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The Western Literary Canon in Context

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An alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here The Western literary canon has come to epitomize the official—and sometimes controversial—list of works that every educated person should know. Among its more than 3,000 works are the Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, and War and Peace—all of which have stood the test of time to become essential aspects of Western culture and our re An alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here The Western literary canon has come to epitomize the official—and sometimes controversial—list of works that every educated person should know. Among its more than 3,000 works are the Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, and War and Peace—all of which have stood the test of time to become essential aspects of Western culture and our reading lives. Even if you haven't read some of them, you've undoubtedly heard of them—their mere titles are synonymous with greatness. But what exactly is the Western literary canon? Why does it contain certain works and not others? What is its history? What is its future? Most important: What do particular works in the Western canon tell us about the development of literature and civilization? You explore these and other thought-provoking questions in The Western Literary Canon in Context, a thorough investigation of more than 30 key works of the Western canon and the critical roles they played—and continue to play—in the development of Western literature. Over the course of 36 lectures, award-winning professor and author John M. Bowers of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas takes you from the formation of the Bible to the postcolonial literature of the late 20th century, revealing the exciting stories behind these classic works and their often surprising connections with one another. It's an insightful approach that will reshape your thoughts about the evolution of literature and will open your eyes to the hidden dialogue among Western civilization's most cherished and influential authors.


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An alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here The Western literary canon has come to epitomize the official—and sometimes controversial—list of works that every educated person should know. Among its more than 3,000 works are the Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, and War and Peace—all of which have stood the test of time to become essential aspects of Western culture and our re An alternate cover for this ISBN can be found here The Western literary canon has come to epitomize the official—and sometimes controversial—list of works that every educated person should know. Among its more than 3,000 works are the Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, and War and Peace—all of which have stood the test of time to become essential aspects of Western culture and our reading lives. Even if you haven't read some of them, you've undoubtedly heard of them—their mere titles are synonymous with greatness. But what exactly is the Western literary canon? Why does it contain certain works and not others? What is its history? What is its future? Most important: What do particular works in the Western canon tell us about the development of literature and civilization? You explore these and other thought-provoking questions in The Western Literary Canon in Context, a thorough investigation of more than 30 key works of the Western canon and the critical roles they played—and continue to play—in the development of Western literature. Over the course of 36 lectures, award-winning professor and author John M. Bowers of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas takes you from the formation of the Bible to the postcolonial literature of the late 20th century, revealing the exciting stories behind these classic works and their often surprising connections with one another. It's an insightful approach that will reshape your thoughts about the evolution of literature and will open your eyes to the hidden dialogue among Western civilization's most cherished and influential authors.

