Canon B

We have been thinking about the Canon, the Great Western Canon, quite a lot lately.

Part of it comes with our Classics Club member cards. Being a Classics Clubber seems to involve thinking about the classics - about what makes a classic classic, about our relationship with these books and why they still have the power to affect us - quite a lot. We know we're not alone in this because we've read a handful of very insightful posts on this topic lately, all from fellow Classics Clubbers. And this is the part that makes us grateful that we have the classics, that, no matter their faults, they still have something good and beautiful to give.

Part of it is the discomforting realization that our map has a lot of uncharted territories in it. Like a medieval map, it is full of "Here be dragons," "Here be lions," "Here be writers we never heard of." We had this feeling reading Martina's excellent post about Polish literature. We have it every time we read a book that seems to have slipped through the cracks of the Western Canon. We even have it reading less known works from famous authors. It's like a feeling of vertigo. It's not that we had missed something - we will never read all the famous works, anyway - it's that no one told us there was something to miss. And this is the part that makes us crave more than the Western Canon, that makes us want to discover new books and new authors.

And, finally, part of it comes from an occasional desire to throw away maps altogether. There was this paragraph recently on Electric Literature's tumblr that made us nod in approval. It's from Michael Cunningham recommending a neglected classic:
I’m urging you to experience something like what I did, in consenting to read an obscure novel, an experience that involved not only the discovery of the novel itself but the attendant realization that the world is host to such novels—call them the “invisible classics.” Call them “Canon B.” It makes for a richer, more fabulous sense of what might be out there, beyond the titles one read (or pretended to have read) in college.
We read this and we thought to ask you: do you know any invisible classics? Do you know any works that should receive more attention than they do? Any works that are from foreign literature and receive little or no attention in Canon A? It doesn't have to be that they are completely neglected (an academic out there is surely writing articles about them as you speak), but that you feel they are not popular enough. I myself wish that more people read Boris Vian and more people read James' The Ambassadors (which, admittedly, doesn't lack for critical acclaim).

So please share your favorite invisible classics with us. We're taking notes and building A Hitchhiker's Guide to Canon B (also known as a to-read list). 


  1. I'm so glad you're using "the Western Canon" instead of only " the Canon"! Apparently my posts on Posctolonialims and the Others paid off :)

    I certainly see some modern books neglected as classics: for example anything from the 1940's onwards seems to be out of those classic lists. I would recommend you anything modern or postmodern (from the country you choose). For example, Malcolm Bradbury's "The History Man" changed the way English authors wrote, so did "Lady Chatterley's Lover" (it even got its own trails in the 1960's: The Crown v. Penguin) although it's more well-known; "The Magus" or, connected to this kind of literature in theme but not in period "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer.

    Hope this helps a bit!

    1. Oh, your post looks very interesting. I'll have to read it more carefully this weekend :)

      I've read The History Man. This book is always a pain in the ass for me, because I remember a lot of details from it, but always, always forget the author & title. I love Lady Chatterley's Lover. I'll have to give The Magus a try. I couldn't get into anything by Fowles after The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Collector, but hopefully this will do the trick.

      Thank you for your suggestions!

    2. You're welcome, Claudia! This year I had a very interesting modern literature course, only focused on books published after the year 2000. It was pretty interesting to see how my professor already labelled them "classics" although they were not widely labelled as such.

      I think that in the buzz of the thousand of books published nowadays people cannot distinguish good, deep literature with a meaningful message from best-sellers. We have "classics" on the making! :)

  2. Unfortunately, I'm not as familiar with "Canon B" as I'd like to be. I love the idea of finding some unknown book in a used bookstore and discovering that it's a masterpiece-but the few times I've tried that, I ended up with not so great books and when there's so much out there, well, I'm less inclined to take risks. That said, here are some great lesser known classics:

    Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
    Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
    Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
    Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
    The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary

    1. Your list is awesome. I'm only familiar with Fathers and Sons, but will definitely check out the others, so thank you!

  3. I'm trying to work my way through the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list - there are plenty of canonical books on there, but also a ton of books that are amazing, but often overlooked or not talked about. They (in my experience so far, anyway), are absolutely of value, but remain under or unappreciated.... I suppose this makes them members of the Invisible Canon?

    Some examples from the list that I can think of off the top of my head would include The Confusions of Young Torless by Robert Musil, Pluck the Bud and Destroy the Offspring by Kenzaburo Oe, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni, and Evelina by Fanny Burney

    What a great idea!

    1. Oh, the good old 1001 list! I sometimes use it too. I used to check it more frequently when I was in need of something to read, but lately I've only crossed out titles when I happened to read them independently of the list.(I get a huge satisfaction out of doing that.)

      I completely agree that The Betrothed should be in Canon. I wish I had thought of it myself. I read it because Umberto Eco recommended it warmly and I was surprised at how much I liked it. I might read Musil for The Literary Others, thank you for recommending it!