Dante’s Divine Comedy

by Ian Thomson, Head of Zeus, 280pp, £18.99

The notion of a literary canon is an unfashionable one. On English courses throughout the country long-forgotten books are being reconsidered alongside previously unassailable classics. Broadly speaking, I’m in favour of this, and can see the value in challenging how and why certain books are thought of as classics while other equally interesting works are ignored. The only downside of this process of reading-list expansion and re-evaluation is that we have lost a sense of shared intellectual heritage: those books that we can all agree are worth reading over all others.

For a book to survive into the 21st century, it is no longer enough to point out that educated people considered it of worth in the past. It has to be the sort of robust creation that can survive transition into other media, undergoing all forms of adaptation, including the sort of violent creative disrespect that resulted in Jane Austen’s novels being transformed into Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters.

Recently, academics have noted that Milton seems to have fallen out of favour with the young. This is sad. But one of Milton’s biggest influences, Dante, will be read as long as literature exists.

As Ian Thomson observes in his lively new book, subtitled “A Journey Without End”, Dante’s 14th-century masterpiece is the most widely translated book after the Bible, still available in a multitude of forms.

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