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Summary

First of all, in a burst of uncharacteristic humility, let me confess that I did not aspire to share these words with the learned body of Colby alumni. The genesis of this article was a speech to some of the best and brightest students at Colby, the Dana and Bixler Scholars- an audience willing to show up on a Friday night in October to hear me do something besides read ghost stories.

My title for that speech was "The Literary Canon and How It Works"; it should have been "Literary Canons and How They Work." In 1999, I think that most of us will agree that we have no unique literary canon that all readers in the world understand as absolute, transcendent and beyond debate. Thus, I should more accurately speak of canons, except that when I mentioned this plural title to one of my more literal students, he asked how I got interested in artillery.

The canons under scrutiny here have only one n and require no ammunition, though they are tended by a very expert yet jealously exclusive cadre of "operators." These operators range from countless schoolteachers ("You have to read that or flunk!"); to the 19th-century English literary critic Matthew Arnold ("the best that was thought and said"); to the Book-of-the-Month Club; to the Encyclopedia Britannica (Great Books of the Western World, circa 1952); to colleges named St. John's in Annapolis and Santa Fe, the curricula of which are a canon of "great books"; to the Yale literary guru Harold Bloom (The Western Canon, 1994); to TV's Oprah's Book Club. Over and above all of these, the president of Colby College annually tells members of his baccalaureate audience in Lorimer Chapel to keep a good book with them on all journeys and to join the public library, where good books are readily available.

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