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The second is to find a balance between works that come out of your own cultural background and works that come from elsewhere. In the same way, how often you like to push the boundaries of your literary palate with exotic fare is up to you. In most cases, this is exactly what they deserve. All of them slipped into merciful oblivion once the fad for their kind of fiction was over, just as Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey will in their turn. To teach someone how to think is to educate them in the workings of thought, so that they can then consider the questions that matter to them and come up with their own answers.
Mutual incomprehension is the usual result. This kind of problem arises routinely whenever a society fulfills two criteria. There are three characteristics of a canon that deserve attention here. All this presupposes, of course, a very different attitude toward the past, and the literary and other legacies of the past, than the zealots of left and right like to encourage these days.
You can pick up a copy here. The second is that it has a rich enough literary culture that members of subculture A have next to no reading material in common with subculture B. No doubt some of my readers will take umbrage at this claim. That deserves its own lengthy discussion, though, because it requires attention to the spectacular falsifications of the past common on both sides of the spectrum of cultural politics these days. One of the great advantages of a canon, in turn, is that over time it fairly reliably scoops up the Jane Austens of the past and leaves the Samuel Watson Roystons in the obscurity that they deserve.
American education these days is obsessed with teaching students what to think, with forcing them to give the right answers. This allows the canon to shape itself, and reshape itself, as an organic expression of the experience of a community.
One of the great advantages of having a canon is that it makes it a lot easier to filter out trash. The current bickering between the political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right is a familiar phenomenon in cultural history.
To teach someone what to think is to prescribe the answers they will come up with. Literary snack food has its place.
Put yourself in their shoes, and you can easily see why. Recall the spooky side of silent reading, the way that it allows you to listen in on the private thoughts of the author. Some books have this as their primary objective.
None of these things keeps it from doing its job, which is that of providing a basis for shared understanding in a society diverse enough to require that. Pay attention, though, to what inevitably happens thereafter. The first is to read things that were written before you were born. Under these circumstances, a certain degree of bitter jealousy and even actual hatred can readily be understood.
Finally, a canon is always unfair. Many of them were wildly popular during their time, as popular as Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey were in ours. The difference between these two phrases is much vaster than is usually recognized. The third is to read things now and again that offend you.
That is to say, the way to avoid mutual incomprehension is to have a canon. Philosophers from Plato to Sartre have aimed at the same goal, and a good many of them reached it. So a canon is always changing, always contested, and always unfair. Other books achieve the same effect very nearly by accident. Even in the most brilliant of literary cultures, a century might see a dozen genuine masterworks and a couple of hundred really good pieces of writing.
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