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.
Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life.
Samuel Beckett, Molloy.
Jorge Luis Borges, Labyrinths.
J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello.
S. D. Chrostowska, Matches.
Dante, The Divine Comedy (Mandelbaum, Sayers or Hollander translations).
Moyra Davey, The Problem of Reading.
Mathias Enard, Zone.
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things.
Michael Hamburger, String of Beginnings.
Peter Handke, Repetition.
Homer, The Iliad (Chapman, Fagles or Fitzgerald translations).
Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun.
James Joyce, Ulysses.
Franz Kafka, The Castle.
Anna Kamieńska, Astonishments.
Anna Kavan, I am Lazarus.
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, The End.
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook.
Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life.
Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart.
Maria Gabriela Llansol, The Geography of Rebels trilogy.
Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus.
Herman Melville, Bartleby the Scrivener.
V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival.
Proust, In Search of Lost Time (Moncrieff translation with Kilmartin and DJ Enright revisions).
Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage.
Anthony Rudolf, Silent Conversations.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.
Michael Schmidt, The Novel.
W. G. Sebald, Vertigo.
Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life.
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows.
Denton Welch, A Voice Through a Cloud.
Christa Wolf, City of Angels.
Virginia Woolf, The Waves.
Kate Zambreno, Book of Mutter.