Literary Canon

By Kristin Key

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

One of the most significant children's books ever written, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass forever changed the face of child-centered literature and opened the minds of the adult population to the imaginative world of a child. With its whimsical nonsense, bizarre wordplay, and strange characters Alice's Adventures marked the advent of an entirely new style of writing that centered around imagination and excitement rather than teaching morals and ideals to children. By focusing on the creative world of a child's mind and delving into the wildest of tales Lewis Carroll became the first author to accurately capture the visionary potential of a child, which simultaneously directly appealed to children like no story had done before and allowed the world of "grown ups" to finally take a look inside a child's head and comprehend their incredible imaginative potential. Chances are many strange and imaginative books, such as Harry Potter, would never have been written had it not been for the incredible world Carroll brought to life as he changed the face of modern literature.
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Beowulf

Beowulf is one of the oldest known works of English literature, and a literal starting point to understanding the foundation of modern day literature and heroic epics. The tale of Beowulf, though fantastical, provides much insight into the lifestyles of the Anglo-Saxon people from which numerous American cultural ideals originated from, allowing readers to take a look into how their society came to be. In addition, being well written and translated from Old English instead of from Latin or some other language that most classic epics are told in, it is comparatively easy to understand and provides a wonderful starting point for understanding the structure and significance of epic tales. Readers can witness the classic tale of a great hero's struggles and battles involving monstrous creatures, Gods, and all manner of strange in-betweens that has so greatly so many modern modes of story telling, from video games to movies to novels.
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Frankenstein

It is indisputable that Frankenstein is the foundation for modern horror stories, depicting humans just as monstrous as their beastly counterparts and setting up dark, terrifying scenes of the monster with the glowing yellow eye looming over its creators bed. The bed scene alone has reappeared in literature and movies everywhere; Shelley was able to capture such an intense feeling of vulnerability and terror that in itself has altered the way modern horrors are designed. Additionally, her look into mankind's struggle against natural life and God are incredibly prevalent and profound throughout the novel, allowing her to recreate what is commonly referred to as a "modern Prometheus" as she delves into the lacking morality of human curiosity. This story, which provides an incredible example of the uses of foil, is a must read for any book enthusiast who desires an understanding of modern horror development and moral questioning.
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The Grapes of Wrath

The themes within The Grapes of Wrath are still incredibly relevant in the modern day on top of being a great insight into the past, making it a must read for American students. Scathing critiques of society and the governments mishandling of migrant workers allow readers to comprehend the cruelty a country can display even for its own people, which simultaneously opens their eyes and allows them to learn from past errors that we are not perfect and must strive to help out our fellow man. By capturing such brutal American history Steinbeck was able to call out the government on its wrongdoings, which awoke the American public, forced Labor Laws to change, and allowed future writers to do the same with issues they felt were under-appreciated. Significant to our personal history and our countries, this book is a wonderful and insightful read.
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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is a wonderful novel that withholds its relevance today and allows an in-depth look not only at the 1920's, but also at human ideals. Stemming from the Roaring 20's, the book captures the incredible and vibrant society that sprung up and altered the ideals of the modern day, from frivolous lifestyles to women cutting off their hair and showing off legs. More importantly than its historical insight, however, is its look into the "American Dream" in which a poor man can rise to incredible wealth. Though presented as an incredible opportunity at first, it is made clear throughout the novel that wealth has the potential to easily destroy the care and morality of humans, almost like a destructive force that trades moral wealth with physical wealth, leaving the people hollow and greedy. Both historically significant and a fascinating take on the corruptive powers of wealth, The Great Gatsby is still incredibly influential and interesting to this day and will be for years to come.
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Hamlet

Hamlet is still a huge cultural icon, possessing themes of existentialism and questioning the sufferings and purpose of humans, making it a stimulating and philosophical read. The story of Hamlet set the foundation for delves into existentialist topics as it possessed the first character (Hamlet himself) who truly questioned the existence of fate and whether human lives are entirely in their own hands. Throughout the novel ponderings over the need for human suffering and purpose of depravity, allowing readers and future authors to understand and build off of Shakespeare's existential depictions of life and consequences. This story, which is reflected everywhere in modern society from reenactments to reinterpretations, such as The Lion King, is a great way to start the journey into the existentialist mindset and understand the origins of subjective views.
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Invisible Man

