Mr. Magpie has been reading Circe for the first time and I am pathetically envious. I keep checking in on his progress, voyeuristically awaiting his reactions to my favorite segments and peppering him with questions along the way. What did he make of Scylla? Did he like Circe? He had a hot take on Helios, asserting that he felt Helios might be justified in his actions, whereas I recalled him, angstily and dismissively, as a cold and cruel and absent father.
These conversations elicit the deepest joy in me.
Mr. Magpie’s decision to read Circe was in part prompted by my comment that it was easily one of the best books (maybe the best book) I have read in the past decade. (A full review here.) The craftsmanship is impeccable, the character sketching delicious. There is something curiously modern and timeless about it. It is easy — but hefty — reading, meaning that it is a pleasure to read but there is much to ponder in it.
It is, I said, the stuff of canon.
When I made that comment — gesturing towards Circe‘s “canonical” status — I had to pause and think for a moment. The last time I seriously thought about “the canon” was as a wide-eyed undergraduate at UVA, when my professor dedicated an entire lecture hall session to the notion of the canon and the desperate need to expand and diversify it so that it would no longer be a roster of “dead white men.” His suggestions included Derek Walcott and Junot Diaz.
I’ve come to realize that I need multiple canons, and that their contents might change as I age. And that maybe a canon is a personal thing anyhow, a chorus of voices that speak powerfully to you and through whom you better understand and navigate the world. And that maybe there is even a place for “lowbrow” lit in that canon, too? If it serves a purpose and makes you think? Like — can Agatha Christie belong? What about Carolyn Keene, whose Nancy Drew series permanently endeared me to reading as a young thing and kindled my first fictional romance? (Ned Nickerson, anyone?)
If you asked me today who might live in my canon, it would be peculiarly and predominantly female and heavily skewed towards a rubric that centers upon craftsmanship. In other words, you would find my personal Mount Helicon:
Jhumpa Lahiri, for her metier as a master of short fiction in particular; I always feel as though I am in good hands when I am reading her work (“she is taking me somewhere, and that somewhere is good“);
Nora Ephron, for her quick and cutting wit, her self-deprecation, her knack for the poignant, her keen observational abilities;
Joan Didion, for overall brilliance (her intellect is always twelve paces ahead of mine) and the gristle and strength and grace of her prose;
Arundhati Roy, for her simultaneous playfulness with and reverence for language;
Seamus Heaney, for teaching me that language has texture and, for lack of a better word, “mouth feel” that is worth considering. In other words: good writing is a physical thing, a sensorial thing, and I’d never thought of it in this way before him;
Mary Oliver, for her quiet and sharp curiosity in investigating our world and capturing it in pitch-perfect prose;
Ernest Hemingway, for standing as a spectre on my shoulder, reminding me that if I can catch an adjective, I should kill it, even if I rarely, if ever, follow his advice. It’s good to have guideposts, salubrious to write under constraint.
I might add to this list Madeline Miller on the merits of Circe alone, for her power with words, for the art of her accelerating prose.
Who lives in yours?
+Love this traditional baby boy outfit (heavily, heavily discounted).
+So obsessed with this cheek tint, I bought it for my mom for her birthday. (Quick — snap it up while the Sephora sale is running!)
+And this looks like a Mark Cross!
+How precious is this hair bow holder?
+I’m a fan of lowbrow lit.