Reading the Western Literary Canon in Context

by Brian on January 27, 2017 in Autodidacticism,Western Literary Canon

I want to read the best stories ever told.

I also want to read the stories that show up over and over again in our culture–the culture of the English speaking West that is. You know the ones I mean, you’ve no doubt heard countless references to stories like The Iliad, War and Peace, and Moby Dick.

Even cartoons like The Simpsons are rife with literary references from Homer’s name to Moby Dick.

To guide my journey, I chose The Western Literary Canon in Context course by The Great Courses.

This is the first in a series of posts written as a companion piece to my journey through the Western canon. I invite you to join me for as much or as little of this journey as you like.

How and why to read the Western canon

The Western Literary Canon in Context course comprises 36 lectures. Each lecture covers one or more thematically related books. I plan to go through each lecture, one at a time, and read the associated book(s).

My goal is not just to read these books, but experience them. Homer’s epic poems were not meant to be read, but heard aloud. Shakespeare’s plays were not meant to be read, but seen on stage.

I might even dip into other courses along the way like Herodotus: The Father of History or take up the challenge of learning enough Middle English to read Chaucer in the original. Wikipedia will be consulted liberally.

Many decisions need to be made along the way–which translations to read, which performances to watch, which side trips to take.

I look forward to not just enjoying each work individually, but the whole developmental arc of Western literature. The Western canon forms a continuity with one generation of writers influencing the next. Virgil wrote his epic The Aeneid as a continuation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, passing the torch from Ancient Greece to Rome. Later, Virgil appears as Dante’s guide to the underworld in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

I expect finishing the course to take a long time–likely several years or even decades. However, I establish no timeline to complete the course. As I have a life outside of literature, I will no doubt read the books in fits in starts as time allows.

Ground rules

You know what happens when you buy a big stack of books? You don’t read them. The larger the stack of books, the less likely you are to read any of them at all. They just sit there in a pile, taunting you from the corner of the room.

In order to keep enthusiasm high and prevent overwhelm, I plan to observe a few ground rules:

  1. Buy only one book at a time, and do not buy another book until I have finished it.
  2. If I need a break from the canon, do not buy another book until I am actually ready to read it.
  3. Don’t re-read any books. I read The Odyssey in high school, and I don’t need to re-invest 20 hours of my life into it.
  4. If at any time I decide working my way through the Western canon is no longer relevant to my life, I will simply abandon the project–guilt-free.

Choosing which editions to read

Reading the classics poses a problem that reading contemporary books doesn’t–which of the dozens of different editions to read.

I have a few rules for this as well:

  1. It must be available for Kindle.
  2. Footnotes and endnotes must be hyperlinked. These add a lot to a text, but I simply won’t read them if they are hard to get to–another reason to eschew paper books.
  3. Whenever possible, choose one that is Whispersync-ready with an Audible audio edition. Most English books have an Audible edition, but books translated into English from other languages are harder to come by.

For English books I typically prefer simple, unadorned Dover Thrift Editions. Their Kindle formatting is usually clean and I have an affinity for them from my school days. Sure there are many free editions of the classics, but I don’t mind paying 1 or 2 dollars for consistent, easy-to-read formatting.

Books translated into English are a completely different beast, and will be the subject of a separate post.

As I read through the canon, I will also discuss which specific editions I choose to read and why.

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