30 review for The Western Literary Canon in Context

  1. 5 out of 5

    Antonomasia

    [3.5] This was lively and engaging, like all Great Courses lectures I've listened to at time of writing. I was glad the lecturer is a medievalist, as survey courses in these commercial lecture series, and general survey history books supposedly covering the year dot to the present often rush through the middle ages and spend 70% of the time on post-1800 - whereas here the most recent times only get about 1/3. However, there were some flaws. There are too many inaccuracies, and exciting but tenuou [3.5] This was lively and engaging, like all Great Courses lectures I've listened to at time of writing. I was glad the lecturer is a medievalist, as survey courses in these commercial lecture series, and general survey history books supposedly covering the year dot to the present often rush through the middle ages and spend 70% of the time on post-1800 - whereas here the most recent times only get about 1/3. However, there were some flaws. There are too many inaccuracies, and exciting but tenuous connections. It felt more like an academic speculating in the pub, or a conversation between people who graduated years ago. I was thinking of this series as a guilty pleasure when I bought it, but I didn't think it would be one in *this* way: it's fun like some bad history can be, like theories that are a little too much of a stretch. On average, at least every 15 minutes there was something that sounded questionable, that I'd have liked to check, but it would have been too time consuming to follow up each one. (I can't be sure everything I repeat below is correct.) When I did check, I usually found something slightly off, e.g. In a particularly concrete example, he refers to Benjamin Franklin's great-grandfather who strapped an English Bible under a footstool because it was forbidden to read the Bible in English. This didn't add up chronologically, so I researched it. I found that a) Franklin, in his memoir had referred to his great-great-grandfather and said that it happened during the reign of Mary I (1553-58), and b) the great-great-grandfather was born in 1540, therefore probably had a teenage memory of something his own father or grandfather had done. I sincerely doubt that the lecturer was the first person to take a copy of Moby Dick to Lhasa. (See Seven Years in Tibet for mentions of American goods available there in the 1940s.) Sometimes other sources did partially substantiate, e.g. the Arab world may have got paper from Chinese merchants - though it wasn't imported to Islamic Spain from China. For comparison, the Great Courses The Black Death by Dorsey Armstrong, which I listened to around the same time as the second half of Bowers on the Western Canon, is meticulous. It's a subject area I know well and Armstrong had clearly checked her information (as well as delivering an interesting set of lectures). Bowers, meanwhile, seems to be extemporising, and I suspected he hadn't closely read some of the books for years. (A few other GR reviewers mention errors about Boethius.) Whilst I enjoyed these lectures, and they did tell me some new things, from a current academic, I'd expect greater accuracy. Bowers is heavily reliant on Harold Bloom's ideas and 1992 book about the Western Canon, although he is not as conservative or pessimistic as Bloom (which displeased a few hardline conservative reviewers on Audible and Amazon). I'm old enough to remember the controversy about Bloom's book in the 90s; I was a teenager at the time, it helped form my fascination with the canon and especially with canon wars - but I never got round to reading it cover to cover, so Bowers' Bloom-centric approach was initially what I wanted. By the last third of the lecture series, however, this centrist Democrat (I would guess) summarising Bloom began to pall, and I started to wonder how many ideas of his own Bowers had to add. He was always returning to Bloom's ideas about anxiety of influence, the son challenging the father, and the pugilistic sense of competition between canonical writers. I don't mean Bowers should have simply reiterated social justice arguments against the canon. There is tons of material about those freely accessible on Twitter and literary websites. I'd like to hear something different. Personally, I would lean more heavily on other historical conditions and how they affected and produced the canon… y'know, that in Context in the title. It seemed like Bowers only went big on this aspect for the Age of Exploration and post-colonialism. There is hardly anything here about, for example, industrialisation and the creation of the mass audience, although that's integral to why this set of lectures exists, and how the 'Great Books', for a while in the 20th century, were a big deal to Americans. Bowers was a Rhodes Scholar at Merton College Oxford; this was clearly a formative experience for him, and it makes for a few interesting connections - but he brings in other old Merton alumni and tutors more often than he strictly needs to. These include John Wycliffe, T.S. Eliot and J.R.R. Tolkien, they are hardly irrelevant - and some listeners will find it refreshing to hear a fantasy writer like Tolkien so enthusiastically included in the canon. But if, in the second half of the series, you based a drinking game on it, you might pass out, there are so many references to Mertonians. I reckon The Teaching Company know that they have a considerable audience among conservative white Christian Americans. Whilst the company doesn't seem to expect lecturers to be conservative themselves, it seems as if, on European history topics, they expect a Eurocentric focus that would look old fashioned on a current university curriculum. (Topics on Global South countries, or non-Christian religions, get their own separate lecture series, which said white conservatives are probably less likely to buy.) Bowers says at one point that he usually teaches Dante alongside Rumi - the comparative, international approach expected in universities these days. Is there anything more about Rumi in these lectures? Nope. But he still wasn't conservative and proud enough about The Western Canon to please certain reviewers on Audible. This is largely a fiction canon - plus some philosophy that was especially influential on literature, Aristotle's Poetics, Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and Augustine's Confessions - with a bias towards prose fiction once that comes on stream; it's not the version of the western canon that emphasises philosophy and political theory. The arguments (not part of these lectures) for those on the left still to read the latter, non-fiction, canon, especially the political theory, are the most powerful too - it's a way to more deeply understand their political context and the arguments of their opponents, and therefore they should not cede the canon to the right. The fiction canon can be essential to understanding some works of contemporary literature: all those feminist re-tellings of Greek myths published in recent years, for example; and the 2020 International Booker longlist had several novels on it which were openly influenced by classics from the 17th to the 20th century. Bowers doesn't directly address why one may still want to, or should, read the canon - but it's likely that if you're listening to 19 hours of lectures about it for personal interest, you don't need much persuading. Ironically, the traditionally accepted cultural boundaries of 'the West', of what comprises the 'Western Canon', of course extend