Do we need a literary canon?

Prospect Magazine

Do we need a literary canon?

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Jonathan Sacks is right that we need a common culture, but wrong to think it should be based on a canon. Forcing young people to read the Bible won’t foster a sense of belonging. Shared references must evolve more organically

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The chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, recently wrote: “Until recently, national cultures were predicated on the idea of a canon, a set of texts that everyone knew. In the case of Britain they included the Bible, Shakespeare and the great novels. The existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse.” This shared inheritance, he argues, is now being destroyed by multiculturalism and technology, satellite television and the internet in particular. But what is a canon? Do we need one? Are we suffering from “canon anxiety”? And if so, why?

The idea of a canon has a religious origin. The early church had to decide which of its texts were sacred scripture and which were not. The decision was a straight yes or no: either

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Richard Jenkyns

Richard Jenkyns is a professor of the classical tradition and a fellow and tutor in classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford 

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