Expanding the Literary Canon: Books for Changing Times

by | Jan 7, 2022

Written by: Marisa Vito

In high school, I read the following books: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Stranger by Albert Camus, and many more that are probably on every high school to read list. I mention any of these books in my tutoring sessions and sometimes I am met with “Ugh, yes my teacher made us read that one.”, “Yea, it was so boring.”, “Why do I care about some kid in a red hunting cap?”. And while these classic books may not be the most fun to read, they are a part of literary canon and more specifically, Western literary canon.

Canon literary works are pieces of literature that have been deemed influential and significant in a given time period. Once a work is decided to be “canon”, it becomes ingrained in our education system and why we may all be reading the same books in elementary, middle school, highschool, and college. Literature canon teaches a lot of valuable principles on topics like racial discrimination, adolescence, gender roles, etc. However, canon literature excludes many important, diverse books and voices that teach lessons we can all learn from. 

When I read a book, I am entering a world that is outside of my own and by the end of the book, my insight about an experience, time period, or social critique has grown. Reading more than just what the highschool curriculum offers gives a new perspective into the world and an increased understanding of ways to approach the world around us.

As we move farther and farther away from 19th England or 1930’s America, the literature landscape is also changing, developing, and allowing for new authors with diverse perspectives to come into light. With authors that resemble and speak to more people, reading canon principles has become more relatable, intimate, and real. 

 To ground us in our new literary environment while keeping with the cherished principles taught to us by our literary canon, I’ve compiled a list of books that build on canon teachings and move beyond them. 

If you read Lord of the Flies by William Golding try The Secret History by Donna Tarrtt

In an inverted detective novel, Tarrtt weaves a story about a group of six classics students at Hampden College and what lead to the murder of one of the group members. Through the eyes of the protagonist, Richard Papen, the characters encounter emotional and academic issues after their friend’s murder. 

Both of these books talk about themes of: survival, death, evil, and reality versus illusion. 

If you read Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen try Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

Looking to break away from her current life with her well to-do boyfriend, narrator, Jing Jing, decides to move away from everything she has ever known. As she works on her leaving process, she discovers much more about her role as an Asian American woman and what it means to exist in society that does not want to understand her.

Both of these books talk about themes of: love, female empowerment, societal expectations, and gender roles.

If you read To Kill a Mockingbird  by Harper Lee try Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Alix Chamberlain is a go-getter and a business owner with a brand based on supporting women’s confidence. So when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is publicly accused of kidnapping in a grocery store for being Black with Alix’s white children, Alix wants to help Emira as much as she can. What happens next is a page-turning story with both characters learning things about themselves they hadn’t known before.

Both of these books talk about themes of: race, racial discrimination, American society, and allyship. 

If you read The Odyssey by Homer try An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

One day, Chinoso, a lowly chicken farmer, sees a woman attempting to jump off a bridge. Caught by surprise, Chinoso hurls two prized chickens over the bridge to showcase the fall’s severity. The woman, Ndali, is taken aback and the two develop a romantic relationship. However, their journey to romance is stopped by Ndali’s family who refuse their relationship, sending Chinoso on a long quest for their acceptance.

Both of these books talk about themes of: mythology, determination, destiny, and love

If you read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad try That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott

Bobby Wabalanginy, a young Noongar man, befriends new arrivals to his Australian colony. As Bobby gets close with the new arrivals, tension begins to build between Bobby’s colony and his new friends. No matter Bobby’s decision, Australia undergoes a series of events that will change the course of its history.

Both of these books talk about themes of: colonization, cultural differences, fear, and history. 

If you read 1984 by George Orwell try 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Following two characters on their discovery for truth and reality, Murakami’s novel 1Q84 draws directly upon Orwell’s influence. The main characters of 1Q84, Aomame and Tengo, go through different trials and tribulations to undo the warped world that they live in and question the fabric of life. 

Both of these books talk about themes of: psychological manipulation, information and memory filtration, corruption, and reality.