Some book titles are provocative in a teasing, intriguing way. Others can seem pretentious, didactic and moralistic in four words alone.
This Is The Canon is, however, much less bossy-boots than the book's sub-title, "De-Colonise Your Bookshelf in 50 Books". Reacting against the supposed literary hegemony of many dead white males, ones afflicted by colonialist constructs, these three authors have nominated 50 alternative books.
They direct readers' attention to works of fiction ranging from 1943 (Eileen Chang) to 2019 (Tony Birch). One third of the writers selected were either born in the United States or live there now.
The 50 books are intended to illustrate "commitment to diversify the traditional literary canon". Diversification is here confined to novels and short stories. The authors include no poems, no plays and none of what they call "life writing".
With backgrounds from Sierra Leone, Grenada and Australia, but now all living in Britain, Anim-Addo, Osborne and George are punctiliously alert to books which they regard as promoting their notion of racial and social justice.
The first paragraph on the first book, for instance, includes a comment on "how marriage and concubinage are maintained by the same sexual politics". The Kite Runner "reminds us of the consequences of war". G.V.Desani "parodies the re-purposing of the colonising narrative". The White Tiger demonstrates India's "wasteful abuse of humans - a practice linked to feudalism and exploited by colonialism".
The authors focus unduly on the programmatical, moralising aspects of their 50 books. Wide Sargasso Sea is shorn of much of its (considerable) charm by concentrating on themes and issues. Chinua Achebe's masterpiece is summarised as "change enforced by tragedy". Books contain much more than messages alone. The trio does recognise that point, especially when they discuss Miriam Tlali ("should be read by everyone"), Octavia Butler ("painful and astounding power") and an extremely strong showing of recent fiction from Africa.
A reader with an equally emphatic commitment to scepticism might think the three authors are waging a battle already won, against an adversary who has vacated the field. Harold Bloom, the most dogmatic proponent of a canon, is now dead. Courses on so-called "great" books might seem as anachronistic as others on "grand" strategy or "classical" economics.
The trio argues that "canonicity" (sic) denotes "exemplary quality", Surely the word also suggests that some books might teach us lessons about life, sharpen our consciences, shift our perspectives, test our biases or open our hearts.
Which dedicated reader would contend that Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anna Karenina were not two such books? Who could not re-read those novels without being bewildered that Tolstoy knew so much about his imagined readers, for generations to come, as well as about his invented characters?
Dead white male apologists for colonialism - think, say, Kipling - possess no monopoly on the insights, talents, experience, sensitivity and grace required to find a place in a reader's personal canon.
In fact, "de-colonising" your bookshelf could start with the installation of some venerable classics in the fight against oppression and exploitation, sexism and racism. Gulliver's Travels would be one candidate, Uncle Tom's Cabin another.
Many of the 50 books need no introduction. Any well-stocked bookshelf, colonial or not, would likely contain Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe: 1958), If Beale Street Could Talk (James Baldwin: 1974), The God of Small Things (Arundathi Roy: 1997) and Beloved (Toni Morrison: 1987).
I suspect that Marlon James, Aravind Adiga and Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie are marginally less well-established, but any open-minded reader would welcome the chance to make their acquaintance. Their novels are rightly celebrated here. Readers are then guided towards the phalanx of neglected talent from Africa, and also from the Caribbean.
The inclusions are less striking than the omissions. There is nothing in this selection from Nadine Gordimer, Amos Oz, Naguib Mahfouz or Leila Slimani, all fine writers who provide compelling counterpoints to any racist-sexist-imperialist-patriarchal narrative.
In short assessments of fiction there is often an unfortunate tendency to tell the story. In this book that temptation is not always resisted. The authors do, however, insert a short, helpful addendum at the end of each chapter: "if you like this, try". Those nominations are shrewdly picked, much more so than Netflix's and Amazon's comparable attempts to guess customers' taste.
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