This list emerged from a whimsical post I wrote about an imaginary desert island library, an “immortal cupboard” of books. Whilst I am suspicious of Harold Bloom’s extravagant notion of a Western Canon, I am always curious of personal canons, libraries of foundational books that write us as we read them.
Although I can’t remember every word of these books, they remain in memory in some form and have shaped the person that I have become. These are perhaps those books that I’ll repeatedly reread in my dotage, looking for influences and patterns of my formative years.
I think I am a sensitive reader, certainly a grateful one. These are the texts I’ve found to be essential to me. I hope you will be the reader some of these books await.
My rule for this personal library was one book per chosen writer. It is a ridiculous and arbitrary rule and very difficult, but I wanted to stop the list becoming too unwieldy. This list is open to recasting from time to time. Everything we read transforms us in some way; in the case of these books, the personal transformations were more durable.
Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life.
Anna Akhmatova, Complete Poems (trans.Judith Hemschemeyer).
Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life.
Samuel Beckett, Watt.
John Berger, Here is Where We Meet.
André Bernold, Beckett’s Friendship.
Heinrich Böll, Billiards at Half-Past Nine.
Anne Carson, Glass, Irony, and God.
Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing.
J. M. Coetzee, The Life and Times of Michael K.
Dante, The Divine Comedy (Mandelbaum, Sayers or Hollander translations).
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
George Eliot, Middlemarch.
Mathias Enard, Compass.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary.
Max Frisch, Homo Faber.
Michael Hamburger, String of Beginnings.
Peter Handke, Across.
Homer, The Iliad (Chapman, Fagles or Fitzgerald translations).
Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun
James Joyce, Ulysses.
Franz Kafka, The Castle.
Anna Kavan, I am Lazarus.
Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, The Leopard.
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.
Clarice Lispector, Água Viva.
Yiyun Li, The Vagrants.
Claudio Magris, A Different Sea.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain.
Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges.
V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
Proust, In Search of Lost Time (Moncrieff translation with Kilmartin and DJ Enright revisions).
Pascal Quignard, The Roving Shadows.
Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage.
Gillian Rose, Love’s Work.
Anthony Rudolf, Silent Conversations.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.
W. G. Sebald, After Nature.
Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life.
Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity.
George Steiner, The Poetry of Thought.
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Robert Walser, The Assistant.
Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud.
Christian Wiman, He Held Radical Light.
Christa Wolf, City of Angels.
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse.
Kate Zambreno, Heroines.