How often will we reread “Anna Karenina” instead of chasing something a pundit or a publisher declares a “must read?” The older we get, the easier it becomes to tune out the trendy. The line blurs between the stubborn and the wise.
In refining a literary canon, we hope to pass on the tradition of being a picky reader. It is a project dear to us. So, before the holidays, we published a commentary with proposals for 40 “essential” works of fiction (“The 40 greatest books we all should read,” Dec. 23).
The response was big — more than 200 online comments, besides a published counterpoint and letters. Delighted, we saw that many people care about literature.
As “unapologetic” teachers, we were encouraged by the paucity of comments that it was impossible, in a postmodern world, to say that a particular work is better than another. Nobody argued — lost in the nihilism diagnosed by Dostoyevsky — that “Clifford the Big Red Dog” is just as noteworthy as “Hamlet.”
By inviting principled debate, we made it clear that our selections are not grounded in scientific certainty. We expected readers to make solid arguments for and against our proposals, and for the most part they did. It is the argumentative method, after all, that fosters democracy and the rule of law. It is also part of good education.
In that conversational spirit, we offer the following refinements. We accept a rule of including only one work per author. That takes off the list, sadly, “Crime and Punishment,” “King Lear,” the “Odyssey” and “War and Peace.” The work left for each author involved is thus intended as an example, not a definitive assessment that this is indeed the best work for that great author. Those who like our selected “Song of Solomon,” for example, should feel free (and validated) to seek out “Beloved,” outside the list.
Offstage, we continue to debate the virtues of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black.” Onstage, we delete Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” The reactions convinced us that this is a lesser work, notable for its taboo-breaking style, but shallow in characters and ideas. Arguments made for “The Age of Innocence” (Wharton), “Catch-22” (Heller), “Les Misérables” (Hugo), “Middlemarch” (Eliot) and “Things Fall Apart” (Achebe) impressed us. Add those five. For the 40th spot, we would like more time to ponder the arguments for Willa Cather, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth and Virginia Woolf. (To please our friends in a book club, though, we simply settle on Cather.)
Some readers called for science fiction. Rule that out as a “genre” proposal inconsistent with the rest of the list. Note our continued agreement, however, that Le Carré surpasses the genre limitations of “spy fiction.”
Some readers proposed the Bible. While we agree that the Book of Job is genius, let’s defer the challenge of classifying that work between nonfiction and fiction. Literary choices are controversial enough without running the risk of offending religious sensibilities.
Critics most faulted us for being light on women and non-Europeans. They seemed to have missed our basic points. We are not recreating Noah’s Ark to keep all creatures happy and alive. Assume equal ability across sexes, ethnicities and other markers of division. If white men have had a disproportionate opportunity to express themselves in print over the centuries, we should expect more of their creations on the list. The same logic would apply to rankings of, say, composers. Or would the critics insist that Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms be similarly devalued because they happen to be European men?
Note our resistance to appointing tokens to our own identities. Even with an opening on the list, the Irish and the Persians receive no affirmative action. No Joyce or Rumi.
Yes, we do understand that black women have an important voice in our literature. Yet we say that it is the worst sort of posturing to claim that Maya Angelou should somehow bump William Faulkner from the list. We doubt that Angelou, unlike emotional advocates, would have lobbied for that change. Better than us, she appealed to common humanity. Recall some lines from her poem “On the Pulse of Morning,” read at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration:
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
Today, the first and last of every Tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the River.
Robert Delahunty is the LeJeune chair and professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. John Radsan is a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
THE REVISED 40
"Absalom, Absalom," William Faulkner
"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain
"The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton
"Animal Farm," George Orwell
"Anna Karenina," Leo Tolstoy
"Brothers Karamazov," Fyodor Dostoyevsky
"Canterbury Tales," Geoffrey Chaucer
"Catch-22," Joseph Heller
"The Cherry Orchard," Anton Chekhov
"Cyrano de Bergerac," Edmond Rostand
"Death in Venice," Thomas Mann
"Don Quixote," Miguel de Cervantes
"Emma," Jane Austen
"The Grapes of Wrath,"John Steinbeck
"The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald
"Hamlet," William Shakespeare
"Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad
"The Inferno," Dante Alighieri
"Jane Eyre," Charlotte Brontë
"Les Misérables," Victor Hugo
"Love in the Time of Cholera," Gabriel García Márquez
"The Metamorphosis," Franz Kafka
"Middlemarch," George Eliot
"Moby Dick," Herman Melville
"O Pioneers!," Willa Cather
"Our Man in Havana," Graham Greene
"Rabbit, Run," John Updike
"The Road," Cormac McCarthy
"The Scarlet Letter," Nathaniel Hawthorne
"Song of Solomon," Toni Morrison
"The Stranger," Albert Camus
"The Sun Also Rises," Ernest Hemingway
"Swann’s Way," Marcel Proust
"A Tale of Two Cities," Charles Dickens
"Tess of the D’Urbervilles," Thomas Hardy
"Things Fall Apart," Chinua Achebe
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," John le Carré
"To Kill a Mockingbird," Harper Lee
THE REVISED 40
Absalom, Absalom, William Faulkner
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand
Death in Venice, Thomas Mann
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
Emma, Jane Austen
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Les Misérables, Victor Hugo
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Middlemarch, George Eliot
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene
Rabbit, Run, John Updike
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
The Stranger, Albert Camus
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John le Carré
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee