A colleague of mine contributed the following statement to an ongoing conversation about the literary canon:
For me, the canon is defined by two things: what works can I mention to an educated audience without feeling like I have to include a summary? Some works are as ignored as the Fortinbras subplot, and that’s probably a sign that they are on their way out. The other question is which works I need to know in order to make sense of contemporary writing. For instance, if you don’t have a pretty good working knowledge of sci fi/fantasy, you’re going to miss out on much of Junot Diaz’s work. I usually tell students that if they want to focus on pre-1960s lit, they should have a pretty good grasp on the bible and on classical mythology (you don’t have to believe it, but you should know it). In a multicultural society with a multifocal canon, having a ready knowledge of Star Trek, pop music, video games, and world cultures is probably just as important as the miracles attributed to Jesus and the transformations attributed to Zeus.
I found this to be an intriguing enough comment that I saved it to Evernote. However, in the weeks since I saved it, that idea of pre-1960s literature has haunted me. Although he doesn’t state it, my colleague suggests that mythology and the Bible are much less important, perhaps even dispensable, for readers of post-1960 literature.
I could argue that point, but for my purpose here, I’ll elect not to argue except to suggest that writers such as Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, and Marilynne Robinson can be best understood by a Biblically literate reader. On the other hand, let’s assume that this statement is largely correct. What does it say about the literature of an era if it privileges its own time to the exclusion of thousands of years of the past? What sort of writing draws so strongly on the ephemeral–Star Trek and pop music–for its strength? I would suggest that this sort of a literature, based on the ephemeral, is ephemeral itself. Such a literature risks being easily discarded as its host of cultural references–the coin of the realm in any number of recent works–lose their vibrancy.
I will hazard a prediction. Captain Kirk will be reduced to a footnote long before King David. Pokemon will seem absurdly obscure before Potiphar. People will wonder about a reference to the Stones while the Bible’s stones of remembrance still stand.