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 missing 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?
- Homer, The Odyssey
- The Book of Psalms
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
- The Gospel of Matthew
- Augustine, Confessions
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
- William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
- George Herbert, The Temple
- John Milton, Paradise Lost
- Jane Austen, Mansfield Park
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; short stories
- Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
- Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
- Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
- Flannery O’Connor, short stories
- Robert Frost, poetry
My life author is the 19th century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Runner-up: the 17th century English metaphysical poet, George Herbert.