I appreciate the earnest tone and the call to read great literary classics that emerge from the piece written by two law professors (“The 40 greatest books we all should read,” Dec. 23). However, I am dismayed, and unfortunately not surprised to see only four female authors in a list of 39.

As the authors point out, “Designating a ‘canon’ of great works is a daring enterprise.” And yet, so many male literary theorists and historians over the last three centuries have enthusiastically taken on this task, relegating the masterpieces written by women authors to the dustbin or to distinctly minor positions beyond the gates of the sacrosanct literary masterpiece club.

As a literature professor for 46 years, I think I have a well-defined sense of what constitutes timeless, universal and truly artful writing that moves readers to reflect deeply about the human condition. Yet I think that the “unapologetic” mission of Profs. Robert Delahunty and John Radsan to “pass on the traditions” they themselves “received during [their] educations” suggests that they have unquestioningly accepted the largely patriarchal standards of what constitutes great literature.

I am left wondering why the following books, for example, are left out of their list of greats: Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth,” Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” George Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans’) “Middlemarch,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Could it be that such books were not a staple of the masculine-centered “classical” education that this article’s authors had? What makes these literary works less durable, less powerful in presenting heroic, vividly drawn characters whose lives and situations are uniquely memorable and meaningful? What makes the above works by enormously skilled women writers less “great” than those by John Updike, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Homer?

What makes “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s magnificent play on the dynamics of family life and the fragility of human dreams in a racist society, less great than Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” or Shakespeare’s “King Lear”?

And lastly, what criteria are Delahunty and Radsan using when they privilege Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities” over his contemporary Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel “Mary Barton”?

 

Geri Giebel Chavis is a professor in the Department of English at St. Catherine University.