“The canon” used to mean “mandatory, “ponderous,” “dead,” “white,” “male.”
More recently, that definition evolved to include “exclusionary,” “imperialistic” and “oppressive.”
Both equaled: largely ignored.
Late last year, The Chronicle Review asked 21 scholars each to nominate the most influential book published in the last 20 years. The Review gathered the nominations — and short essays from the scholars explaining their choices — into a feature titled “The New Canon.”
The Review cleverly sidesteps the 20th century traps of “the canon” by defining entries in “The New Canon” must only be “influential” — and then asking the nominees (a diverse set) to define “influential” as they wished.
Most of the choices are research-based. Many are fascinating; they could provide a great supplemental reading list for your year.
Some of them: Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”; Arthur C. Danto’s “What Art Is”; Jessica Riskin’s “The Restless Clock”; Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”; Antonio Damasio’s “The Feeling of What Happens”; Yuval Noah Harari’s “Homo Deus”; and Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s “The History Manifesto.”
Here’s what jumps out at me: the commonalities among these books — down to some of the very words the scholars use to describe them. By these shared words, today’s canonical book far more often than not is:
- Known well beyond a narrow circle of scholars — even if you haven’t read it, you know the thesis ;
- A crucial, paradigmatic pivot that transforms the way we make sense of the world;
- Accessibly written and distributed;
- Steeped in research;
- Founded on persuasive arguments;
- Unafraid of provoking controversy and prompting robust debate;
- A catalyst for policy or practice change;
- An anchor for future debate on the issues it deals with , forcing even those who disagree to be aware of it and feel the need to respond; and
- Inspiring a rich vein of follow-up research, opinion writing and books.
What defines a New Canon book, it turns out, matches the definition of research thought leadership.
Expert = credentialed. Expert + authority = influential.