further east, and a little south from Europe when going back to ancient times. (One suspects a defining point is 'before Islam'.) Bowers explains Western, in this context, as meaning that descended from the Bible, the Greeks and Rome; the first text that gets a lecture to itself is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which, as he says, was (re)discovered too recently to have been incorporated as fully into the canon as Classical texts (known since the Renaissance or earlier). While Bowers doesn't go into political and social history and ideas a great deal, he does use the history of the book as context for the canon: the Mesopotamians, were, he says, the first known civilisation to make lists of literary works. Their books were lost for so long because they were conquered by the Persians, a power who spoke a different language, who burnt down the royal library at Nineveh. And the idea of a canon emerged from Bible scholarship: from St Eusebius' division into canon versus, the importance of authorship reflected in the New Testament, and the compilation of the Biblical canon into a one volume compendium just as the codex - the physical structure we now think of as a book - was coming into use along with vellum (which was easier to work with and erase mistakes from, and the less adaptable papyrus scrolls were becoming less popular. Books that survived, and which became canonical, were often classroom texts, Bowers repeats at intervals throughout the lectures, one of the earliest of these, other than the two Homeric epics we still have, being the plays of Euripides. To the Greeks he traces the east-west divide, as both geography (the Bosporus) and idea (their rivalry with the Persians and the Persians as their Other). He sees an association between Western literature and the sea, that this was there from the beginning, and thinks that the English may have found the Greek texts especially resonant because of seafaring. (This seems way too Anglocentric to me.) Other traditions seem to begin here too: the production of Athenian tragedies created an idea of literature as a male competition (as Bloom saw it, and as it still frequently was into the 20th century). Greeks favoured the beginning, middle and end structure which is still normative, and Aristotle's Poetics laid down aesthetic ground-rules for literature that persisted unto the modernists: later, he quotes Virginia Woolf as criticising Ulysses for lack of Aristotelian unity, whilst she ensured that Mrs Dalloway possessed this quality. However, there are some notable differences: for example that ancient societies regarded learning sexual restraint as a key element of manliness and that this was; Bowers cites Gilgamesh; how Odysseus in recounting his adventures minimised the sexual aspects, not just because of Penelope but to seem a better person; and Aeneas and Augustine. This is another one of the sweeping ideas here that is superficially exciting but requires detail and caveats from specialists in particular eras. Bowers considers Dante's Divine Comedy to be the greatest work in the Western Canon. Its intertextuality also shaped the canon; its Europeanness (he should really have said Christianity) is a legacy of who Dante excluded among his contemporaries; the Hebrew and Arabic poetry of medieval Spain is only now being reclaimed; Rumi's name meant 'Roman' and he would have seen himself as part of the Roman world, the eastern empire. The Divine Comedy is one of a number of landmark works that Bowers describes as great syntheses - some of these more or less end a tradition, like The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost; others begin traditions, like The Decameron and the European novel. Dante set himself up for greatness as the father of Italian literature or even Christian European literature by placing himself at the centre of his great work, mingling with the ancients. Meanwhile, Chaucer, a century later, made himself the father of English literature by not mentioning predecessors and contemporaries. Many more Old English texts would have been extant in his time, and he would have been able to read them more easily than we could. (How much is known, if anything, about the extent to which educated late medieval men read Anglo-Saxon texts? A question not addressed here.) Due to lack of allusions, the terrible Cotton Library fire of 1731 that destroyed uncatalogued works, and other miscellaneous ravages of time, there is earlier English literature we simply don't know about. Bowers explains that Tolkien was largely responsible for (re)introducing Beowulf and other Old English texts into the English canon, both via scholarship and by sparking popular interest in them through his fantasy novels - something which hardcore fans are likely aware of, but which, for others, gives his literary significance a new dimension. Bowers places English literature of the age of exploration in a seafaring tradition coming from The Odyssey and Beowulf. (Rather selective - more interesting and offbeat would have been a look at the changing feelings about the coast over centuries, from a place of danger in high medieval times, to the enthusiasm for rugged scenery and sea-bathing that had emerged by the 18th century.) Some more novel points (to me at least) included the observation that for most of history, great writers (e.g. Ovid, Thomas More) were trained in law more than in any other subject, with skills of rhetoric and the creation of legal fictions (hypothetical scenarios) especially relevant. The idea of the 'stealth protagonist' is useful IMO: e.g. Fortinbras as the 'real' hero of Hamlet; one can read it as a Beowulf analogue, in which he successfully sails to another country and takes it over - as Europeans were beginning to do on other continents. Moby Dick is another example of a work like this. The account of the performance of The Tempest on a ship in 1607 off the coast of what is now Sierra Leone, as something to keep the crew occupied, is intriguing; that they went off later to shoot an elephant sounds like something from the 19th century. Whilst Bowers covers several major European writers after this, including Cervantes, Voltaire and Goethe (and some interesting points are made, including about Cervantes having a tougher life than most classic authors, and the importance of Goethe's Faust not being damned - because both Romanticism and the rise of science valued human overreaching), there is a thread of bardolatry running through, as with Bloom. The influence of Shakespeare, and others authors' reading of him, crops up regularly, and Shakespeare as part of imperialism and the globalisation of English. He relates how Stanley essentially took the canon to Africa, and had to discard books en route, like canon-formation in reverse, until he had only the Bible and Shakespeare, and then just the Bible. More novel inclusions are The Charterhouse of Parma, and to a British reader at least, a New England/Puritan/outsider tradition. Bowers mentions that Tolstoy disliked the Aristotelian paradigm, and instead saw himself as being like Homer; he intended to be accidental and arbitrary in the manner that Henry James famously criticised. The distinctively Russian holy fool archetype means that characters such as Pierre and Myshkin are more positive than their equivalents in Western Europe, like Fabbrizio in Charterhouse. He suggests that Haji Murad - which he considers a very great book - challenges Edward Said's idea of orientalism. Continued below in comment field.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David Grossman

