Have you ever heard of the canon? No no no, not the big thing that goes boom, I mean the literary canon.
It’s basically a selection of books that are considered to be the epitome of English literature: books that have survived well past their time. The canon includes all of the books that you probably read in your high school English classes. Think: The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, 1984, etc.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these are all truly amazing books but the problem is that they’re outdated and recycled. Your high school teachers were probably reading the same books when they were in high school themselves!
My point is this: the canon needs to be updated. Now this opens into an already hotly debated can of worms regarding what is considered “classic” and what isn’t, but I think most of us can agree that there is an absence of both women authors and characters in most books that we are taught in high school.
So here is a list of books that should be included both to your teachers’ syllabi and to your summer reading list.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Marry Wollstonecroft has been called the “first feminist” or the “mother of feminism.” A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is actually an essay that is considered a staple in most feminist activists’ repertoires. It is a terrific book if you are looking to better understand the history of feminism. The work contains an analysis of the role of sexual feelings in relationships between men and women, a topic heavily explored during the period of Enlightenment. Due to her astonishingly courageous use of language and discussion of dense topics, she was invited to the same circles of the great Thomas Paine, William Wordsworth, and William Blake.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Here’s a word that you probably haven’t thought of since your AP Lit test: Bildungsroman. It’s basically a coming of age novel that focuses on the emotions and experiences that go hand in hand with becoming an adult. Jane is a remarkable character because she truly endures nearly any test you can think of: from losing a friend to tuberculosis to living with an abusive family, Jane always comes out stronger. I don’t want to give too much away, but her shining moment is standing true to her morals and doing what she knows to be right. Jane Eyre is the kind of girl that truly has stood the test of time.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
This novel is, to say the least, tricky. It focuses on a babe named Edna who feels terribly stuck in her way of being. She is married to a man consumed by his work and together they have two children. After an intense encounter with a man named Robert, Edna feels her passion for life completely re-ignited. However, she follows this passion by leaving her family to pursue painting and sexual conquests. Edna later realizes the severity of what she has done and feels that she can never truly have independence, so she…kills herself in the ocean. Like I said, tricky. But absolutely worth reading! The whole reason she felt trapped was due to society’s expectations of women: be a good wife, be a good mother. But what if you don’t want either of those things? The discussion that can be sparked from this novel is fantastic.
The Last Song by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo is a Native American poet who was born in Oklahoma. This collection of poems reveal remarkable power and insight into the scarred history of indigenous people. Her poetry is filled to the brim with emotion, tradition, and modern struggle. Harjo’s poetry blends everyday experiences with deep spiritual truths that you truly will not find anywhere else. Harjo comes from a community of people that were stripped of their identity, and the way that she reclaims that identity is something to behold.
Geography III by Elizabeth Bishop
Geography III is another collection of poems. One of Bishop’s poems that is often included in anthologies is “One Art.” Bishop’s careful use of specific imagery is what takes Geography III from good to phenomenal. These poems cover a variety of themes but unlike many of the poets that Bishop was surrounded by (Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton) she avoided explicit accounts of her personal life, and focused on subtle impressions of the world. This technique set Bishop apart from the rest of the crowd and gave her widespread recognition among the general public. You should definitely read the whole collection but some of my other favorites are “In the Waiting Room” and “12 O’Clock News.”
The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in 1967 in London, England and was raised in Rhode Island. However, her parents were immigrants from Calcutta, India. The Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that focus on what it means to be a woman, but also on what it means to be an immigrant in America. With beautifully written stories that focus on complex subjects, this book should have been on your high school syllabus. The stories are easy to read and yet contain so much depth that students of any gender, ethnicity, or age can take something from them. My tip: read the first and last line of each story.
A professor once told me that the canon is merely an idea. That’s it, just an idea. So who’s to say that we can’t change it?