Dirty Words


I’ll begin as every good story should:

With a sin.

My own particular breed of Judasian behavior is not the outing of a secret or particular depravity of covetousness. No, by the standard’s of some, mine is a sin far, far worse.

You see, I hate the canon.

Now for those of you who haven’t spent the last seven years of your life embroiled in twenty page lists of novels and collections of poetry that have been designated as “approved” for the “serious writer’s” casual perusal, the canon is a collected body of literature that the university system has decided constitutes the most important literature in the world. That is, the books that every should and (for those of us English lit or creative writing students) must read. Failure to read a majority of these books seems grounds for excommunication from the literary world.

And dear God if most of them don’t bore me to tears.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I can see how many of these books have made it onto this list. Things like The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy and Mrs. Dalloway all carry the earmarks of common themes in Western literature. They trace the intellectual–and spiritual and emotional and sexual–development of humanity.

Or at least one group of people’s view of humanity.

See, that’s what I keep coming back to. Who made this list? Who created it? Because from my perspective, it seems like something that a bunch of old white guys came up with and then worked to instill in all of their students. But there’s a conspicuous dearth of international literature on these lists–not to mention Eastern literature and writing by women. (Okay, yeah, the Brontes are there and Mary Shelley and Jane Austen, but look how long it took just to get their names on the list).

Setting aside the “old white guy” theory, there’s another pretty big point that sticks in my craw. I’ve honestly tried to be the dutiful student, to periodically consult these lists and select titles that I feel like I ought to be reading. I’ve tried Austen and the Brontes, Proust, Woolf–so many, many names and titles and all it amounts to is me feeling miserable about these books that I “should” be enjoying and loving and learning to respect. These are supposed to be my Masters, right? The people whom I studied and whose wisdom leads me to hone my craft?

But here’s the thing. Our use of language, our relationship with language, our abuse of language has changed so dramatically. When I read the older works, I found myself not only unable to relate to those characters, but also unable to enjoy the literature at the sentence level. Though some may accuse fiction of ignoring the sound and rhythm and music of language (apparently it’s only poets who are allowed to do that), I find no melodies in the hallways of Wuthering Heights, no exquisite crescendo or delicate counterpoint in stanzas of Homer.

At their most abstract level, I love the old classics. (Anyone growing up the 90s remember that awesome PBS special called Wishbone, where the little dog told all of the stories of classic literature? Amazing!). I love their hearts, their souls, the gentle whumpf whumpf of their pulse beating against my own as I imagine the horror of King Midas’s realization or the arousal of Paris as he whisks Helen back to Troy. But to read a story is not to gain direct access to its heart. There are layers of skin and sinew that must be peeled back, organs that must be shifted and dug through. And all of that boils down to one hell of a mess.

Here would be the part where some might accuse me of laziness. Of being unwilling to see things through. To which I would reply that I have so little time. Only another 60 years–65 if I’m lucky. If I read 1 book every 10 days, that will yield 36.5 books per year. Assuming that I’ve got another 60 years of life left in me (which, let’s be honest, is a generous projection), that means I’ll only be able to read 2,190 more books before I die. That excludes, of course, quarterly journals and literary magazines (which surely need all the readers they can get) and newspapers.

So let me ask you this. If you only had 60 more years of reading left in you, would you really want to spend them of things you don’t enjoy?

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