My Personal Canon

Paradiesgärtlein [Little Garden of Paradise] by the Upper Rhenish Master (1410-20).

Like all readers I think, whenever I'm asked what my favourite book is my mind goes into a spin! Even a top ten is asking a bit much. Fortunately this meme has come along: I found it at Jillian's and it's a no-limit list of books that has had the most impact. This list, then, is a mix: some of these books I deeply loved reading, some I found especially valuable when it comes to reading other works, and some have changed either my opinions (on authors, politics, life) or my general approach to reading. All of these books I've listed (and it is a long list) are outstanding and I do believe everyone should read them...

Ancient }

I'm slowly but surely making my way through ancient Greek and Roman works, and it was largely inspired by reading Sophocles, who remains my favourite of all ancient writers. Also on this list: Aeschylus, one of the most atmospheric writers I've come across, Aesop's charming tales that inspired so many, especially Victorian writers, Boethius who had much influence on Medieval writers, as indeed did Virgil, Ovid, and Homer. If I had to pick the most 'useful' book on this list it would be Metamorphoses, which, aside from being beautiful, dramatic, and sometimes rather frightening, it provides a great source of information on a great many Greek and Roman myths and legends.

Aesop's Fables (6th - 7th Century B.C.)
Medea by Euripides (431 B.C.).
Theogony by Hesiod (8th Century B.C.).
Odyssey by Homer (8th Century B.C.)
Ajax by Sophocles (450 - 430 B.C.)

{ Medieval }

I haven't read nearly as much Medieval literature as I would wish, but it was Chaucer's works that inspired by love. His Canterbury Tales are, in my mind, the finest work in this section, but Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth are also a pleasure to read and both got me very interested in the history of Northumberland, which is usually discussed in terms of recent history such as the Miners' Strikes of the 1980s. Bede and Geoffrey show there is much more to this great county than that. Sei Shōnagon is also an absolutely stunning and inspiring writer, and Dante's Divine Comedy had a great impact on Christian theology so cannot be ignored.

{ Early Modern }

The Early Modern period is for me dominated by Shakespeare and Marlowe. I adore Marlowe and have listed four of his seven plays here. As for Shakespeare, I love a great many of his plays but it is his histories that stand out. They are the greatest plays I've ever read, got me interested in Medieval kings and English history, and kept me gripped from start to finish. If I only had Shakespeare's histories to read out of his whole works, I would be perfectly happy (though I would miss A Midsummer Night's Dream). As for the rest: Bacon's Essays and More's Utopia are beautiful, Bale's Kynge Johan is one of the first historical plays so is important but also a great read, Racine's Phèdre got me into Neo-Classicism, Spenser's The Faerie Queene is enchanting and a worthy challenge, and reading would be no fun without Pepys. And, such is my love for Pepys, I named one of my budgies after him!

Kynge Johan by John Bale (1534 - 1561)

{ Modern }
{ Georgian }

As you can see I've not read much from the Georgian period (something to work on!). But I have Austen: I spent most of my life hating Jane Austen and I read each of her novels in hope something would change my mind but to no avail. Then, for some reason, I re-read Pride and Prejudice and I loved it: previously I think I'd seen Austen as 'light comedy' but there's something far darker in her works and Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both good examples of that absolute need for a woman to marry well; and the consequences of a bad marriage or no marriage were dire. Also on the list - Samuel Johnson. I'm at a loss as to why Samuel Johnson is so under-read. He's witty, madly intelligent, and an excellent and thought-provoking writer. Everyone should read some of Johnson, and my suggestion for wit and observational prose would be some of the essays from The Rambler and for the more serious, his preface to The Plays of William Shakespeare. Finally, Shelley - Frankenstein is undeniably an important classic, and Voltaire: literature would be less sparkly without Voltaire!
{ Victorian }

Reading Victorian literature is almost like coming home. There's so many I love, but I've tried to narrow the list down a little. There's the social protest novels - Hard Times, A Christmas Carol (which is of course so much more than that), Les Misérables, North and South, and Sybil, the book all Tory politicians claim is their favourite to make them look nice! Then the children's literature - Little Women, Alice in Wonderland, comedy from Jerome K. Jerome (the greatest of Victorian comic writers), sensationalism from Wilkie, Tennyson's Poems which inspired an art movement, the great and wonderful Zola, Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, and a few more for good measure! Truly a Golden Age.

Jean Santeuil by Marcel Proust (1952; written 1896-1900)

{ Edwardian }

I love children's literature from the Edwardian Age and The Secret Garden and The Wind in the Willows are my absolute favourites. Also I must mention Joyce's Stephen Hero, which was an early version of Portrait of the Artist. I would go as far as to say I prefer Stephen Hero to Portrait, but it is an incomplete manuscript.

{ First World War }

Here my reading begins to grow a little sparse. I've not read a great deal of novels from this period but my absolute favourite is Tressell. It's a ground-breaking novel and essential to learn to learn about early 20th Century socialism.

{ Interwar }

Virginia Woolf is the Queen of the interwar period and James Joyce is the King. An honourable mention to Proust, though: however long and intimidating everyone should give In Search of Lost Time a go: it's beautiful, indecently long, and a book few have managed to get through. If it is really too much though, let me urge you to read Jean Santeuil.

{ Second World War and  Postwar }

I say jokingly I have barely read anything post-1950, but really it's true. It's just the way it pans, it's not an effort or affectation. If I do read book from the WWII / Postwar era it's invariably Steinbeck or Orwell, two of the best writers of all time.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Detail of Saint Cecilia by John William Waterhouse (1895).