Personal Canon

After Jillian wrote her “personal canon” list (the books that have most impacted her), she asked me to do one too. Here it is, Jillian; I hope you like it. You did say that you like reading people’s emotional responses to books—so here I am, emoting absolutely all over the place. (There is a spoiler in here about Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in case anyone is concerned about that).

68210Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I feel like I always include this on “favourite book” lists, but it’s true that it had an enormous impact on me. I picked this up a few years ago when I was in the midst of a period of incredible personal sadness. I have never read a better or more beautiful book about loneliness—it is particular pertinent when it discusses singleness in a church environment, which can be particularly hard because everything is always marriage and babies forever, rendering it impossible for childless spinsters to make meaningful friendships—even if you love being single as much as I do! It also helped me with something I have always struggled with, which is the idea of seasons, and moving on from them. The whole book is written from the perspective of someone who knows his life is ending. It is shot through with hope and melancholy and love; it points to God in every moment of every joy and sorrow.

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K Jerome. 13611262
Here’s a thing: I am autistic. I was diagnosed a month ago, or assessed, or whatever you want to call it. When the nurse who did my assessment was talking me through my report, he commented that I have a much better understanding of sarcasm and subtle humour than I should, given my total social ineptness*. He chalked it up to the obsessive reading, and I am inclined to agree. I read books like Three Men in a Boat over and over again as a teenager, and I think that the way the narrator laughs at himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously had a huge effect on what I find funny—on my capacity to see something ridiculous in every day that passes, then laugh about it. I am inclined to be an earnest, serious person, and Three Men in a Boat in particular helped me to develop my sense of humour.

967432Fanny Herself by Edna Ferber. This is one of those books that I don’t talk about much on this blog, because in my heart of hearts I know it’s deeply and fundamentally flawed. It’s shot through with weird, uneven messages about equality and love and whether women really should be independent or not. However, I love it. I read it at the age of 17 or so, when I first discovered that the internet was full of little-known public domain classics. It captures, better than anything else I’ve ever read, the feeling of being a teenage girl burning with ambition—but trapped in a small community, confined by the way girls are meant to behave. Fanny’s world is claustrophobic and dull and lonely—and then eventually when she does burst out of her constraints, adulthood turns out to be filled with a new set of rules and constrictions—and, like all the best books, her journey ends at the mountains, surrounded by beauty.


All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I wrote quite a bit about my experience with this book here, but a summary: I find it very hard to force atrocities into my brain. When I went to see the trenches and the war graves with my school, I didn’t cry like my classmates, even though academically I knew I was looking at a colossal tragedy. Books like this tell small, intimate stories of people inexorably linked with tragedy. Seeing the ordinariness of the characters, linked with the extraordinary scale of their suffering, kicked off the empathy process in my brain in a way that learning facts and figures never did.

9763Wild Swans by Jung Chung. I think this is the first “grown-up” book that I ever read. Again, I’ve written about my experience of reading it elsewhere, but suffice to say that it really struck me, captivated me, and devastated me by turns. It was my first experience of knowing anything to do with history outside Western Europe, and I was constantly flummoxed when I remembered how recent it was. Chung was a student at almost the same time my mother was, but in a wildly different and more difficult environment. I have always, always been interested in the world outside the UK, but this started me off on the journey of realising how small we are, actually.


Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Something I’ve written about quite a bit on this blog (and more posts scheduled on it soon)—but, like Gilead, this is a book that kept me company when I was lonely. It’s still the most compelling novel I’ve ever read. It also showed me how much I love writing. I have been writing short stories and poetry and songs since I could hold a pen (I have journals and lyrics dating back to when I was six), but participating in the online LOTR fanfiction community when I was a teenager showed me writing as a creative outlet in a way that I’d never experienced before. It solidified my love of writing—not only because I enjoyed spending my evenings making stories, but because Tolkien’s use of language is so superb that trying to emulate it was a joy in itself.

104445Rachel’s Tears by Beth Nimmo and Darrell Scott. Now, this book about one of the victims of the Columbine shooting, written by her parents, is troubling in a lot of respects. They publish many excerpts from her journal in a way that (rereading it as an adult) seems invasive to me. However, this book had such a lasting and positive impact on my relationship with God, and the way that I understand faith, that I can’t write a post like this in good conscience and exclude it. Although I had been a committed journaller for years when I read this as a young teenager, this book really helped me to understand journaling as catharsis and communication with God, simultaneously. The ability to pour all my thoughts and ramblings out has radically transformed my life—I read my teenage journals and cringe, but I also think my life would have been orders of magnitude more stressful had I been unable to write. Rachel’s Tears legitimised my scribbles and helped me to feel less self-conscious about them—and anything that made me feel less self-conscious about something, as a teenager, was clearly a plus!


