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.
Samuel Beckett, Watt.
Thomas Bernhard, The Loser.
Hans Blumenberg, The Laughter of the Thracian Woman.
Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers.
Mircea Cărtărescu, Nostalgia.
Anton Chekhov’s short stories (Garnett translations)
J. M. Coetzee, Slow Man.
Dante, The Divine Comedy (Mandelbaum or Hollander translations).
Mathias Enard, Zone.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
Jon Fosse, An Angel Walks Through the Stage.
Michael Hamburger, String of Beginnings.
Peter Handke, Repetition.
Marlen Haushofer, The Wall.
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia.
James Joyce, Dubliners.
Franz Kafka, The Castle.
Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings.
Clarice Lispector, Agua Viva.
Maria Gabriela Llansol, The Geography of Rebels trilogy.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain.
Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows.
Proust, In Search of Lost Time (Moncrieff translation with Kilmartin and DJ Enright revisions).
Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage.
Anthony Rudolf, Silent Conversations: A Reader’s Life.
W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants.
Jorge Semprun, Literature or Life.
George Steiner, Language and Silence.
Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud.
Christa Wolf, City of Angels.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves.
Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter.