How do I know what to read? If I have not read a book before, how do I know whether it will be any good? After all, reading a book, especially if I read it well, is a significant investment of hours. Every time I commit to reading one book, I am simultaneously choosing, by implication, not to read a functionally infinite array of other books that may be just as good—or better. In reality, of course, this isn’t how it works. When I sit down to read a book, even one I have never cracked open before, I usually have a pretty good idea whether it will be worth my time. I know this because the book has a reputation.

The novice faces a similar problem but on a much deeper level. Without having already read widely, how is he to know where he should begin? To make matters worse, he has not yet developed the taste by which he is even capable of judging better books from worse. The best books have the double function of being intrinsically interesting in their own right and developing our capacities as readers. We learn how to recognize a great book by reading great books, but the novice has not done this yet. There is some danger that if he chooses unwisely his taste will develop in distorted ways.

It works the same in other fields, such as music. We all have some innate capacity to recognize good playing from bad (some of us more than others). After a certain point, however, a musician must train his ear to hear how an instrument is supposed to sound by listening to the best performances. If instead he trains his ear on a badly played piano that is slightly out of tune, that training will disfigure his hearing.

If a novice is extraordinarily fortunate, he may have a single impeccably wise teacher, at whose feet he can sit and whose judgment in selecting masterpieces he can simply accept. Without extraordinary good fortune, however, this method is full of deep dangers. Individual masters are prone to pet loves, pet crusades, and worst of all, pet antipathies. Individual masters have blind spots that arise from their assumptions, their personal quirks, their sectarian commitments, or their generation. Knowing or suspecting all this, however, the worst thing a novice can do is presume to stand in judgment over the master, refusing guidance because he assumes that he can select for himself what to study without assumptions, quirks, or blind spots. (If a master inevitably has these shortcomings, how much more a novice?)

For most of us, however, a more workable course between these extremes is to distribute the task. We can look not for one master but for a host of masters. We can try to balance out the biases of one sect by finding masters from many. We can overcome the blindness of one generation by gathering the verdicts of competent judges from many different centuries. Collecting the opinions of this host of masters we can look for points of broad consensus. Cultures more or less automatically do this. Without central planning or official lists of “95 books every educated person must read before he dies” a broad consensus among well-read, intelligent people emerges organically, is passed on, grows and shrinks, is edited, but for all that remains remarkably stable over the years. Hence, every developed culture has a canon, and we can give a (virtuously) circular definition thus:

A canon is a broadly accepted body of the most excellent works in a given field, by which a novice can train his capacity for judgment and so enter the population of those whose broad acceptance is the criterion for inclusion.

There will never be perfect agreement. Shakespeare fell out of favor in the eighteenth century. Certain philosophical cliques have periodically scorned Aristotle. Conversely, some works enjoy a vogue for a while but eventually fall out of favor. Usually, such works do have some merits but probably do not rank among the best of the best, the novels of Richardson, for example.

A canon defined in this way will develop, incorporating into itself new material, but it has a way of reverting to the mean. Artistic, literary, or philosophical movements are liable to strike out in a particular direction and often go too far by doubling down, again and again, on some original commitment. The stalwart conventional types can react to this by dismissing every change to the canon, but this would be a mistake. A new movement usually has traction in the first place because there is something right about it, some insight or emphasis that the existing canon lacks. The larger tradition, over centuries, has a way of incorporating that insight while also preserving balance from alternate perspectives. An ideal tradition like an ideal marketplace smooths out volatility (too bad we never quite have the ideal).

Stoicism, for example, caught on among the Romans of the Augustan age because it had something genuine to offer, a vision of virtue and vice, responsibility, and inner freedom. Nevertheless, it also suffered from an over-commitment to certain first principles such as counting all external circumstances as completely “indifferent” (ἀδιάφορα). The larger tradition of Western philosophy and spirituality, however, smoothed out these wrinkles, incorporating much stoic wisdom into the body of its insights, by adding Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius to the canon, while also developing much more articulate arguments against the excesses than it had before by also including, for example, St. Augustine. We could make similar comments about the insights and excesses of the scientific revolution at the dawn of modernity or the insights and excesses of Romanticism in the nineteenth century.

A canon will always be fuzzy at the edges. Experts will quibble about the inclusion or exclusion of edge cases—it is a favorite pastime. But this can cause the uninitiated to assume that there is much more disagreement than there really is. The quibbling at the edges takes place against the backdrop of an enormous consensus. Experts don’t often spend much breath talking about that consensus because it would be so boring. We all know that Schubert is worth performing, that Titian is worth viewing, and that Tolstoy is worth reading. The fact that they can get by without first names is proof. It’s the eccentric judgments of professors and the debates about relative merits that draw our attention because controversy and exception are interesting.

As he develops from a novice into one of the cognoscenti, an intelligent person will, of course, come to develop peculiar judgments of his own that differ from the canon that taught him what to love. He might come to think that Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is overrated and shouldn’t be on the list while Sabatini’s Captain Blood is a true classic. As someone who has worked his way through a considerable number of great works and formed his capacity of judgment upon them, he has earned the right to this opinion. Nevertheless, he could not have arrived at that point without trusting someone else’s authoritative judgment. He first had to allow his tastes to be judged by the standard of the canon before he has earned the right to make judgments. Indeed, the origin of the word “canon” is the Greek word for a “ruler” or “rod” (κανών) used as a definitive standard of measurement.

Mark Twain joked (quoting a certain Professor Winchester) that a classic is a book that “everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”1 Admittedly, there has always been an element of hypocrisy and virtue signaling around the idea of a canon. The books in the canon are the kind of books that people want other people to see them reading at coffee shops. And perhaps, for a certain shallow segment of the population, the draw of great literature, like great art or music, is chiefly the aura of sophistication that association with it affords. But this isn’t how a book becomes a classic in the first place, and the whole project of hypocritical virtue signaling breaks down if there are no real virtues to signal. Ultimately, I’m happy to let those shallow people go on virtue signaling by reading Dostoevsky in the coffee shops because there’s a pretty good chance they might pick up some real wisdom and virtue by mistake.

  1. “The Disappearance of Literature,” 20 November 1900.↩︎