    Fascinating thematic views manifest across centuries and across genres. For many of the authors not the books I've read, or that I would have chosen, but he makes excellent points for selecting those specific works. Of those i've previously read, it gives me a lot to go back and look for (no quiz pressure). I had slacked off on listening to some of the discs as my commute has gotten longer and more wearying; Its even tougher now that I no longer have the CD player.... I've only read brief passage Fascinating thematic views manifest across centuries and across genres. For many of the authors not the books I've read, or that I would have chosen, but he makes excellent points for selecting those specific works. Of those i've previously read, it gives me a lot to go back and look for (no quiz pressure). I had slacked off on listening to some of the discs as my commute has gotten longer and more wearying; Its even tougher now that I no longer have the CD player.... I've only read brief passages of most of the books so far, but it adds glorious heft to my post-retirement to- do list (at least into the next millennium)....

  3. 4 out of 5

    Faisal Bashir

    Bowers is a great lecturer, who eruditely weaves stories around the well regarded works of canonical literature and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of the lectures. But, for me, it would have been vastly improved if more time had been allotted to individual works rather than covering as many of them and in as little a time as possible, which leaves you feeling almost as if having eaten only half a meal as the lecture ends. My only complaint. Other than that this is one of the best ones by TGC.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Martin

    The lecturer confers the love for literature very nicely.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Emma

    Engaging , interesting, memorable. It did bring the context and the canon in that context like it promised. Would have given 5 stars, it really was that good, if I had not discovered that the professor had probably not read Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, since he said that Boethius called for the ancient gods and not the christian one. Reading Boethius now (inspired by Bowers) I very much encounter the one god, next to a few ancient ones. Engaging , interesting, memorable. It did bring the context and the canon in that context like it promised. Would have given 5 stars, it really was that good, if I had not discovered that the professor had probably not read Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, since he said that Boethius called for the ancient gods and not the christian one. Reading Boethius now (inspired by Bowers) I very much encounter the one god, next to a few ancient ones.

  6. 4 out of 5

    John

    A relatively self-aware analysis of why people don't think the Western Canon be like it is, but it do. A relatively self-aware analysis of why people don't think the Western Canon be like it is, but it do.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Seth

    I liked it because it gave me some good ideas for other books to read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Feng Ouyang

