and posts I already knew.
Yes, I too am not free from sin.
My iPhone now has its little “crib” in the living room and can think about all the bad things it did. And I have the choice between book and pillow.
Maybe someday I’ll get crazy, and I’ll digitize the old recording of Bilbo and his robber band; who knows how far nostalgia goes. But even this one won’t make it into the bedroom.
Would I be able to pick an author for the proverbial desert island?
I could, but that, too, wouldn’t solve the question of what you should read.
I’d probably pick a text that has something all-embracing about it, and that includes numerous references to other authors and genres. Whether that would be Parzival, Ulysses, Dantes Divine Comedy or Moby Dick, is still to be left to chance.
Thus far on the reading habits of the bibliophile literary scholar.
So what should you read? Interestingly enough, many people assume that the philologist just knows it all, so I’ll try to give an answer.
The question of the canon
First, I have to say that the idea of a canon (at least as perceived by myself) is fading and is ceasing to suggest the support that might have come along with it in earlier times.
The notion of capturing a literature – let alone the literature – with one enclosed, timeless list is becoming more and more of a utopia. Every year, new sub-categories of genres within non-fiction and fiction swash onto the book market, from supernatural vampire novels to guidebooks, whose niche appears so tiny to outsiders that you’re wondering how authors could dedicate themselves to it.
But the same applies to the now obsolete notions of national literatures or literary eras, movements, and trends, that rarely come along with a fixed reading list. Even during my student years a couple of new releases sneaked in here and there to be discussed right alongside the “classics”; Shakespeare next to Julian Barnes.
So don’t we have a canon anymore? Or are there several now?
Yes and no. If you take a look at literary history, you’ll find that canonizing has always taken place in waves. Some eras lay down a canon in continually renewing literary histories differing from author to author, though always equally authoritative.
In other times, scholars collected anything and everything almost encyclopedically, based on the sources at hand, but regardless of origin or quality.
You cannot help but get a feeling that we just left the last big wave of canonizing behind us, meaning the sixties and seventies. And while a good many seem to almost blindly collect and categorize for the Internet Archive, on Wikisource or within academic databases, countless sub-categories with an individual canon start to thrive.
If you call a university professor or a teacher on the topic, he or she will surely be able to give you a canon.
The necessity of such a canon, however, arises from two kinds of causes.
Either it serves pragmatism as in teaching operations, or it’s supposed to give some guidance to searching students. So it is prescriptive towards a still inexpert reader, or it presorts the ever-growing literary landscape to offer some assistance to a searching reader.
And with this we come closer to answering both questions: The times when the studiosus encyclopedically outlined a representative canon and handed it down to the layman, are indeed over – provided it ever went down in such a simple manner.
The overarching medial and technical influence of the internet has shifted the entire framework.
We’re on a trajectory towards a time where it may occur worthwhile to compose a history of historicizing horror novels influenced by jazz music, to offer an exaggerated example. The categories we need and search guidance in, are becoming smaller and, more importantly, technically analyzed with keywords and tags.
This has inevitable consequences for us as readers as well, which is why you should respond differently to the idea of a canon, depending on what purpose it’s supposed to serve in one’s own life.
For students and scientists…
… there will always be a canon of one form or another. For one thing, it’s provided the student with a geographical mobility since the beginnings of the institution “university” (and even in times of the internet); for another thing it makes sense adjust the methods of a subject to a canon that’s at least partially discussed so that the approach to research, discussion, and reviews is ensured. Albeit, that canon is not written in stone.
So it’s inevitable that science keeps disputing the process of canonizing and the value judgments attached to the canon itself. This necessity lies in its nature.
For the time being, the literary scholar can move from Cologne to New York with a clear conscience and without bothering about a rudimentary assortment of works and categories to be discussed, even though the specific selection might change occasionally. But that also means that the understanding of a canon is necessarily (and partially unspokenly) epoch-dependent.
Unlike the “student” of the High Middle Ages, today’s student doesn’t have to work through a list of specific titles that are considered representative.
Instead, one individual title often represents a conglomerate of titles that could have been treated just as well. You discuss Moby Dick as part of American Romanticism, but you could also have talked about Emerson or another author. The student and later scientist develops a far more nuanced idea of what can be considered a canon, even though that notion often remains unvoiced.
For fans of a particular genre…
… the canon is already fixed. Perhaps they read Lord of the Flies or To Kill A Mockingbird in High School. But those books won’t be the ones on their shelves today.
Nowadays, the sheer options of the literary market allow each and every reader to find his or her own personal niche, be it ever so small. And in case nobody has written about it yet, it’s probably just a matter of time.
Here the canon is defined differently. Readers set their own standards.
Maybe they remain faithful to one particular author for a lifetime, perhaps they want to read every single biography of jazz musicians on the market, or they follow a specific genre like ghost stories irrespective of individual authors.
Contemporary authors have taught us that literary works can practically turn into brands and fan cults, from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones all the way to Lord of the Rings. And when the respective series happens to end someday, there’s still no shortage reading material, since we’re well served by fan fiction and authors out of the category “Customers who bought this item also bought…”.
For the curious and the indecisive ones…
… there are several canons. In Germany, some readers might work their way through the Spiegel bestseller list, the next one might choose the New York Times. Over here someone only reads pieces of the Vienna Moderne, over there we have a specialist on the winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Perhaps you read an entire dictionary just for the fun of it (like Ammon Shea who accounts this quirky experiment in his autobiographical book*) or you read all the poems dealing with birds.
I consider myself a member of this group. Here, reading isn’t always private reading, but it doesn’t have to be work, either. And you don’t have to know up front which one it will be.
The other day I read a book on the history of jazz. My choice was arbitrary and didn’t follow any particular criteria. I just wanted to learn more about jazz, besides the practical knowledge I had already acquired during drumming lessons years ago.
The book contained recommended recording sections which – talking about canonizing – were considered especially representative for bebop, free jazz, and other categories, movements, and eras.
Some of those I actually listened to later on. In the course of my further reading, I was less and less concerned with the facts, but rather with the language style used to describe the musicians and their art. After all, good music historians always draw their inspiration from the topic itself.
And with that, we got to the actual point…
In most cases, we determine our canon and our reading list ourselves. And that goes along with broadening that list, with being influenced by other people’s reading, by prizes awarded, literary histories, or author biographies.
Ultimately, literature is a big part of our society and culture, and you should not lose sight of that. So share books, quotes, reading recommendations, and book lists with your friends, family, and acquaintances.
If you only learn by yourself in private, you’ll miss the best part of reading.
Who’s on your list? And why? Who are your favorite authors? What medium do you prefer, Kindle, audiobook, or paperback?
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