Create your own personal canon with a life author

In A Christian Guide to the Classics, Leland Ryken writes:

Every lifelong reader needs to compile a private list of classics. It may or may not resemble the traditional canon of classics, but for us personally, these works meet most or all the criteria for a classic (the criterion most likely to be missiRyken.jpgng is cultural influence).

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever encountered in regard to reading came from an old book first published in 1941. To show how much things have changed, the book (Poetry as a Means of Grace) was written for ministers by a famous professor of English at Princeton University and was published by Princeton University Press in the United States and Oxford University Press in England. The author, Charles Osgood, wrote the book as a guide and encouragement to preachers to keep up their contact with imaginative literature. In the opening chapter titled “Your Poet,” Osgood recommended that even though we should read widely, we should also claim one author as a lifelong specialty. Osgood wrote,

Whatever else you read, adopt one of the greatest poets as your own for life, one with whom habitual companionship and deepening acquaintance become a more and more abundant source of refreshment and strength, a conformation of spiritual truth, an elevation to a more comprehensive view of life. Choose this author as friends are chosen, less by deliberate selection than by natural congruence . . . . Read a bit of [this author] as often as you can, until at least parts of him become part of yourself. 

I would add the compass of that excellent piece of advice to include the concept of one’s own list of classics in addition to a classic author. This was codified for me by an article that appeared in The American Scholar (“One Heart’s Canon,” by Suzanne Rhodenbaugh). While the author’s personal canon concentrated on poems, the idea of a personal canon can be applied to classics generally. The author of the article found the academic canon to be of only limited usefulness in determining her own canon, which consists of works that draw her “by some need or connection that is my own.” Her summary statement is that the works that reside in her personal canon are the ones that have “offered empowerment and understanding, solace, and livening.”

Question: What is your personal canon and life author?

  1. Homer, The Odyssey
  2. The Book of Psalms
  3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 
  4. The Gospel of Matthew
  5. Augustine, Confessions
  6. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  7. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
  8. George Herbert, The Temple 
  9. John Milton, Paradise Lost 
  10. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
  11. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, short stories
  12. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations 
  13. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love
  14. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment 
  15. Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis ReyOur Town
  16. Willa Cather, O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop
  17. Flannery O’Connor, short stories, Wise Blood
  18. Robert Frost, poetry

My life author is the 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Runner-up: the 17th century English metaphysical poet, George Herbert.


13 thoughts on “Create your own personal canon with a life author

  1. I will say that my life author is Fyodor Dostoevsky. Crime and Punishment is tied for my favorite novel, and I am planning to read The Brothers Karamazov this summer. I enjoyed The Idiot and Notes from Underground. However, I was relatively unimpressed with The Double – granted that is one of his earliest works.

    There a few authors that were contenders: Thornton Wilder and possibly (with my current reading of Great Expectations weighing in) Charles Dickens.

    Here is my canon of classics:

    1. The Odyssey by Homer
    2. The Book of Ezekiel
    3. The Gospel of John
    4. Confessions by St. Augustine
    5. Othello by William Shakespeare
    6. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
    7. Training in Christianity by Soren Kierkegaard
    8. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
    9. Dubliners by James Joyce
    10. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
    11. An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis
    12. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

  2. I’ll stack my canon with books that “offered empowerment and understanding, solace, and livening” continually with every reading. Of this criteria, “livening” describes my experience with only a handful of books and I treasure them. I read to resurrect the dead or dormant parts of me, and these works are food for my mind:

    1. The Brothers Karamazov
    2. The Divine Comedy
    3. Job
    4. The Iliad

    I may not be at the point of deciding a “lifetime author”, but if I chose now I would single out Homer. The Iliad is the most beautiful poem I’ve read and one of my best teachers. I go back to Homer in order to go back to a serious discussion about the beauty in death, the unshakeable reality of human courage, and the unending pursuit of civilization through war, heartbreak, and madness. Nothing else has the same weight and gravity that Homer flawlessly maintains for the whole of his narrative.

    • Parker: I’m intrigued by your candidate for a life author. I, too, love Homer. But whereas I favor The Odyssey, you favor The Iliad. Are the themes of The Odyssey less resonant for you at this time in your life? For me, homecoming is a spiritual theme. My home is not here, and therefore my heart aches to reach the kingdom of heaven, even though I know the journey will involve much suffering and temptation. I hope to endure the wars and waves with the dignity of Odysseus – that man of pain.

      • If the ‘sense’ of The Odyssey is one of wandering, adventure, and repining restlessness, I would say that the sense of The Iliad is one of uncompromising passion, gravity, and apocalypse. There is no homecoming in The Iliad, there is only an end of all things and the struggle to achieve self-understanding in the face of such an abyss.

        Ancient historians like Thucydides and Herodotus are often criticized, not in their own time but by our own shallow scholars, for focusing on warfare and ‘great events’ at the expense of culture, ethnography, and everyday life. I would say that this obsession with conflict springs from an anthropological belief: humans reveal themselves in the face of annihilation, and the essence of a man is secret and covered in times of peace by the shroud of domesticity. Similarly, one attraction of an African safari is the lure of seeing real conflict and bloodshed: we cannot understand an animal behind the bars of a zoo. Seeing a warthog at pasture is nothing like seeing a warthog surrounded by lions, when the warthog’s life is on the line and its next move is the difference between living and dying. The seduction of this spectacle is not merely sadistic, it’s not that tourists simply want to observe gore and bloodshed: I argue that it’s a passion to uncover the essence of the animal, to achieve knowledge of nature and our own wild parts. Violence is the cost of such knowledge (and McCarthy pursues this same track in Blood Meridian). The Iliad shows us death in order to show us Man.

  3. I cannot push myself to choose too many works to be glorified in the canon of Conor Lyons, because I am quite bad at making decisions for top 10 lists and things of that nature. However, I will mention a few pieces that truly stand out to me (even though my literary experience is still in adolescence).

    1. Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy
    2. John Milton’s Paradise Lost
    3. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
    4. Homer’s Odyssey
    5. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (didn’t expect that, eh?)

    My life author is probably Picander, the librettist for J. S. Bach. Does that count? I should hope so! Picander produced a great number or touching librettos that I connect with quite well. I encourage anybody in need of a spiritual boost to listen to some of the Bach cantatas and read their translations. If you don’t know the words, you don’t know the music!

  4. I love this! My life author is rather obviously C. S. Lewis…

    Florence’s Cannon of Classics:
    1. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
    2. The Temple by George Herbert
    3. Paradise Lost by Milton
    4. The Gospel of John
    5. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
    6. Anna Karennina by Tolstoy
    7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
    8. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
    9. Faust by Goethe
    10. “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor
    11. The Republic by Plato

    I’m not sure if I would list them in exactly that order, but they have all been incredible friends and teachers over the past few years. Thanks for asking this question!

  5. And finally, here it is. I think I could expand this list if I felt so inclined, but seven seems a fitting number. In chronological order…

    1) Herodotus: The Histories
    2) Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War
    3) Virgil: The Aeneid
    4) Shakespeare: Coriolanus
    5) Goethe: Faust
    6) Charles Dickens: Great Expectations
    7) Victor Hugo: Les Miserables

    My selected life author is Victor Hugo. I find all his works with which I am familiar, even the smaller ones, to be consistently both profitable and pleasurable, and no book has had a greater impact on me than his magnum opus, Les Miserables.

  6. Pingback: My personal canon | Lankford Press

  7. Pingback: Homage to Kierkegaard | Bensonian

  8. Pingback: One’s Personal Canon and Life Author | the theological beard

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