“What happened to essential books?,” Rick Gekoski wonders, recalling with candid nostalgia an ideal 1974 when everyone had read the 21 books in his list, at least everyone he knew at Oxford (see https://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/oct/22/essential-books, thanks to Laura Gimeno for the link). What’s happened is statistics, for now there’s so much of everything and so many more of us that it is almost statistically impossible that your friends and colleagues read the same books you’re reading. I don’t see why students, apparently much annoyed by Gekoski’s patronising comments (see Twitter), should be different in this.
Gekoski’s approach seems both right and wrong, for since 1974 much has changed that makes forming canons more difficult; at the same time, though, readers still form canons of all kinds. In my view, the problem Gekoski misses is specialisation, not just field specialisation within Literary Studies but also genre specialisation among readers. No doubt, his canon is already specialised, as what he calls essential books were essential for an elite minority on elite campuses, hardly for the common reader.
Here’s an example of these difficulties. I happen to love SF but even though that is a relatively small field within academia, it is impossible for me (and too expensive!) to keep up with all the academic novelties in English, Spanish and Catalan. As for SF fiction itself, I punctually receive the newsletter of the SFSite (https://www.sfsite.com/), and feel, thus, regularly overwhelmed by how much I must miss for lack of time. I just choose a few books every year, aided by reviews and awards, and hope for the best. I find it very unlikely that another SF fan reads exactly what I read, which makes sharing my pleasures difficult, regardless of the internet. Yet all SF fans agree that there is a core canon that everyone should read, and we do read it (see for instance https://home.austarnet.com.au/petersykes/topscifilists_books_rank1.html). The same phenomenon applies to all genres, I’m sure, from detective fiction to literary novels about middle-age crises, passing through hard core philosophy or mathematics.
Gekoski himself realises that the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas are essential books but he is uncomfortable with the idea that popular fantasy has taken the place of his essential books. Actually, popular fictions of this kind provide the only common ground for large numbers of readers, which doesn’t mean that other essential books do not emerge (I’m thinking here of the passion unleashed for Zygmunt Bauman’s books in academic circles). Perhaps the question, as usual, should be rephrased: what is an essential book today? And for whom? And are essential books more essential than essential films (movies?), comics, TV series, videogames and music? Isn’t what we call Culture, in the end, a generational phenomenon marked by the media most highly valued in each time? Let’s ask our students…