Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

‘If obscure books start raining down …’

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I just got around to beginning reading the Winter 2008 volume of n+1, which I picked up circa last February, promptly placed on my bookshelf, and ignored (it was just post-Christmas! I had so many new books to read!). I came back to it this week, as some combination of hearing about Megan O’Rourke, reading about Bellevue in NYMag, again trying to write fiction, and watching Gossip Girl this week has inspired this resurged interest in Reviews! and Lit Journals! with me (I subscribed to both Paris Review and n+1 last week). Anyway, anyway, an interesting bit from the “intellectual situation” section of winter 2008 n+1:

Canons in daily life, however, just demarcate the books you can count on other people feeling comfortable about in conversation. And these books are often capable of substitution—you don’t have to have read a particular one, if you know the rough feeling. You have read Kerouac. Unless you haven’t; in which case you can substitute Bukowski, Tom Robbins, or even Sylvia Plath. If someone else wants to read the newly republished complete original scroll of On the Road in hardcover, that’s really their problem, and it doesn’t affect your ability to talk—you served your time, you’re available for conversation. You’ve read The Great Gatsby, if you went through high school English. And you probably read Beloved, if you went through college in the last twenty-five years. If you’re in a book group, you’ve read The Kite Runner; or The Tipping Point; or Fast Food Nation. The point is, all of informal reading life works by points of safety which exist because of canons. All of these canons are pretty clear, if rarely discussed: the teen angst, high school English, college English, and short-term educational bestseller canons. There’s a “major prize” canon, too: if it won a Nobel, a National Book Award, or a Pulitzer, you put it on a mental list of books you either will read or talk about meaning to, een if you still can’t pronounce the author’s name, a decade after the Nobel went to Wislawa Szymborska.

These canons are like sturdy umbrellas you can hide under if obscure books start raining down.

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Written by Elizabeth

November 23, 2008 at 10:53 pm

Posted in Asides, The Best Things

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