A Personal Canon

I am drawn to fantasies of restriction and asceticism. The idea of being locked in a room with just a paper and pen until I’ve written a book gives me a strange longing. Also retreats from the world of all sorts, fasts and abstentions, solitude and the disconnection of long journeys without means of communication. So it’s no surprise I love the idea of a desert island bookshelf. Worse things could happen to me than to be stranded alone forever with nothing to do but reread my personal canon. In the spirit of Anthony, blogger extraordinaire at Time’s Flow Stemmed, here’s what I’d want along with me. This could also serve as a handy guide to understanding me, my ways of thought, and my private obsessions. If you’ve read some of these, we have things to talk about. 

I think I’ll update this from time to time, as a personal testament. Because it does change.

Aristotle, Complete Works
Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound
Euripides, all the tragedies
Boccaccio, The Decameron
Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici
John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
Giacomo Leopardi, Zibaldone
Henry Adams, The Autobiography of Henry Adams
Goethe, nearly everything
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches
Karl Marx, Capital
Jack London, Martin Eden
Henry James, everything and esp. Notebooks
Colette, The Pure and the Impure
Antonin Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life
Sybille Bedford, A Legacy
Kafka, everything
Gyula Krúdy, The Adventures of Sinbad
Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks
Naguib Mahfouz, almost everything
Simone Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter
Thomas Bernhard, Gargoyles
George Steiner, No Passion Spent: Essays 1978-1996
Penelope Fitzgerald, Complete Novels
J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country
Samuel Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan
John Berger, Landscapes and Portraits
Ian M. Banks, The Wasp Factory
Dan Simmons, Hyperion Cantos
Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories
China Miéville, Perdido Street Station
Terri Windling, The Wood Wife
Jeff VanderMeer, The Southern Reach
Oliver Sacks, A Leg to Stand On
Harold Schonberg, The Great Pianists

10 thoughts on “A Personal Canon

  1. This is a fascinating list, Robert. I see we share a fondness for Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, and, of course, for Kafka. Otherwise, there are titles aplenty to contemplate. Thank you posting this list; I wish all my other favourite lit-bloggers would do the same.

    1. I wish they would, too. Your list gave me lots of new items for my TBR.

      So, any of our favorite lit-bloggers who happen to read this comment: please make your own personal canon list!

  2. Nothing like peer pressure! to make you do something I’ll think about it and make a list, but mine is going to have a lot of ancient stuff on it. Also, have you read Boswell’s Enlightenment published by Harvard last year. Boswell himself was an interesting figure and it discusses how he met Johnson and came to write his bio.

  3. I could not even entertain a canon, my reading has evolved so much, especially in recent years and wide swathes of my reading history belongs to another life (a topic I wrote about for LitHub last year). There are, of course books that may stand the test of time, but I am not certain they would be of any interest for others. I am also deeply influenced by the small press works that my writing friends are producing—they form part of a dialogue around what is possible and directions my own writing is heading. And finally, I am poorly read in the abiding classics of the western canon and what’s worse, feel little pressure to ameliorate those gaps unless I have immediate personal motivation. But I will say that the literary mainstays for me that stretch back over the decades are poetic: Coleridge, Blake, Dickinson, Rimbaud, Auden, Dylan Thomas and Celan just to name a few. Currently I’m on an Arabic/North African kick. One could do worse than to have a finely stocked poetic library in one’s desert island retreat.

  4. My ideal desert island bookshelf would only contain books I have not read. I could finally read Dream of the Red Chamber and Livy. Which I can’t do now because – because – well, I guess there is nothing stopping me. But anyway, ten years of books I have not read for my ten-year kidnapping by aliens, please.

Your thoughts?