Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Personal Canon

I promised to come up with my Personal Canon, but I’ve struggled with this task. I wanted to explain why, but I’ve struggled with that task as well. I am undaunted. Be warned; this will be wordy.

I think the difficulty starts with my own fussiness about words: words have meanings. So what is the meaning of Personal Canon? Personal: pretty clear that means according to me. Canon: excluding ecclesiastical references, generally means rules or standards, accepted as axiomatic, most commonly applied to the study of art.

I know I said I was fussy – but you really have to give me this – it can’t be personal AND axiomatic. They’re mutually exclusive. I’m an odd mix of pragmatic and poet. The pragmatic says a personal canon cannot and does not exist. But the poet will now trump the pragmatic and allow that we are using the phrase liberally to discuss something fine and worthy.

My difficulty is not overcome just yet though, because I’m still searching for a meaning. I don’t believe the phrase has been in widespread use for very long and has no dogmatic meaning. Meaning, I am free to infer.

I infer it concerns written works, and that it means something other than my favorites. I found this “definition” and explanation at AP Literature & Composition:

Personal Canon -- a collective list of literary works that are considered significant for the effect they have had on individual readers.

Think about which novels, short stories or authors; poems or poets; plays or playwrights; and even nonfiction texts, philosophers, or documents that have influenced you.  Which pieces have changed your life? Inspired, motivated, or grounded you?  Have shaped you or opposed your sensibilities in some way?

I thought at first I’d go with that – but that gave me a new problem. Let me pull out what I consider two key words:  significant and effect. What works had significant effect upon me?

To be honest, with one exception, there are few written works that have affected me significantly – at least not in the sense of the second part of the definition, works that changed me significantly, that made me who I am. Collectively, they all do that, but individually, there is just the one written work to which I would ascribe that kind of significance.

I’m trying to not be a buzz kill. So, I have to define this in a way that suits me. I think I’m allowed, given the heretofore examined imprecision of the phrase, and the freedom for personal inference.

I define my Personal Canon as those works that moved me profoundly to deep thought and intense emotion. In other words, my Personal Canon are those written works that I consider “Great.” See my previous treatise on Great Literature.

So here’s my Personal Canon. It’s very short.

The Bible – This is in a category of its own. It is more than a book to me. It is a compass for life.

And then…

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Chariots of Fire (movie based on the book by David J. Weatherby)
Please Understand Me and Please Understand me II by David Keirsey
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
The Reason for God by Timothy J. Keller

As I stated earlier, canon usually applies to the study of art, and in this context usually to written word. However, I’m going to add one piece of visual art:

The Voyage of Life (see it here)

This painting by Thomas Cole is actually four paintings portraying the life of a man as a voyage down a river. The fours stages of the journey are: childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. I've had the privilege of viewing the actual painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I can study it for hours.



  1. What a lovely idea to include a painting in your canon, Joseph. As well as a film. I'm stunned you don't include any Tolkien. I thought it had enormously influenced you. Maybe it didn't correlate with how you interpret "personal canon." Thanks for doing this. :)

    If the phrase "personal canon" is so difficult for you to define, why don't you just coin a new phrase? I confess I didn't struggle over what it was called at all. I just focused on creating whatever list I pleased. That's usually the more simplified angle, ha ha. :p

    1. I wanted to include The Lord of the Rings, but as I decided on the definition of "Personal Canon" and holding myself to that standard, I cannot give it the same importance as those I've listed. I love Tolkien; The Lord of the Rings is my favorite read - but it's an escape; it's entertainment; it's a marvelous diversion, but it doesn't move me to the level of thought and emotion as those I've listed.

      Regarding my difficulty with the term, I was partially poking fun at my own foibles: fussiness about words. It's also an occupational hazard. I'm certain your simplified angle works well for you - but for me - not so much. I obsess over words, but also - and again - and mostly - just having a little fun with it.

  2. Still haven't read The Little Prince, but now inspired to after reading Will Schwable's praise of it in Books for Living.

    1. You really should...only takes about an hour.

  3. Interesting list and an even more interesting post about why you chose what you did.

    I would have a very hard time coming up with anything comparable...I have read a fair few books, but which ones have had a significant influence on me, that is a tough call.

    1. Yeah, it was harder than I at first anticipated it would be...partially because of my fussiness.

  4. I sympathise, actually I empathise with your quandary. I started my personal canon post but got stalled by meaning...then a busy schedule caught up with me...and then self-doubt crept in.

    Spotting this has got the creative juices flowing again though.

    I also wondered about the absence of LOTR, but I see you covered that in Jillian's comment. It might make my list because when I read them as a teen it was my first fantasy series - they showed me the value of reading outside my comfort genres.

    I suspect To Kill A Mockingbird will make an appearance on many life-changing book lists.

    1. Glad to give you a little nudge. I'll watch for your list.


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