Personal Canon

This list emerged from a whimsical post I wrote about an imaginary desert island bookshelf, a private canon of books, compiled with the limitation of one book per writer. Whilst I reject Bloom’s extravagant notion of a Western Canon, I am always interested in personal canons. [I subsequently cast aside my self-imposed limitation.]

This list is open to recasting from time to time. Everything we read transforms us in some way; in the case of this list, the transformations are more durable. Although I don’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.

Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life
W. H. Auden: almost all of his work is worthwhile, even the parts he later disowned
Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Adieux: A Farewell to Sartre
Samuel Beckett, Watt, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable, Ill Seen Ill Said
Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics
John Berger, Here is Where We Meet
André Bernold, Beckett’s Friendship
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies, Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles [Edited by Millicent Dillon]
Brigid Brophy, The Snow Ball, The King of a Rainy Country
Anne Carson: almost everything is worthwhile
Hélène Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing
JM Coetzee, Foe, Elizabeth Costello, Disgrace, The Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians, In The Heart Of The CountryThe Childhood of Jesus
Dante, The Divine Comedy (Mandelbaum, Sayers or Hollander translations)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment
George Eliot, Middlemarch
Mathias Enard, Compass and Zone
Tomas Espedal, Against Nature, Against Art
Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence and A Time of Gifts
Max Frisch, Homo Faber, I’m Not Stiller
Michael Hamburger, String of Beginnings
Peter Handke, Repetition, The Afternoon of a Writer, Across, The Weight of the World
Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey (Chapman, Fagles or Fitzgerald translations)
James Joyce, Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, The Castle, The Trial, The Collected Stories, The Zurau Aphorisms, the diaries
Karl Ove Knausgård, Summer
Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, The Leopard, The Professor and the Siren
Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook
Clarice Lispector, Água Viva
Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
Claudio Magris, A Different Sea
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain and Doktor Faustus
Grace Dane Mazur, Hinges
V. S. Naipaul, The Enigma of Arrival, A House for Mr Biswas
Proust, In Search of Lost Time (Moncrieff translation with Kilmartin and DJ Enright revisions)
Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage
Jean-Paul Sartre, Witness to My Life
Michael Schmidt, The Novel
W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Jorge Semprún, Literature or Life and The Long Voyage
Dag Solstad, Shyness and Dignity
George Steiner, Grammars of Creation, The Poetry of ThoughtReal Presences
Denton Welch, In Youth is Pleasure, A Voice Through a Cloud
Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth, City of Angels, One Day a Year, Cassandra and Medea
Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, Moments of Being, The Waves, the diaries
Kate Zambreno, Heroines and Book of Mutter
Jan Zwicky, Wittgenstein Elegies and Lyric Philosophy