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Love, literary canons, and gatekeeping behaviour

Canonical texts are beloved. Assembling the literary output of (what amounted to mostly dead, mostly white, mostly male) authors and examining their themes, their tropes, their references to politics and art history and so on, is what made English departments in the Western world historically great – their ability to take texts and relate their elements to the human condition, link them to social issues, make veiled political references, and advance philosophy and knowledge of what it means to be human. It’s true that there is something about these texts that speaks to the human soul, they comfort readers with familiarity and challenge them with new ideas, they give their readers and critics a sense of belonging to a larger community and their meaning changes and adapts through the years, allowing readers to come back and find new ways of looking at the text, the world, the world of the text.

And so the suspicion towards digital humanists held by academics and other book-lovers is completely understandable, as is the popularity of articles such as Stephen Marche’s Literature is not Data. People are very invested in their love of these texts. This despite the fact that a lot of digital humanities projects such as the Emily Dickinson Archive actually can deepen readers’ engagement with and access to original manuscripts. The Transcribe Bentham project discovered never-before-seen manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham’s that had been thought “lost”, while going through his work to prepare it to be digitized.

The “text-and-text alone” approach of New Criticism in academia gave rise to a culture of exclusivity based around these texts. The texts belong in the canon due to their greatness; their greatness can be ascertained from textual evidence; this textual evidence is why they are in the canon in the first place. Et cetera. Close reading and evaluation of texts is useful to do, definitely, but not in order to separate the (human) wheat from the chaff or to institute a hierarchy of authors. As engaged thinkers, we need to be wary of those who defend canons: not to demonize them, but to recognize that, like any proponents of an ideology or belief, their investment can lead to peculiar hostile behaviour towards outsiders.

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