Why is the Western Canon Important?

atkins-bookshelf-literatureThe Western canon, the books that scholars consider the most important intellectual and influential works that have shaped Western culture, has been debated since the publication of the 54-volume Great Books of the Western World in 1952. Critics of the Western canon argue that the works do not reflect modern viewpoints (political, religious, moral, cultural, etc.) from around the world; in short, they are written mostly by “dead, white guys from Europe.”

Two of the most passionate defenders of the Western canon are Allan Bloom, from the University of Chicago, and Harold Bloom, from Yale. (Although they have the same last name, the two Blooms are not related.) Allan Bloom wrote the influential The Closing of the American Mind in 1987. Almost a decade later, Harold Bloom continued the discussion of the classics with The Western Canon: the Books and School of the Ages published in 1995.

In a fascinating interview with Eleanor Wachtel, host of CBS Radio’s Original Minds, Bloom fervently explains why the Western canon is important and should be taught:

“A canon is a list. That’s all. We need it because we have to read Shakespeare; we have to study Dante; we have to read Chaucer, Cervantes, the Bible; … we have to read Proust, Tolstoy, Dickens, George Eliot and Jane Austen. It is inescapable that we have to read Joyce and Samuel Beckett. These are absolutely crucial writers. They provide an intellectual — dare I say a spiritual — value which has nothing to do with organized religion or the history of institutional belief. They remind us in every sense of re-minding us. They not only tell us things that we have forgotten but they tell us things we couldn’t possibly know without them. And they reform our minds. They make our minds stronger; they make us more vital. They make us alive!”

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For further reading: The Books That Shaped America
The Books that Influence Us
What to Read Next
50 Books That Will Change Your Life

The Most Assigned Books in College Classrooms

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