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
Non-Fiction 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
Essays 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
Fiction 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 BeingandImmortality, Milan Kundera Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal Fording the Stream of Consciousness, Dubravka Ugrešić The Idiotand 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