Both a fascinating story and an intense allegory, Invisible Man is an absolute must read for its brutal depiction of the disillusionment of the black population and its captivating literary techniques. Rife with themes of deception and stereotyping the novel highlights the manner in which African Americans are trapped in a cycle of disrespect and trickery not only instigated by white people, but by themselves. This practice of entrapment and prejudice was incredibly important for the start of the Civil Rights movement, allowing some insight to the events leading up to it, and opens the reader's eyes to the fact that this cycle is still continuing today. A shocking catalyst, this is a wonderful novel to not only get into the heads of the oppressed black population but to realize that this is an ongoing situation. It has been nearly sixty years and the events within the book still occur in America on a daily basis.
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Lord of the Flies

A captivating and poignant novel, Lord of the Flies is a timeless allegorical novel displaying the violent, atrocious nature of humans through young boys trapped on an island. Still referenced frequently in modern society within everything from big-screen movies to the Simpsons, the themes of human violence and cruelty still hold true today. By revealing the intrinsically violent nature of humans through creatures as innocent as children, Golding is able to depict a fascinating and admittedly disturbing tale that still resonates strongly among society today. By pointing out the animalistic nature of humans, the novel allows readers to understand just how horrible humans can be and why a societal structure with a law system is necessary to rein us in. Both a culturally iconic novel and an intense allegory for vile human nature, Lord of the Flies should be read by anyone wishing to see a side of humans frequently avoided and difficult to comprehend without this novel.
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The Odyssey

The Odyssey is one of the most widely recognized and referenced heroic epics in modern society, making it a near necessity to read. Incredibly well written and imaginative, the story of Odysseus is a perfect read for anyone who desires to understand the construct and details necessary for a truly heroic epic tale. Additionally, it is the perfect foundation for studying Greek culture an mythology as it is filled with monsters, Gods,ghosts, and historical allusions such as the conquest of Troy. Most significant of all is the theme of family and being reunited, emphasizing the important of a strong family structure to Greek society and allowing the reader to understand how family dictated their lives. One of the most alluded to tales besides the Bible, movies like "O Brother, Where Art Though?", books like Invisible Man, and countless TV shows all reference this classic tale, making it important to read not only for an understanding of Greek culture but for modern culture as well.
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Oedipus the King

Oedipus the King not only warns against fear and the avoidance of fate, but also displays the dangers of arrogance against a higher power. Self-fulfilling prophecies are a rather difficult concept to understand, but by reading the perfect examples of fear generating the feared outcomes within Oedipus readers can finally comprehend the concept. Additionally, the story also delves into Greek mythology and allows readers to understand the importance of the Gods, as well as the dangers that disrespecting the Gods potentially brought. Though not significant culturally to us outside of understanding Greek culture, the warnings against such arrogance is still significant today; arrogance leads to disaster, and personal problems must be dealt with, not ignored and pushed aside. A great warning against human pride and a philosophical delve into self-fulfilling prophecies, Oedipus is an iconic story that all students should read and examine.
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1984

Delving in to the dangers of government supervision and technology whilst simultaneously displaying the worst of human nature, 1984 is a deeply influential and rather disturbing piece of fiction that is eerily relevant in today's society. Set in an alternate world in which all that the government and its media must be accepted as true, the novel is deeply reminiscent of our modern and rather "brainwashed" society, in which technologic supervision and controlled news are accepted as fundamental and correct unquestioningly. The story also displays the true animalistic nature of humans, in which power is constantly struggled for and resistance beaten down for the betterment of the few instead of the many, a theme that is present in most modern day governments in small or large ways. The cultural relevance of this novel stems deep, with people in the modern day referring to government supervision as "Big Brother", as well as its warnings against societal brainwashing, making it a must-read for readers today due to its immense relevance.
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To Kill a Mockingbird

This book eloquently displays the harmful powers of stereotyping and prejudice and also loosely documents the Civil Rights Movement, allowing a look into the past conflict and significant importance it presented. Throughout To Kill a Mockingbird prejudice against others, namely black people, is displayed and examined through the eyes of a young and innocent girl without judgement, giving us an unbiased view of the cruelty humans can impose upon each other simply over differences in skin color. It also takes a look into the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement and its necessity as we are shown the incredible discrimination and violence against black people for unjust causes. One of the most tumultuous time periods of our recent history, the Civil Rights movement is incredibly influential in modern society and must be understood in order to grasp its issues that are still prevalent today, making this story incredibly important for any American reader.
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