There is great debate about which texts deserve to sit in the canon of literature – debates shaped by people far more informed than I. Sure, I’ll talk about canon in Marvel or Doctor Who or Star Wars but F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway? Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle? Et cetera and so on? I’ve opinions but few are fully informed by academic scholarship. Last summer I was reading one of my favorite blogs – I read that in a book – and I came across a post titled, “Personal book canon – a self-portrait in books.” I loved the post and I loved the idea and I immediately began thinking of what would make up my own personal literary canon. In the comment section of the piece, I talked of how I was eager to “steal” the idea and try it myself. This was something I could speak to in an informed way! I thought it a really fun idea, too, to look at the books which have most shaped my life. So today, in my 400th post (!!!!), I’m going to do just that :D.
As I spent months (I first read the piece that inspired this in July of 2020) staring at my bookshelves, I tried to figure out my criteria for inclusion. This wasn’t to be a favorite books list, although many of these texts do rank among my favorites and all have been returned to many, many times. Instead, I sought texts that were influential in shaping who I was and who I’ve become. What books, what authors, what ideas have played the biggest role in helping me became the person I am today? As a result, all the texts I chose come from my adolescence or young adulthood. Many brilliant, powerful books have shaped me since those first years after I graduated college, but they weren’t part of my formative years of self-discovery and growth. This became the criteria for consideration for inclusion in My Personal Literary Canon. Then I selected the texts from that list which had the greatest impact on shaping me.
The order of the texts below is built around what I felt produced the best flow for the piece. It’s not “ranked” in anyway. The dates I’ve included are from their publication. Many I didn’t read the year they were released (although some I did). I have grouped them into two categories – Fiction and Nonfiction. While I know the “formal canon of literature” doesn’t normally include nonfiction, this is my canon and if I’m looking at the books that have shaped who I am, I have to include nonfiction. So, without further ado, here’s My Personal Literary Canon!
(Feel free to imagine a drumroll if you’d like…)
––– Fiction –––
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (1993)
Honestly and without exaggeration, no single text has shaped me more than Coelho’s The Alchemist. It’s taught me more about life, love, God, and my place in the universe than anything else I’ve ever read – both in what it says directly and in what it’s lead me to find in contemplation. It’s done more to shape my connection to life, love, God, and the universe than anything else I’ve ever read, too. I am a better, more thoughtful, more loving person because of Coelho’s writing. I’ve read all his books; Brida (2008) and The Zahir (2005) deserve special mention, for helping teach me how to love without possession, one of the most difficult and important lessons I’ve ever learned.
Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (1992)
The cover of my copy of Ishmael has a quote from Jim Britell of the Whole Earth Review. It reads, “From now on I will divide the books I have read into two categories – the ones I read before Ishmael and those read after.” I’ll never forget seeing that for the first time. I found it an interesting metric by which to judge something. Then I read the book and found it absolutely true. This novel forever changed how I see the world. What it taught me about the environment, our place in creation, the nature of systemic sin, and questioning the fallacious nature of metanarratives is invaluable. Read for the first time in the Philosophical Inquiry course I took in undergrad, I was not ready for what this showed me but I am forever indebted to Daniel Quinn for leading me to it all the same.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
I picked this novel up to read on my own during undergrad because I knew Kurt Vonnegut was “important.” From Slaughterhouse-Five I’d go on to read every novel, short story collection, and collection of essays Vonnegut published. His worldview was one that left a deep and lasting impression on me. The dark cynicism that filled his humor and his narratives showed he believed we’re all absolutely, unequivocally fucked…but maybe the next generation can make things better. The glimmer of hope amidst the cynicism inspired me in my youth and helps sustain me now. Over the near-twenty years I’ve lived since first reading Vonnegut, I’ve come to more fully embrace the dark cynicism through which he saw the world. But I still share the hope he saw in this mess, too.
Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939)
Long before I understood what Jesus really taught in regard to nonviolence or what my faith (if I was taking it seriously) called me to in regard to nonviolence, this book made me a pacifist. Annoyed with the electives my high school offered (not everyone cares about C++), my senior year I took an independent study with an English teacher I loved to read and discuss great books that weren’t covered in the curriculum. This was one of the texts we examined. The cold, shocking way in which Trumbo depicted the brutal reality of the horrors of war made me realize there can be no such thing as a just war. Maybe – maybe – war could be seen as a “necessary evil.” But it was evil. Period. No other novel I’ve read has left such a vivid emotional impression on me.
Kathy Tyers’ Star Wars: The Truce At Bakura (1994)
One summer during middle school, already in love with the world of Star Wars, I learned there were novels that continued after the events of Return Of The Jedi. Kathy Tyers’ novel, set immediately following the Battle of Endor, was my first trip into the Expanded Universe. I fell in love! I read over a dozen Star Wars novels that summer! These novels set the bar for what I expect of a non-Lucas penned Star Wars story. I still love these stories and reread them often and, as far as I’m concerned, Disney has yet to produce anything (yes, The Mandalorian included) that’s half as good as the EU novels.
Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule: A Sword of Truth Novel (1994)
Recommended to me by a friend when I was a senior in high school, this novel was my “formal” introduction to the world of fantasy literature. I was, admittedly, intimidated by its size when I picked it up. But I was intrigued. Well, once I started, I couldn’t put it down and I spent the next few months devouring the first six books in the Sword of Truth series. I eagerly awaited the following installments, too, while I sought out more fantasy worlds to fall into.
Milan Kundera’s Identity (1997)
SO MUCH of my time, during college and in the years following graduation, was spent in contemplation of love. I think I knew, even if I couldn’t articulate it then, that What is love? and How do I love? were the only questions in life that mattered. I still believe that to be true. In addition to leaving an impression, this novel – where the narrator loses sight of their lover in a crowd and, in the loss of the beloved, starts to lose their sense of self – stands as a representative of a whole slew of novels (from Camus to Márquez to Coelho and beyond) I read seeking to philosophically examine the depths of the reality of love.
Cecilia Ahern’s Love, Rosie (2005)
If Kundera’s Identity represented a whole crop of novels that led me to contemplate love’s philosophical nature, Ahern’s Love, Rosie is a perfect example of another sort of love story I explored – the warm and fuzzy, hopeful romantic experience of love. This story is ADORABLE. And I remain a hopeful romantic at heart. While it’s been a long time since I entertained the idea that love really works like this…I still kinda think it should ;D.
Peter David’s The Web Of Spider-Man #12 (1986)
Ok, so obviously this isn’t from my adolescence or young adulthood. I was three-years-old when Mom bought this for me. BUT it’s here as a) this was my first Spider-Man comic, b) it began a lifelong love affair with the character and the medium, and c) I’ve recently learned how deeply Spider-Man resonated with me. In therapy we were discussing my overactive helper nature (my drive to ignore my own needs in the service of others to an unhealthy extent). I asked if all the Spider-Man comics I read as a kid could have helped shape that. You know? Spidey’s not the best role model of healthy balance. My therapist blew my mind when she said “yes” BUT that it went “the other way.” My helper nature was already so developed at three-years-old that it gravitated to Spider-Man to justify how it wanted to work. “This is what heroes do!” Spider-Man said. So in Spider-Man it found a mantra, a model, and all sorts of validation. That’s why, in part, Spider-Man has stayed such a central part of my life for so long. He validates the unhealthy way my helper nature, “the Caretaker” if you will, wants to act so the Caretaker’s latched on to him.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938)
I read this novel as a freshmen in high school and it BORED ME TO TEARS until THE TWIST/REVEAL CAME!!!! After that hit I was enthralled! I wanted to go back and reread the whole book, with this in mind! So this novel taught me to a) never automatically write off a classic, b) give every book I open a chance, c) not presume something doesn’t have a lot to offer just because I don’t see it at first, and d) pay attention because you never know when you’re missing clues to something awesome/suspenseful/scary/fantastic.
––– Nonfiction –––
Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (1994)
No other theologian is more singlehandedly responsible for how I understand Jesus, scripture, and the history of the church (and thus, the call I need answer if I’m to take my own faith seriously) than Marcus Borg. I first encountered his work during undergrad. For me, understanding the Historical Jesus is paramount. Yes, the Christ of Faith is essential to Christianity but if I want to follow Jesus then I need to understand as much as I can about who he was and how he lived. Borg helps me see the Historical Jesus and the Kingdom of God with more clarity than any other scholar I’ve read and thus allow me to attempt to follow him more honestly. I’ve read everything he’s written and I’m so grateful for all of it.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra (1988)
This is the single most important nonfiction book I’ve ever read. I first read it in my Buddhism course in undergrad and I’ve read it almost yearly since. I’ve read it so often I can spell “Prajnaparamita” without looking XD. It’s such a short book – my copy is about fifty pages – but it holds so much. Teaching the reality of interbeing and interdependence, I learn more about the nature of life and how I’m meant to be in the world each time I read it.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s The Heart of Compassion: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life (2001)
I first read this in my Buddhism course in undergrad, too. This text taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in regard to forgiveness and compassion – the root of compassion is understanding that, if I lived the exact life someone else did, sharing all their experiences and relationships just as they had them, then I’d make the same choices they do. While I’m still seeking mastery of this concept, it has led me to some of the most powerful personal experiences of forgiveness, which in turn led to some of the most profound spiritual moments, I’ve ever had.
Barack Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts On Reclaiming the American Dream (2006)
My undergrad years were 2001-05 so I came of age during the Bush Administration. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the backdrop for my developing political and global consciousness, a development which would continue with the 2008 election and the subsequent Obama Administration. I read The Audacity of Hope shortly after it came out. There was buzz around Barack Obama after his speech at the 2004 DNC and I wanted to learn about him, in his own words, before he was officially running. What I found in those pages inspired me. It led me to volunteer heavily in his 2008 campaign, spending hours canvasing and phone banking, as well as during his 2012 campaign. While I didn’t agree with every decision he articulated in the book nor made in office (if you’re a thinking, discerning individual you can’t ever agree with every decision any politician makes), I remain extremely proud of the work I did to help get Barack Obama elected and of the work he did while president. He was a once-in-a-generation leader and I still believe in the ideas of hope and change we personified in him, even if his presidency showed us implementing true change was so much harder than we ever imagined.
Angelina Jolie’s Notes from My Travels: Visits with Refugees in Africa, Cambodia, Pakistan, and Ecuador (2003)
In 2003, I went to see Beyond Borders, a love story starring Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen spanning ten years and set against the backdrop of the refugee crisis in Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Chechnya. This film opened my eyes in a way few things ever have. Over the course of two hours, my worldview was shockingly expanded. Before that night, in my sheltered life, I had no idea refugees and internally displaced people were “a thing.” Yes, sure, I knew combat left people displaced. But so many? On this scale? In those conditions? All the time? I was numb as the credits rolled, trying to process all I learned and all I felt. The girl I was dating at the time wasn’t affected at all (which, ok, hindsight is 20/20 and I should’ve broken up with her then) so I would ultimately leave her playing pool with her dumb friends at the dumb pool hall she wanted to go to after the movie while I went home to the internet. I was up until well after 2:00 am researching the UNHCR, their work in the world, and what the refugee crisis looked like now. I donated to the UNHCR for the first time that night and have, every month, for the last seventeen years. I bought this text, Jolie’s personal journals from her early work with the UNHCR, shortly after seeing the film to continue my budding education into our much larger world, a world I needed to understand if I was to do my part to make things better.
Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (2003)
I love this book. I love everything about this book. I don’t remember how I first found it but I initially read it in ’03 or ‘04. Klosterman’s brand of memoir-tinged, humorous, philosophical examinations of pop culture would challenge, captivate, and entertain me. They would go on to have a HUGE impact on the way I see, teach, and write as well. I’ve read every book he’s written, too.
Venerable Henepola Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English (1991)
I first read this for my Philosophical Inquiry course, too. As the introduction made clear, this was a how-to text, a guide for practice. Of all the types of prayer I’ve ever learned/experienced/practiced in my life, none have been more personally transformative that Vipassana/Insight meditation. Nor (outside of basic, informal conversing with God) have I practiced any other type of prayer with more regularity in my life. I owe so much of my own spiritual health to Vipassana meditation. My practice has even helped me in therapy! For example, I’ve found EMDR to be quite illuminating and my comfort with it comes, in large part, from fifteen years of practicing Vipassana meditation.
Coleman Barks’ (trans.) Rumi the Book of Love: Poems on Ecstasy and Longing (2003)
I’ve never “got” much poetry. But Rumi? When it comes to seeking an understanding of love and what a life lived in service of love looks like, we can have no better instructors than the mystics. Rumi’s poems have led me to much beauty and truth. While I can’t always see what this Sufist mystic sees when he looked at the world, he’s helped me glimpse it through his poetry which, in turn, has helped me see it at times in my own life, too. More than anything else, he’s helped show me what I’m striving for, even if I’m not capable of always touching the world in this way (yet). I’ve chosen this collection because it’s my favorite and I return to it often.
Jeffrey D. Sachs’ The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time (2005)
Even though I’m certified to teach it, I don’t care for economics. I find it boring, to be honest. But I forced myself to read this book because poverty is a horrendous evil in our world and I needed to understand it, the causes that fuel it, and what could be done to stop it. Plus, the Bible mentions care for the poor over 2,100 times. I can’t even pretend to take my faith seriously if I don’t make combatting poverty a central point of my life. What I learned from this book was both exceedingly important – for the first time in human history we have the knowledge and technology to wipe out extreme poverty – and haunting – we’ve not done so because we lack the will to make it happen/hold our politicians accountable to the task. But, even in that, there’s hope! We can change things! The solution is there! We just need to marshal the compassion, empathy, and the will to make it a reality.
Bill McKibben’s Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (2003)
My undergrad Ethics course introduced me to Bill McKibben. While best known for his writing on the environment (McKibben wrote the first book on global warming for general readers), in this text he considers what implications our work towards A.I. and germline genetic engineering has for our humanity. Like Ishmael, Enough showed me the very real intersection that exists between the fields of science and theology and, if I really wanted to practice my faith and live in the world in a way that honored God, I needed to understand science.
And there you have it folks! This is My Personal Literary Canon! Writing this was a surprisingly rewarding process, taking me on a nostalgic and enlightening journey back through the books I love and the ideas that have become so important to me over the years. I loved writing this, revisiting these moments and these books which have touched my heart and shaped my life in so many ways. I’d suggest you try it, too! It’s a really intimate way to get a sense of yourself, looking at who you are through the lens of the books which have shaped you.