The Struggle of Defining a Culture
What is the Western canon? What do we mean when we use the word canon?
The word canon here refers to a tangible standard by which to compare all works of literature by. That being the case, the Western canon is applying these standards to American literature and creating a comprehensive list of the best works. With all the works that have been, and continue to be, produced it is hard to realize what literature is a good representation of the evolution Western culture.
Why should we read this literature?
This kind of literature can teach us about ourselves and help us in our understanding of the evolution of Western literature. It helps to give us an accurate insight into Western humanity’s view of themselves as human beings and their place in such a vast universe. Reading and studying literature from different times allows us to connect with perspectives and emotions from authors from different time periods. These works both reflect the time periods they are written in and show us the universality of many human experiences and emotions. Literature is essentially a catalogue of the questions the American people strive to answer in their lives. We need a comprehensive list because if you don't have a basis to go off of then it is nearly impossible to get an accurate picture of the evolution of American culture.
Where do we find a Western Canon?
Harold Bloom is qualified to make an informed definition of the Western canon. Not only because of his life long study of the most important figure in western literature, William Shakespeare, but because even at age 82 he an incessant reader. He, like so many brilliant men before him, understands that his time on earth is very limited, and he notes across his canon of works that there is simply not enough time to read everything worth reading. These two qualities, combined with his extended education and position as Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, in my opinion qualifies him to at least give us a starting place when approaching the Western canon.
Because there is not enough time to read everything good, there is a requirement for us to have a comprehensive list. Anything that you read outside of the list is still valuable, but these works best define cultural idiosyncrasies of the American people.
That being said, here is a link to Harold Bloom's list. I recommend that you at least use it as a starting place.
As Americans it is our duty to know what our humanity has encountered and conquered in our history, and the reasons those fights were fought in the first place, so that we can make informed cultural decisions. This keeps us from reinventing the wheel each generation. Literature gives us a cultural road map of Western civilization and if we have any hope to progress as a species, as Americans, and overall as civilized citizens we need to know what the next steps are to get to something as close to a civilized Western utopia as possible. That is what the canon gives us.
I hope that this article has given you the impetus required to continue, or even better start, your journey through Western literature.