What's your Canon of Literature?

I blogged a few weeks ago about Lin Oliver's Forty Years of SCBWI Wisdom presentation at the Florida conference. I've been pondering some of her points, and one of them has really stuck with me:

Develop Your Own Canon Of Literature


She talked about how writers may read gajillions of books in their lifetime, but certain ones that touch a person so deeply that they come back to it repeatedly, even many years later. This collection becomes the author's own personal canon (defined as the authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture, or a sanctioned body of related works.)

I've been thinking about why identifying your own canon is important, and I've come up with a few ideas.

1. Your personal canon shows you where you came from. Most of the books on my list, I read as a kid. They spoke to me on a new level and made me think of things I'd never considered before. These books molded me as a person.

2. Your personal canon reveals what you value as a writer. Examining my favorite books made me see what I respect from a writing standpoint. These books molded me as an author.

To illustrate, I'm listing 5 of the books from my personal canon of literature. They're not in order. They're definitely not comprehensive. They're just some of the books that impacted me so deeply that I bought them young and continue to re-read them as an adult.

  • Alas Babylon. As a young teen in the early 80's, reading about the aftermath of a nuclear war was a little scary. And therefore, exciting. But more than that, I was intrigued by the social dynamics--how some people pulled together while others fell apart when faced with the end of the world. Almost all of my stories have some kind of survival element. This book has a lot to do with that.
  • Watership Down. Another survival story. But also an example of pristine characterization and voice.
  • The Little House on the Prairie series. Something about the simplicity of the times and the resourcefulness of the people speak to me in these books. I'm inspired to think that stories so simply written, and so pure, can capture a child's attention. These were the first historical fiction books I read; they're undoubtedly responsible for my love of the genre.
  • Anything by Robin McKinley. Her world-building is freaking amazing. I vividly remember one sweltering summer laying on a couch under the window a/c unit and reading The Blue Sword for the first time. I recently bought the digital version because the last time I tried to read my paperback, it fell apart.
  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I also remember exactly where I was when I first read The Hobbit--in front of the fireplace on a rare cold night in Florida. For the longest time, I re-read the Lord of the Rings trilogy every year. All three books. Middle Earth was like a real place to me. I wanted a vacation home in The Shire. My love of reading and writing fantasy was definitely born in Tolkien's world.

    Time to buy new copies
    Clearly, these books had a hand in shaping me as a human being and an artist. But what about you? What books have effected you so indelibly as a person and as a writer that you can't give them up?

    28 comments:

    Laura Pauling said...

    I'll seriously have to think about this. It definitely wasn't Little House on the Prairie series : ) thought that could be because I didn't try to read them until I was an adult and found them very boring - probably b/c there was no secrets or spies in them. :) but I loved the TV show!

    I can think of a couple. I'll keep thinking and let you know.

    Bonnee Crawford said...

    Hmm, this is quite interested! I'm now considering making a blog entry about my cannon books :D I'd have to say some of mine are Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke and Hush,Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick. I read Dragon Rider 5 times in a row in one year, and I couldn't put Hush,Hush down. I enjoy fantasy too much for my own good, so it's no wonder I love to write it when I love to read it so much. Thanks for sharing this!

    Laura Howard said...

    The little house books, Anne of green gables books and Nancy drew were big for me as a kid. As an adult my "formative" books were twilight series, mortal instrument series and the modern faerie tale series!

    Janet Smart said...

    We all hope some day to be a writer of books that someone keeps and reads over and over again. I have the Little House Collection of books and get them out and read them over now and then and I simply love Christy and it is one that I read again and again. By the way, I will soon put my review of your Emotion Thesaurus on my blog, I am still exploring and enjoying it at the moment :o)

    Jaleh D said...

    I'll have to think about what mine would be. A few things pop into mind right away, but I want to think about what other books played a strong impact on me. I suspect it'll be an eclectic list.

    Z said...

    I agree, this is going to be eclectic:
    (in no particular order)
    The Giver--a little early for the dystopia craze that's going on right now, this book was what first prompted me to start asking questions about the world. I think it's also one of the books that filled me with the desire to write my own.
    Harry Potter--maybe it's a generational thing, but I was a HUGE reader as a kid--I read Les Mis unabridged when I was 11--but my friends and siblings hated to read until HP hit the shelves. It was great to have a book I could finally talk about with people--and bond over. Not to mention they're incredible loads of fun.
    Little House on the Prairie--my mom's dyslexic and not a very good reader, but she saved the copy (the blue-box set) she had when she was little and helped teach me to read from those delightful pages.
    The Wet Engine--this book helped shape my writing style, and fire a passion for the simple, gorgeous moments of real life.

