A Personal Canon.

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?

Post Scripts.

+10 books that will change your life.

+Love this traditional baby boy outfit (heavily, heavily discounted).

+This dress just arrived in the mail and I love it. (You can get the look for a lot less with this $60 steal!)

+There are many ways to read.

+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!)

+This Chanel tho. (Also love this. Were I nota touch rational, I’d nominate it as a contender for my diaper bag upgrade hunt, but at $3500, that’s borderline insane.)

+Vanina pearl bags have been all over the place — I love a good Etsy lookalike.

+And this looks like a Mark Cross!

+How precious is this hair bow holder?

+I’m a fan of lowbrow lit.

+Pretty little thang.

11 Comments

  1. Oh, THIS is a question I can get behind.

    Morrison’s “Song of Solomon”; Melville’s “Benito Cereno”; Fitzgerald’s short stories, which in high school I would read perched on the dock of my family’s lake house with the sun beating down – just the BEST. Julia Alvarez for each and every book she has written, but in particular “In the Time of the Butterflies”, John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men,” which I teach every year and NEVER get sick of; Anna Quindlen; Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”; and Anthony Marra’s “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena”, one of the most beautiful books I’ve read. I too might add “Circe” to this list. I was a classics major, and now teach 8th grade English and Latin, so visiting Odysseus, Telemachus, Telegonus and all of the others through Circe’s eyes and voice was the most incredible treat. I’m thrilled with how many people in the comments are recommending Song of Achilles. Ordering now!

    I’m going to sit with this question some more!

    1. Annie! I loved so many of these additions, and a few were new to me (added Marra’s book immediately to my reading list). I love the idea of Fitzgerald’s short stories in your canon. I think he’s one of those writers who will fall out of favor in the next couple of decades because he feels generally out of sync with the times, but I love his way with words, his love for them. He took good care of them while writing. Anyway, thanks for writing in! xx

  2. I love this question! We definitely have some crossover — Lahiri, Didion, Hemingway in particular — and to those I’d add Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Zadie Smith, Julia Glass (for Three Junes alone), Antonia Fraser, Rebecca Solnit, Adam Gopnik, and Colson Whitehead.

    That swan bow-holder is adorable! Bookmarking that for my niece … xx

  3. Jen, I gushed over this post. I’d sign up for a college course on your canon in a heartbeat (what a dream that reading list would be!) and I’ve been ruminating on my canon all day. Zadie Smith, TS Eliot, Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri (I agree with your thoughts completely), Hemingway (for reasons of my own), Jeffrey Eugenides, Elizabeth Straut…how to choose, how to choose!

    1. Ahh, Jeffrey Eugenides is a good one! I haven’t read much of his writing in the past 10 years but adored The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex!

    2. Ahh! You’ve seeded a new dream: teaching a course entirely on my own personal canon. Will be marinating on that for some time. How would I structure it?! AHH! Exciting new fodder.

      Love your additions, too, though I am mortified that I’ve not read some of these — Zadie Smith first and foremost…

  4. You’ll love the Song of Achilles. I didn’t think anything could live up to Circe but that too was an amazing book.

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