Saturday, 13 May 2017

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).


  1. I'll be working on my own canon soon, since Jillian saw fit to "tag" me on Twitter! It's a great idea, though. I, too, dread the question, usually, because on any given day I could answer with something different (or want to answer with a handful of texts rather than just one favorite). I really enjoyed the way you organized your list by period, and I have to agree with you about Sophocles. He's certainly my favorite of the classical Greeks. I'm sure I'll have to devote a section to Plato and Aristotle, since my life's work is rhetoric. A section for the stoics, too... Seneca & Marcus Aurelius... after that? I'm still thinking. Steinbeck, of course. And a big, fat, gigantic heart/core for Mark Twain's Huck Finn, around which everything else may orbit. :)

    1. Ha! I like your devotion to Huck Finn. :)

    2. Huck, of course! ;)

      I do admire your reading of Plato and Aristotle et al. I try, I do, but it's so hard. I have a couple I want to 'get through' but it will be an effort. I've tried and failed with Ethics a good three or four times now!

      You're the one that got me into Steinbeck - got a few more for my CC list :)

  2. totally agree re Johnson and Voltaire... otherwise, i tend to read eclectically, mainly because the delighted surprise engendered by opening an unknown book and finding a treasure can't be beat, imo... having said that, tho, memory tells of the many occasions i've violated that premise and have gone to read the entire output of a given author...

    1. I do love reading complete works, it's irresistible at times :) And I'm glad we're of the same mind re. Johnson and Voltaire. Why people hardly read Johnson I don't know...


    Thank you so much for doing this, lovely o! I was thrilled reading through this! You have read SO MUCH. I've only read nineteen of the titles on your list. I'm half-tempted to select one from each era on your list to add to my own TBR, simply on the strength of your devotion to it! I've never felt a pull to the ancients, but just lately I'm thinking they may hold a lot of wisdom and thunder I'd appreciate. As well as a glimpse of history and the early days of literature. The only reason I'd ever CONSIDER reading Chaucer is because you so love it. I think I might have to try Sophocles and see if he inspires more. I've read Aesop's Fables (loved) and Epictetus. That's it for the ancients. There's SO MUCH to read I'm afraid I'm a bit hesitant to try. One of my oldest and proudest reads is The Pilgrim's Progress, which I actually quite liked, so possibly I need to simply jump in. I know I want to try Homer. I'm afraid of The Faerie Queene.

    I also feel a pull to Shakespeare's Histories, but would miss Midsummer. (Which surprises me. I expected to hate it for its strange fairies and magic. Instead I found it sparkly.)

    If I may be so bold, you MUST READ Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, as an addition to your WWI list. I stand by it. x

    My own list is also sadly missing more modern works. :)

    Books on your list I am considering:

    Orlando by Virginia Woolf (1928)
    To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
    Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
    Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871 - 1872)
    Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
    North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)
    The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
    King John by William Shakespeare (1596 - 1597)
    Edward III by William Shakespeare (1596)
    Richard II by William Shakespeare (1595 - 1596)
    Henry IV Part I by William Shakespeare (1597)
    The Shorter Pepys by Samuel Pepys, selected and edited by Robert Latham from The Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660 - 1669)
    Essays by Francis Bacon (1625)
    The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1386-94)
    Odyssey by Homer (8th Century B.C.)
    Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (429 B.C.)
    Germinal by Émile Zola (1885)
    Electra by Sophocles (410 B.C.)
    In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913 - 1927).
    Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1748)

    1. Oh, you should read The Canterbury Tales! Such fun. Chaucer was something else.

    2. Canterbury Tales is one of my absolute top 10 favourites :) And the Ancients - "wisdom and thunder" - that's very beautifully put!

      I will certainly try Testament of Youth. I loved the film. I do look for it when I go to bookshops. Think I'll have to buy online...

      Glad to see you're giving Clarissa another go! :)

  4. An imposing personal canon, but I am not surprised. You have worked hard to accomplish reading these works. : ) Good for you!

    1. Thank you :) It does help being a fast reader, I must admit :)

  5. I agree with Ruth...what an imposing list, and I am not surprised either, but surely inspired to take on more of those works! I loved Metamorphoses for the same reason and like you I think my Victorian Era, along with Edwardian Era will see the "MOST READ" Books! Added several from your list to my TBR especially from the medieval times as that is one era I really need to read a lot more!

    1. Glad to hear it! I love the Medievals - do want to read much more, though. Will soon be reading Asser's Life of King Alfred - really looking forward to that one :) I must read more Edwardian lit too...

  6. Love your list, and since I follow you so closely ;-), I'd already had a number of your more obscure titles on my radar. Like Cirtnecce, I too need to concentrate more on the medieval era. So much to read!!

    1. I know! There's a million books I want to read right now - hard to stay focused :)

  7. I am keeping this list as an inspiration. (Many common friends, and some to discover).
    I am going to read (or start) with just Swan from the whole In Search...
    The Classics are quite unique, they never disappoint!


Popular Posts of the Year