    There are loads more, but those are a few of the favorites :)

    Stacy Green said...

    Hmm. As I kid, I'd have to say Little House on the Prairie, Trixie Beldon, Nancy Drew. As I got older, the classics: Jane Eyre, Edgar Allen Poe. I'm sure there are a ton more, but these are the ones that stand out in my mind.

    Donna K. Weaver said...

    This is awesome. And so true! We can helped but be shaped and molded by the writing in stories we love best and keep coming to. I'm with you on Little House and Robin. Anne McCaffrey is another for me, as well as Robert Heinlein and more recently Brandon Sanderson.

    Lisa Gail Green said...

    What an awesome concept!!! I Love it! And learning about yours was very interesting. I know Lord of the Rings is on my list too. :D

    Matthew MacNish said...

    I used to reread LOTR every year too! In spring. I would always do it in spring. I wish I still had time to do that.

    Carrie-Anne said...

    I first discovered The Tao Te Ching in January '96, shortly after I turned 16, and it's been a very special book to me ever since. No matter how many times I read its brief 81 chapters, it always speaks to me in some new way.

    The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, is a book I can read over and over again. I know my favorite stories almost by heart, and only a small amount of the stories come across as badly-dated today (such as the one where the moral of the story is to learn to beat your wife so she'll never disobey or assert herself). Even though these are stories about the Middle Ages and ancient world, the majority of them feel very fresh and relevant today.

    A lot of the books by Hermann Hesse, my second-favorite writer, and just about anything by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, my favorite writer.

    Judy Delton's Kitty series, which I read many times as a preteen and revisited not so long ago. I was very happy to see how well it held it. It's about a Catholic girl in St. Paul during the 1940s, and her two opposite best friends, one who's a bit of a rebel in the pre-Vatican II era, and the other who's very devout and religious, sometimes to a fault.

    Isabella Leitner's Shoah memoirs, the most haunting books I've ever read. I was kind of disappointed at some of the edits that were made when the two volumes were combined into one, since the new version left out some of the most powerful and telling lines and passages.

    JOSEPH (ZISI) E. LERNER said...

    I don't have a particular canon so much as certain writers I've loved and whose work I revisit frequently. For instance, I love Borges, but will dip into his essays, poems, and reviews that are less familiar to me than his stories. Same with Kafka. I've read all of his stories but not so much his diaries (and rereading The Castle in a new translation is like experiencing it for the first time). Calvino? There's still "Six Memos for the Next Millennium" that I haven't read yet and "If On a Winter's Night a Traveler" I never could get into but will try again someday.

    Traci Kenworth said...

    I LOVED the Little House stories, Nancy Drew & the Hardy Boys, anything by Walter Farley and Maureen O'Rourke. I investigated mysteries with The Three Investigators as well. Oh, and the scares came with Summer of Fear...

    Addy Rae said...

    Both 'Alas, Babylon' and 'Watership Down' are in my personal canon, and they have been since I was about twelve. My copies are battered and reread to the point that I can pick them up and start reading easily from any page.

    Other books are C.J. Cherryh's 'Finity's End', Patricia Briggs' 'The Hob's Bargain', and all of Michelle Sagara's Elantra Series.

    Becca Puglisi said...

    Thanks for sharing, everyone. I love the variety that speaks to so many different people. It just shows how important it is that everyone write the book that is in them to write. There's no telling who it will speak to.

    Janet: Thank you so much, for the review, and for taking the time to check it out!

    Lynda R Young said...

    Lord of the Rings, The Famous Five, Dunctan Woods, anything by Robin Hobb.

    Jemi Fraser said...

    Great question! There are so many books in my canon too - and they're all ones that opened my eyes to new thoughts, new perspectives, new something. The hobbit and LotR and Anne of GG would be 3 of my top faves :)

    Deb Marshall said...

    Well, I have some thinking to do on this...but...for sure

    MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN by Jean Craighead George
    ALL the Trixie Belden Books...seriously. I think I need to start collecting them.
    ILIAD and THE ODDYSEY (read over and over and over again).
    Edgar Allen Poe
    ANNE OF GREEN GABLES
    Arther Conan Doyle (starting at twelve) and Agatha Christie

    Loved this post. Thanks so much!

    Laura Marcella said...

