Reading the under-rated & under-read

An English major’s personal literary canon of books that go ignored

Like “cool” or “art,” the term “classic literature” is notoriously indefinable. The literary canon taught in universities and reprinted countless times is full of works by authors who we’re told are great before we can decide for ourselves.

After many years of feeling the pressure to read all the books deemed “classic” — and often liking them only because I was told they were worth liking — I grew to resent what the term seemed to entail and the multitudes it seemed to ignore.

First off, white, male authors wrote most of these classics. What was deemed “classic” and therefore worth a timeless respect were reflective of a small percentage of society and definitely not reflective of me.

Second, I slowly realized that many of the writers for whom a singular novel had been etched into the canon had written other things — books that were considered to be worth less attention but ones I ended up loving just as much, if not more.

As an English major whose assigned readings often fall squarely inside of what is considered “classic literature”, and whose bookshelf at home would probably fall just outside it, I’m always redefining the literary canon for myself.

My own definition of a literary canon takes the global authors writing diverse stories that I can see parts of myself in and makes room for them in what is considered “classic.”

My own definition of what is considered “classic” also takes the authors we all love — Vladimir Nabokov, Daniel Handler and Jane Austen — and gives them credit where credit is due but not often given.

Although my English major will continue to assign me the novels that have been considered “classic literature” for decades if not centuries, I’ll keep digging out the authors whose books have been overlooked or under-read in favour of an objective definition of “classic.”

I’ll keep reshaping the literary canon to fit into my bookshelf, because it’s just that — mine.

White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith

A Dickensian epic if ever there was one. This novel chronicles the lives of two wartime friends — Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archibald Jones — and their messy, dysfunctional families. as they enter middle age. It articulates a bundle of complex themes like the diaspora experience, the immigrant struggle and the complexity of family relationships, doing so with a generous helping of wit.

This novel is one that sits at the summit of my literary canon for several reasons. First, it’s a tome — the total page count could easily battle other brick-sides books like Middlemarch or Anna Karenina. That aside, its content achieves the very things we often associate with epic novels.

White Teeth seamlessly travels across cultures, continents and generations while tackling difficult themes that remain just as relevant now as they were 16 years ago when it was written — the ability to stand the test of time being a signature trait of what is deemed as “classic literature.”

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Iranian-American Satrapi’s Persepolis is excluded from the canon just by being a graphic novel.

The narrative is an autobiographical account of Satrapi’s childhood during the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the years following, as she experiences prejudice, love and sorrow. The book — accompanied by minimalistic yet stunning black-and-white illustrations — is a sweeping depiction of a narrative’s ability to exemplify the human impact of major historical events. 

It’s timeless for its ability to seamlessly balance a dynamic, nuanced character and her personal narrative while commenting on the world as it shifts and changes around her. 

Love and Friendship by Jane Austen

As for authors whose one novel paid the bills while the world turned a blind eye to the rest, Jane Austen is the first to come to mind. The renowned Pride and Prejudice writer has become a household name for her tales of love — her heroines, though feisty, nearly always fall into some form of miscommunication with the man they are destined to end up with, who in turn falls into their line of fate by happenstance.

This winning formula is exactly what’s lacking in perhaps her most underrated and in my opinion, her most interesting, piece of work. Love and Friendship, written into Austen’s childhood notebook when she was just 14, is a story told in letters.

The parody of Victorian-era romantic novels follows the narrator Laura as she retells her life’s adventures and misfortunes to her best friend’s daughter, Marianne. In her letters to Marianne, she mocks the fickleness of romance and family traditions — a social critique that was far beyond her years in maturity and beyond the times.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I first read Gaskell in an English class. We read North & South, a novel set in the epicentre of Victorian industrial society, with heavy themes of women’s place in Victorian society.

Although this is the one often taught in Victorian Literature classes, people often forget that Gaskell wrote another book called Cranford that takes her characteristic penchant for social critique and expands it about ten times over.

In Cranford, a series of vignettes tell the story of the English country town by the same name that’s governed and dominated by women — the novel is populated by their lush friendships and dark satire. It speaks not only of its time, but much of the same critique of women’s place in society could apply just as aptly today as it did then.

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