My Personal Canon

Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed started what’s become something of a trend among book bloggers: a personal canon. I’m understanding this to mean the books that have meant the most to me. In most cases, I’ve read all of these books many times. Most of them I have taught. I’m sure I’ll read many of them many more times.

I made the list quickly, and have surely forgotten many titles. Tomorrow I would make a different list, I’m sure.


But here they are, in no particular order:

Engel, Bear

Ransom, Swallows & Amazons


Barthes, S/Z

Nabokov, Pnin

Bernhard, The Voice Imitator

Davis, Samuel Johnson is Indignant

Larsen, Passing

Rhys, Voyage in the Dark

Büchner, Lenz

Kleist, “The Marquise von O.”


Lawrence, Women in Love

Lawrence, The Rainbow

Lawrence, Sons & Lovers

Woolf, The Waves

Green, Loving

Mann, The Magic Mountain

Malamud, The Magic Barrel and Other Stories

Mavis Gallant

Dickens, Great Expectations

Beckett, Molloy

Kafka—all the short fiction, especially “Knock at the Manor Gate”

Spiegelman, Maus

Levi, If this is a Man

Fink, A Scrap of Time and Other Stories

Taylor, A Wreath of Roses

Walser, most everything, especially “Nervous”

Bowen, The Heat of the Day

Fallada, Alone in Berlin

Fermor Trilogy

Perenyi, More Was Lost

Manning, School for Love

Collins, No Name

Brontë, Villette

Mowat, Lost in the Barrens & Curse of the Viking Grave

I’m feeling too lazy to link to some of the other lists I’ve enjoyed reading. But I’d be grateful if you linked to your list in the comments, or just added your own favourites. See anything here you like?

27 thoughts on “My Personal Canon

  1. You’ve included Kleist’s Marquise, which must be my favourite (possibly) short story. The first time I read the story, I missed the import of that pivotal sentence, so had the thrill the second time of everything clicking into place.

    There are several gaps in my reading here that I will close some day: the Fallada, Levi, Büchner and Malamud.

    • Having taught this story a few times, I can attest that most readers miss that pivotal moment! Have you seen the Rohmer adaptation? I think it’s quite good, actually.
      Sometimes I think my life is nothing but reading gaps! Of all of these I would urge you to read the Levi above all. For me, it’s indispensable. Thanks for getting these lists started.

  2. As you know, I read the Manning recently and loved it – good to see it making an appearance here! Looking at the rest of your choices, the Bowen definitely appeals to me, as does the Perenyi…oh, and the Elizabeth Taylor, too. I think Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont would gain a place in my own list of favourites.

    • Good question. It’s as suspenseful as Woman in White and The Moonstone but it also has a whole (dis)inheritance plot. And I thought it was interestingly complicated in its narrative structure (though that is true of many of Collins’s books). Plus my wife and I were dithering about making our will and I was so horrified by the situation that starts the story in motion… I assume you have read it?

  3. That makes sense. No one wants to disinherit their illegitimate children.

    I enjoyed writing about it. I called the heroine No Name most of the time. The chapter, late in the book, where she has a dark night and considers suicide I thought especially strong, unusually strong.

    But yes, you get at my question. A complicated narrative structure does not distinguish it from other Collins novels, even if that particular structure is something new.

    • Just read your No Name posts (most of them anyway: I’m not sure the search function got them all. They are predictably terrific. I especially like the one on narrative structure, where you do a great job of showing exactly how interesting what COllins is up to really is. I liked the point about showing the tricksy modernists a thing or two. I guess that’s what struck me, tricksy modernists being my bread and butter.

  4. I’ve read about half of these I think. No Doris Lessing? I notice Lawrence makes a few appearances – I really didn’t get on with him in my younger days but he’s probably due a re-read.
    I suspect Kafka, Rhys and Woolf might make it on to my own list.

    • I know I was planning to include The Summer Before the Dark, but I guess I forgot. I also like The Good Terrorist a lot. See what I mean about how partial this list is!
      Lawrence is probably the writer I love the most. He wrote some terrible stuff but when he was on, I think he’s hard to top. A lot of the stories are amazing too. I would give him a revisit, if you feel up to it.
      Are you going to be putting up your own list?

  5. Sons and Lovers and Great Expectations were both important to me years ago, and likely bear rereading now. Good to see other titles on your list.

    • Thank you! I re-read Sons & Lovers most years. I think it’s a pretty amazing novel, halfway between 19th century realism and modernism. Definitely worth a re-read, I think. Plus the text everyone read 20 or 30 years ago is a lot different than the one Lawrence intended. The Penguin edition from the 90s (still available now) restores the cuts his editor made.

      • I am also happy to see a Canadian presence on your list. Can you recommend other read-worthy Canadian titles?

      • Marian Engel and Mavis Gallant are my favourite Canadian writers. But I’m woefully under-read in Canadian lit, especially for a Canadian. Many years ago I read and really liked Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes–it’s the canonical book on English/French relationships–but not sure how it holds up. I like Atwood a lot too, especially the 70s books. Some of Ondaatje. Munro I can take or leave. But so many others I don’t know. Have you read any?

  6. I am a Canadian also, but lived in the US (Arkansas actually) for 11 years before returning to Canada two years ago. I am trying now to get up to speed with Canada. I have read some of Ondaatje and Prairie authors such as Guy Vanderhaege; just starting Atwood’s The Edible Woman, her first novel.

    • That’s crazy! Where in Arkansas? (I’ve lived in Little Rock for 10 years.) Maybe there is hope I will get back to Canada… I think Edible Woman is terrific. Compares interestingly with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, if you’ve read that.

      • Siloam Springs. The job ended and I am here in Kelowna BC, calling myself retired and interested in Prairie fiction among other aspects of Can lit. I haven’t read Han Kang.

      • Were you at John Brown? That’s all I know about Siloam Springs. I hope you are not flooded out–I hear weather not good in Kelowna just now. The most famous prairie writer is Sinclair Ross, I guess, though I’ve not read him.

  7. Yes, at JBU. And yes, I was indeed flooded out, but am back home now. You are correct about Sinclair Ross as the best known Prairie writer; his As For Me and My House is iconic, though pretty dated now. I reread it recently.

      • My take is that Mitchell is another icon, now of interest mainly to Can lit historians.

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