Archive for the ‘literature’ Category


This collection of short stories by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat lives up to its considerable hype.  I love short stories as a literary form and I love writers who know what to do with them.  Danticat writes about women in Haiti, and the connection between the individual characters and the place they live – a place that is almost overwhelming to read about.  These stories are something new, something that I haven’t seen before, and that’s really exciting.  It is often said that the more specific an individual’s story is, the more universally resonant it becomes, because in that specificity exists the individual’s humanity.  Danticat’s work proves this yet again.  From the girl whose mother is jailed for witchcraft to the woman whose husband steals a hot air balloon, to the woman who finds a dead baby in the street and decides to keep it, Danticat creates profoundly human women in her stories.  She’s amazing.  Highly recommended.


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Wired post about the challenges of contemporary literature. Interesting, but these seem more like challenges to the publishing and literature industry, rather than literature itself. I need to think on this a bit.

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I’m inclined to think not. All canons are determined by the qualities that the list makers believe make a great book – but how could that be the same for everyone? I think a book needs to be interesting (to me) to be truly great – that leaves out Moby Dick. I think the language has to be readable, not fussy and overblown – goodbye Henry James! My great books are not your great books.

But I am fascinated by the lists and the discussions of the canon.

Here are some:

The Victorian Web tackles the lack of women in the Victorian canon – and suggests a female canon.

Project Gutenberg Australia has a list of 500 public domain works of canon with links to free online versions. This list is not particularly selective – it has all of the works of any major author, rather than the best.

Prospect Magazine has an interesting article on the religious origins of canon.

The Harvard Classics is a very short list. 51 volumes plus “the fiction shelf”. # of women authors: 0 in the classics, 3 in the fiction shelf (one each George Sand, George Eliot and Jane Austen)

List from How to read a book contains 140 separate authors, often citing multiple works by each. # of women on list: 2 (Eliot and Austen, lists two books for each)

Western Canon of the Great Books Foundation 54 volumes (each containing multiple works in the 1st edition. # of women authors: 0. 60 volumes (containing multiple works, as many as 11) in the 2nd edition. # of women authors: 4 (Austen, Eliot, Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf)

A website of lists – including a list of “the eastern canon”

The great books program at St. John’s College does not involve reading work by women until the 3rd year, when Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch are read. No women are read in fourth year.

Harold Bloom’s canon includes a whopping two women in it’s theocratic age – Christine de Pisan and Sappho. While he calls it a western canon, he has included “the near east” and India, so it’s more a western canon, plus some famous stuff from the east (but not China). Part two “the aristocratic age” brings us Fanny Burney in the endless list of English writers, as well as Margarette de Navarre and Madame de La Fayette from France. In “the democratic age”, George Sand appears, as do Austen, Dorothy Wordsworth, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rosetti, George Eliot and two of the sisters Bronte. Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott and Sarah Orne Jewett make it onto the American list. In the last section “a chaotic age: a canonical prophesy”, contains 48 women, for a grand total of 66 women on a list of hundreds (perhaps 500 hundred or more) books.

Jorge Luis Borges’ Tower of Babel library of 33 books contained no books by women, also his 74 volume “personal library”.

Jane Smiley’s list of 101 novels has 33 women authors on it. And it looks like a really good list – this is the first appearance of Jane Austen’s masterpiece Persuasion, instead of the more popular Pride and Prejudice or Emma.

Anthony Burgess’ 99 best novels from 1939-1983 has only 12 by women. Women have moved form 2% of early men’s lists to just over 10%.

The infamous Modern Library list had no women in the top ten, and a whopping 8 fort he whole list. The non fiction list had 11.

In response, Feminista did a top 100 books by women

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