    Oooo, yours and everyone's in the comments are all wonderful choices. I want to think about this a little more, but off the top of my head I'd say some would have to be

    • Anne of Green Gables series
    • To Kill a Mockingbird
    • The Secret Life of Bees
    • Maniac Magee
    • Gone with the Wind

    But there really are many more remarkable books that have molded me as a person and as an author, to which I return again and again when I need comfort and inspiration.

    Deena Larsen said...

    Great question. For print books, I have to add Mark Twain.
    However, there is an entirely new genre of electronic literature works that use images, sound, links, etc. as an integral part of the work. I have a list of them at http://www.deenalarsen.net/webshelf/

    In this cannon, I'd have to say Rob Kendall's Faith, M.D. Coverley's Book of Egypt, and Bill Bly's We Descend. Amazing stuff.

    Sandy Green said...

    So glad I found this site! You have such great resources. I've already been recommending it. Thanks!

    JDR said...

    Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written by Richard Bach was oe of the first book I read on my own. It changed the way I saw books. They could be more than just entertainment. They could be profound.

    Scott said...

    I wrote about this on my blog. One of the books that I treasure the most is The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin Jr. When I read it, it inspired me to begin writing my first novel.

    Alex Washoe said...

    Great post. I'll be thinking about my personal canon for a while. I was glad to see yo list "Watership Down" -- I'm a big Richard Adams fan and I don't think he's ever gotten the credit he really deserves as a writer. If I had to pick only one book of his, though, for my personal canon -- the one that left it's lasting imprint on me as a writer -- it would be "Plague Dogs". A heartbreaking book with two of the most convincing and unforgettable canine heroes in English literature.

    John Magnet Bell said...

    I didn't read any of the Little House on the Prairie books, but I watched the TV show. Does that count ;)

    OK, here's my personal canon. It is as bizarre as can be expected.

    . Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne
    . Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
    . Hart Crane's collected poems
    . The Great Dune Trilogy, plus God Emperor of Dune, by Frank Herbert
    . VALIS, by Philip K. Dick
    . The Divine Invasion, also by PKD
    . A Scanner Darkly, also by PKD
    . The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe. Possibly the second-weirdest fantasy cycle ever.

    . Viriconium, by M. John Harrison. THAT is the weirdest fantasy cycle ever. Forget China Mieville. Forget the "new weird" or "bizarro" movements. They will never outwrite Harrison's Viriconium novella, "A Storm of Wings."

    . Chronicles of Amber, by Roger Zelazny. Probably the third-strangest fantasy cycle now in print.

    . Tales of Dying Earth by Jack Vance. Not only odd and whimsical, especially the "Cugel Saga" novels, but also quite funny.

    I keep going back to these books. They provide no end of reading pleasure, they're like an inexhaustible glass of ambrosia.

    Taurean Watkins said...

    This blog post is timely for me as I've had to reflect on the mixed feelings I've had about reading.

    I don't think my personal canon is as defined as those who commented yet, but there are books I treasure.

    I came to pleasure reading later than most who've replied thus far, so my ideas on this concept are FAR from refined as others have expressed, but I do see some parallels in myself regarding this topic.

    Bonnee, it's nice to meet another lover of Dragon Rider. A lot of the writers I know who are Cornelia Funke devotees didn't like it, but I loved it, particularly because it was a nice change from lots of stories where dragons are either ravenous monsters or comic relief dimwits, and this was a refreshing change

    Another book that was and remains vital in my life is Time Stops for No Mouse by Micheal Hoeye.

    It's the kind of book I'd get no matter if I was a writer or not, but because I am a writer, it gives me hope that there really are people over 5 who read these books, love them, and don't outgrow them like at the parents and teachers say.

    Graham Strong said...

    Hi Becca,

    There are too many to list! In fact, I'd say that different things influence me in different ways. For example, for the novel I'm currently writing, I've turned to some very specific pieces of literature like:

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
    The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby by Tom Wolfe
    Sideways by Rex Pickett
    In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
    Various essays and articles by the "New Journalism" school of writers.

    However in general, books that inspire me (or, perhaps more accurately, that I would aspire to write...) are:

    The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    The Magus by John Fowles
    Whale Music and King Leary by Paul Quarrington
    A Room with a View by EM Forester

    Then, of those that most influenced me as a child (off the top of my head...):

    Robin Hood
    The Secret World of Og by Pierre Burton
    The "Adventure" series by Enid Blyton
    The Hobbit
    Treasure Island

    Different books, different impacts, but I think it's rare for a writer not to be influenced by anything he/she reads, no?

    ~Graham

    Biddy Fraser said...

    Amongst quite a few others, I'd say, 'Little Women' by Louisa M Alcott. I visited her house in Concorde last year and it was just like coming home.

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