    The literary canon is a list of books considered “must-reads” not only by scholars and professionals but also by the population. The Western literary Canon includes books from ancient Greek to the modern days. Therefore, it is impossible to cover the vast list of books in a course adequately. In this course, Prof. Bowers naturally focuses on a subset of the canon list. And he chooses a unique angle: people instead of books. The professor did not get into details about all the books. In fact, I kn The literary canon is a list of books considered “must-reads” not only by scholars and professionals but also by the population. The Western literary Canon includes books from ancient Greek to the modern days. Therefore, it is impossible to cover the vast list of books in a course adequately. In this course, Prof. Bowers naturally focuses on a subset of the canon list. And he chooses a unique angle: people instead of books. The professor did not get into details about all the books. In fact, I know very little about most of the books he discussed and do not feel I know more after the lectures. On the other hand, I learned much about the authors as people and the system of the literary canon. The professor talks not only about the life story and unique characteristics of the authors but also about how they are related. A typical author follows some kind of literal tradition, particularly the general structures of literary works established in Greek times. Some authors innovate within the confine of the structure, while others experiment outside of the boundary, for example, by combining storytelling with poetry. The authors relate to each other in other ways. Contemporary authors may interact personally by learning from and competing with each other. An author leverages and reuses styles, skills, and storylines from previous authors. An author may also comment on other authors through the characters in their work. For some authors, the professor does not focus on a particular work on the canon list. Instead, he examines a collection of works from the author and traces the evolvement of the author’s views and styles. Some authors are also accomplished philosophers and activists. These backgrounds help us better understand their works. On a bigger picture, the professor traces the evolvement of Western literature development. It started in ancient Greek and spread to Rome and Arab countries. The Latin language literature was heavily influenced by its Greek roots and Christianity. After the Renasant movement and the emergence of nation-states, Western literature was more diversified. Together with the rise of Briton’s industrial power, works in the English language became popular and even dominating in Western literature. At the same time, the “outsider” writers in Russia, America, and the colonies provide unique contributions to the Western literary traditions. In addition to authors as central players, the course also describes other gatekeepers in the canonization process, including publishers, reviewers, and school teachers (including librarians). They play important roles in deciding whether a work is included in the canon. The course offers a limited discussion about the readers, such as how works involving homosexuality were received over time. However, it seems the readers are not an essential part of the gatekeepers; canonization is not a popularity contest. In fact, popularity may work against a work, as in the cases of “Lord of Rings” and “Don Quixote.” As the professor said, canonization is a process of exclusion: one needs to decide what not to include, which is much more difficult than picking excellent works. As time goes, some works fall out of the canon list. Unfortunately, the professor did not provide more discussion of the exclusion process. For example, he could have explained why some great American authors such as Mark Twain and Hemingway are not included in his canon list, although he mentioned these authors multiple times in providing context and comparison. Overall, this is an excellent course for “the rest of us” to get a glimpse of the literature world. The reader does not need extensive knowledge of the works discussed. However, going through the lectures provides an overview of Western literature and a framework for future studies.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Valery

    I truly enjoyed this course. It's name is a very fair synopsis of what it's going to give you, the context of why this or that work survives to this day in western literally canon and why it is or should be read, instead of just a simple 'it gotta'. I've really enjoyed the sentimental attachment of lector to JRR Tolkien and how Tolkien himself was a scholar who knew and talked of these things. I loved the much needed context he provided in terms of movies, what was and wasn't taught in a classro I truly enjoyed this course. It's name is a very fair synopsis of what it's going to give you, the context of why this or that work survives to this day in western literally canon and why it is or should be read, instead of just a simple 'it gotta'. I've really enjoyed the sentimental attachment of lector to JRR Tolkien and how Tolkien himself was a scholar who knew and talked of these things. I loved the much needed context he provided in terms of movies, what was and wasn't taught in a classroom. Great course indeed, sincerely recommend

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey

    Great reflections on the canonical works I have read, and a plethora of reasons to pick up those I have yet to read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    The presenter seems to think his favourite authors should be placed in the western canon. I do not agree: Tolkien, CS. Lewis, Willa Carther?

  12. 4 out of 5

    Almachius

    I got more out of this the second time around. Familiarity, perhaps.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Becky

  14. 5 out of 5

    Dennistag

  15. 5 out of 5

    Phil Chenevert

  16. 4 out of 5

    Laurence Krenis

  17. 4 out of 5

    IrisInStrangeland

  18. 4 out of 5

    Kelly Morgan

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Carter

  20. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  21. 4 out of 5

    Irick

  22. 5 out of 5

    Victoria

  23. 4 out of 5

    Chad

  24. 4 out of 5

    Hoolia

  25. 5 out of 5

    Mike Lovato

  26. 5 out of 5

    Josh Morgan

  27. 5 out of 5

    James P. Daze

  28. 5 out of 5

    Corey Hall

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kai Tinley

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jarrod Pace

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