Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Canon

A couple years ago, I decided to pull together all of my favorite books. My “personal canon,” you could call it—the novels most meaningful to me, regardless of their reputation at large.

I was doing this more as a writer than a reader. I wanted to study them, to see if, collectively, they might teach me some lessons. What would these books have in common? Why did they resonate so strongly for me? And, if I could tease out some common quality that ran through the whole pile, would it be something I could imitate?

What this exercise revealed was that these books really do shed some light on me as a reader. I like plot. I like character. I like books that are equal parts funny and sad. I gravitate way less toward the “literary” than I would have guessed. For as much as I read, when it comes to the books that take up permanent residence in my head or my heart, the big prize-winners are rarely among them.

But none of this was really surprising. As a reader, I already know I'm a lot more engaged by sharp dialogue than lyrical prose. I tend toward the same in my own writing. My writing is weakest when I drift toward the meditative or the poetic. When it's working the best—or at least, when I'm having the most fun—there's a plot kicking in and the characters are starting to argue.

No, what was most surprising to me was the discovery that there's a pace to how often I find a new favorite. As I laid out the books from end to end, it was like sketching out a quick autobiography. There's me in high school, the daydreamy kid getting lost in Neil Gaiman's urban fantasy Neverwhere. There's me in college, questioning God and discovering Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., right on cue. (Okay, my personal canon is a bit on the nose for certain life stages, but what can you do? There are reasons these things are cliché.)

Yet if these books made up an autobiography, the strange thing is that there was never a gap. There was no stretch of years where I didn't like anything, followed by a year where I loved a whole bunch. With an eerily regular cadence, I seem to find a new favorite book about once every year.

I'm still not sure what to make of that. Does it imply that if I read twice as many books in a year, I'd find twice as many to love? I've been a steady reader most of my life, but I don't think I'm that steady. I must read more books some years and fewer in others. And yet, almost without fail, each year seemed to boil down to one book in particular.

Granted, sometimes the deck was stacked. When I read High Fidelity, it was on the strong recommendation of a friend. Same with My Name is Lucy Barton and The Anthologist. But then what about a book like Nami Mun's Miles From Nowhere? I'd never heard of the book, never heard of the author. That was the entire appeal when I pulled it off the shelf at a Barnes and Noble one afternoon in 2011. I don't know what it was that convinced me to buy it. I liked the cover? I liked the back blurb? Just moved to act on a lark?

One way or another, I did buy a copy, and I fell completely in love. I don't know what else I read that year, or how many books. All I know is that's the one that's still living to me, and the one I keep going back to.

For me, I think, that's the value of the personal canon. It matters not for any one of the reasons mentioned above, but for all of them. These are the books you loved first as a reader, but love even more because, as time goes on, they reconnect you with who you once used to be.

Maybe you can only imbue a book with that kind of power once in a year. Or maybe that pacing is as idiosyncratic to me as the books are themselves. Whatever the case, seeing those books all lined up like the rings of a tree made me look forward to discovering the ones I'll add next.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...