The Canon: Mine/Yours

In reading Henry Jameses, The Turn of the Screw, all the writers in the Studio bandied about this term: The Canon. From ThoughtCo, I found this definition: “In fiction and literature, the canon is the collection of works considered representative of a period or genre. The collected works of William Shakespeare for instance, would be part of the canon of western literature, since his writing and writing style has had a significant impact on nearly all aspects of that genre.”

There is more to read on that site (and many, many others), about this idea of the canon. Read on and learn.

My Canon+

For me, as I’ve said in class, I have a personal canon which is a collection of a hundred books (give or take) that I feel stand as a solid foundation for my writing. This list assuredly included highly influential writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, McCarthy, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Dickens, Fitzgerald, blah, blah, all-white-men, blah, blah, but I also wanted to include writers I hadn’t read for whatever reason and felt like I should read: Austin, the Brontes, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Alexie, Morrison, Walker. I included YA books: I’ll Give you the Sun by Jandy Nelson and The Secret Garden by Frances Burnett. I combed through the NYT Bestseller 100 Best Lists and plucked a few off. Same with the Pulitzer list. Then the National Book Award lists. The Man Booker Prize list. I went through Jane Smiley’s list in her Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. And I got going. I set a goal to read a book a week for three years running and cut myself so slack if a book was particularly difficult. Both War and Peace and Anna Karenina were slow going and I’d be lying if I said I finished these. The Bible was on my list, but I ended up listening to it on audio. That was quite interesting. In fact, I listened to a lot of the books because, like you, I’m busy. I read on line, I read while walking the dog, I read in the tub, I read for an hour+ each night before bed. I carried a book in my purse, and had another on a CD for when I was driving. I feel madly in love with some authors, paused in my reading and read everything they wrote. This happened with Cormac McCarthy, Elena Ferrante, Jess Walters, Elizabeth Strout, Colm Toibin and Anthony Doerr. I rediscovered my love of John Irving and read, and re-read A Prayer for Owen Meany about ten times, same with Cider House Rules. I read everything else he wrote too, feeling inspired but tired out. He’s such a wise ass, it gets tiring. But back to Owen Meany I go and honestly, the wise-ass is worth the ride through his work just “one more time.”

Here’s what I suggest: If you are going to write a memoir, make a third of your list memoir and biography and then fill in with fiction you’ve always wanted to read. If you want to write short stories, read writers who do both long and short form, read a lot about short stories, and fill in with fiction you’ve always wanted to read. If you want to do essay, the same. Biography, ditto. If you are going to be a novelist, make a list as I did above or come up with your own variation. The bottom line is that you make a canon that gives you a solid base, make your list, set your goal for a year, two, three or five or whatever, and start reading. Like writing, reading takes time. You’ve got to set that goal and get going. It seems daunting, but so does running a marathon or writing a book. One step at a time for running, one page at a time for reading. Just get going.

I’m going to list my canon here and it might take a bit for me to get all my titles on here, so keep coming back to see it progress. In the interim, let us know what books you are adding to your list. Post in a comment below! The way we get our list together sometimes needs to start here, with community.

  • The Diary of a True Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  • Life After Life
  • Transcription
  • The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood *
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Inzaneville by JoAnn Beard
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • Countryman of Bones by Robert Butler
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Burnett
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  • Did you Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg ***
  • Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
  • Foe
  • Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
  • The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
  • All the Light You Cannot See Anthony Doerr ***
  • The Shell Collector
  • About Grace
  • Out of Africa Isak Denison
  • The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DeCamillo ***
  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan ***
  • Look at Me
  • As I Lay Dying Faulkner
  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Elena Ferrante
  • Troubling Love
  • The Story of a New Name
  • My Brilliant Friend
  • The Days of Abandonment
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Story of the Lost Child
  • Cold Mountain Charles Frazier
  • Ordinary People by Judith Guest ***
  • Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi
  • Floating in my Mothers Palm
  • The End of the Affair by Graham Green ***
  • The Tenth Man “
  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff ***
  • Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Julian Garrey ***
  • The Tinkers by Paul Hardy
  • Eventide by Kent Haruf
  • Plainsong ” ***
  • The Old Man and the Sea E. Hemingway
  • The Dove Keepers Alice Hoffman
  • Eleanore Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman ***
  • The Residue Years by Mitchell Jackson *
  • Portrait of a Lady by Henry James *
  • The Fifth Season by NK Jameson ***
  • The Stone Sky
  • The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson **
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
  • The Secret Language of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  • The Invention of Wings
  • Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Nest by Jon Klassen ***
  • The Dinner by Herman Koch ***
  • Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving ***
  • The World According to Garp
  • The Cider House Rules “ ***
  • Setting Free the Bears “ *
  • The Water Method Man “ *
  • The 158-Pound Marriage” *
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis ***
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson
  • A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee *
  • The Railway Man by Eric Lomax
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez *
  • The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Orchard Keeper “
  • Suttree “
  • The Orchard Keeper “
  • Child of God “
  • The Road
  • I’ll Give you the Sun by Jandy Nelson ***
  • Shipping News Annie Proulx ***
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • Nora Webster by Colm Toibin ***
  • Brooklyn
  • Anna Karinina by Leo Tolstoy
  • War and Peace
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison
  • The Bluest Eye ” ***
  • In the Giants House Elizabeth McCracken
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout ***
  • Abide with Me
  • The Burgess Boys
  • Amy and Isabelle
  • Anything is Possible
  • Lizzie Burton
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Of Mice and Men ” ***
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead ***
  • The Nickel Boys ” ***


  • You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
  • Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper
  • Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer
  • Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • The Only Girl in the Car by Kathy Dobie
  • Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr ***
  • Firebird by Mark Doty
  • Dog Years
  • Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
  • The Territory of Men by Joelle Fraser
  • Live Through This by Debra Gwartney
  • Cowboy and Wills by Monica Holloway
  • Driving with Dead People
  • Journey to the Land of No by Roya Hakakian
  • Girl Interrupted by Suzanna Kaysen
  • An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
  • Crazy for Storm by Norman Olestad ***


  • Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  • Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Middle of the Fields by Mary Lavin
  • Color Range by Annie Proulx
  • Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken
  • Birds of America by Laurie Moore
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders
  • The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor
  • Night Lights by Phyllis Theroux
  • We Live in Water by Jess Walters

* On shelf/started/put back unfinished

** Student book

*** Studio read/taught

Comments 4

  1. Thank you for sharing! What a great idea, I especially love the tip for making my list a third of the genre I’m writing in. A few of the memoirs I’m interested in reading: Stray by Stephanie Danler (thanks Cloie!), In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Heavy by Kiese Laymon, Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gormick, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

  2. When I started my list I realized that my love of science fiction and fantasy is probably at the top. This obsession came from my mother. We loved Star Trek. My mother always thought that it was quite arrogant for us to believe that in the entire universe, we were the only life forms. Here are my favorites:
    The Stand – Stephen King [arguably his best]
    The War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells [I have seen every iteration of this classic but the story which took place in the early 1900s is the most dramatic]
    The Time Machine – H.G. Wells
    Dune – Frank Herbert [I must have at least ten Dune books, some written by his son, but the first book is amazing]
    Jurassic Park – Michael Crichton
    The Andromeda Strain – Michael Crichton
    The Walking Dead – Can’t get enough of the comics or the series
    Planet of the Apes – Pierre Boule
    Lost Horizon – James Hilton
    A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
    1984 – George Orwell
    Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
    Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
    Journey to the Center of the Earth – Jules Verne
    The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *