May 03, 2017

A Personal Canon of Axes

A “Personal” Canon of Great Books is a thing currently going ‘round like a bug, a kind of desert island record list but for books. My initial response was to jadedly ask, “Great like being of hefty import great, or great like let’s get pizza great?” I caved, as I always do for pizza. Many of my choices fall into the official canon, and I console myself with the fact that we are most impressionable at the age when it is thrust upon us. Other choices appear deceptively niche or quaint while containing historical or psychological insights that continue to provide solace, understanding or perspective even if I haven’t read them in decades. Some just contain bits of literary magic, lending the mundane and innocuous a poignancy that makes life bearably interesting. Not all of my favorite writers are listed, nor are all of the important books I’ve read. Just the ones I repeatedly borrow from my own mental library. With apologies to the fellow who didn’t make the cut, here is a quick selection of books that have successfully taken an axe to the frozen sea inside.

Anthologies (Scandalous? I don't pack light.)
The Bedford Introduction to Literature
Bulfinch's Mythology
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
The Oxford Book of American Verse

The Federalist Papers
Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson
Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, Eric Hobsbawm
Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More, Alexei Yurchak
The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939
From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer
Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty
The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz

Walden, Henry David Thoreau
Notebooks, Albert Camus
A Writer’s Diary, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Reborn: Journals and Notebooks 1947–1963, Susan Sontag
Heroines, Kate Zambreno
Ways of Seeing, John Berger
On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, William H. Gass
Zoo, or Letters Not About Love, Viktor Shklovsky

From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, E. L. Konigsburg
A Christmas Memory & The Thanksgiving Visitor, Truman Capote
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Immortality, Milan Kundera
Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal
Fording the Stream of Consciousness, Dubravka Ugrešić
The Idiot and Demons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
Candide, Voltaire
La Nausée, Jean-Paul Sartre
Les Chants de Maldoror, Lautréamont
The Plague, Albert Camus
Villa Triste, Patrick Modiano
The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Asleep, Banana Yoshimoto
Authors I haven’t read but would pack for an actual desert island
Hannah Arendt, Gertrude Stein, Stefan Zweig, Jorge Luis Borges, Stendhal
A Personal Canon that inspired this whim
Time's Flow Stemmed
Now, to find an island...