The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. Okay, here is another thing: I grew up in an environment where I did not see women being treated as equals. I did not see it in the church, I did not see it in the world, and I did not see it in my home. I deeply, truly believed that a woman’s greatest call was to quietness, prettiness, and shrinking submissiveness. I subscribed to all sorts of utterly toxic beliefs about gender and emotional labour and appropriate behaviour for women. I was crippled by guilt about my more “unfeminine” traits (i.e. most of them), doing my best to squish them. When I read Wildfell Hall, I was at university at a church with a very different culture, unlearning most of the things I had grown up believing. My copy of this novel states on the back that “Helen… slamming the door on her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England”. So it reverberated in my life. It dovetailed in with lots and lots of other things, but this depiction of an extremely devout woman nonetheless choosing to separate from her husband was a crucial step in realising that I have my value given to me by God, not men.

15796897Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. Oh man, I loved these growing up and also now. I think I might have written this elsewhere on the blog, but these books gave me the life skills that I needed as a child to turn every setback into a fun new adventure. Because the characters in Swallows and Amazons are constantly telling themselves stories about the way their lives are, weaving together the facts of their lives into a narrative structure that is somehow exciting and far away and bigger than their childhood summer holiday—I don’t know; I feel like I still use that skill. When stuff is hard, I tell myself a story about it and turn it into an adventure with a discrete beginning, middle, and end. Thank you, Arthur Ransome. (Also, these are still some of the best books I’ve ever read. Not the best children’s books—the best books).


The Four Loves by CS Lewis. This comes with the GIANT caveat that everything Lewis says about sex in this is super weird and made me feel very grubby—but what he writes about the importance of friendship, about the necessary vulnerability inherent to all forms of love, about how each of my relationships is ultimately a partial reflection of the way God has first loved us—that was revelatory. I have the “to love at all is to be vulnerable” quote scribbled in the front of journals and on post-its on my walls, and on my heart. I am strongly inclined to shutter myself off and isolate myself from people who can and will hurt me. The reminder that God made Himself entirely and thoroughly vulnerable for my sake and yours, and the resulting bravery that gives me in my own friendships, has transformed and enriched my life immeasurably.

I am sure this will change over the years, though I imagine a few of these things will always remain on it. At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed writing this post, which became much more personal than I had anticipated. Thank you for the prompt, Jillian!

*He used some much nicer word than “ineptness”.


7 thoughts on “Personal Canon

  1. Okay, I really need to make Gilead happen. My thing is that the books that sound as lovely as that sdeserve my attention, and I find lately I’m always in SUCH a hurry, flying in and out of books. Maybe instead of waiting on books, I need to slow down…

    Your remark on the way books have helped you understand sarcasm and subtle humor — I find that so inspiring. I don’t talk about it much, but I turned to books because my dad died, and I found myself suddenly without any measure of who I was. He was a violent sort. Not physically, but mentally. He screamed the sensitivity from me, and when he died, I realized it had been inside me all along. So reading has been, for me, a process of trying to rediscover the soul deep, deep down under the scars, and fear, and anger. Sincerely, Lou, it has taken so long, and I’m only just finding her. The center. I remember her from when I was a child. Books have helped me get there, when I couldn’t even express what I was looking for. I’m glad they are there for you too. x

    My goodness, what you say about Anne Bronte just gave me chills. I should do a reread. {SO MANY BOOKS TO REREAD.}

    I’m really interested in the Remarque book because of your emotional reaction to it. That sold me the other day, when you told me how deeply it had affected you.

    I am strongly inclined to shutter myself off and isolate myself from people who can and will hurt me. The reminder that God made Himself entirely and thoroughly vulnerable for my sake and yours, and the resulting bravery that gives me in my own friendships, has transformed and enriched my life immeasurably.

    This is lovely. {And so am I.} I need to reread The Four Loves. I also found it incredible.

    Thank you so much for sharing your personal responses to these books, Lou. I’m really glad to know you enjoyed the process. I very much appreciated reading it. x

    {“—and, like all the best books, her journey ends at the mountains, surrounded by beauty.”} – Sorry, I had to quote that. What a perfect line. ❤

    • Gilead definitely deserves time–I was able to give it three days straight, because to be honest I was too miserable to get out of bed for the first two and only progressed as far as the sofa on the third. I greatly hope your experience of it is in happier circumstances than mine! But I do think it was the perfect balm for my wounded soul.

      Thanks for your comments on how books have been there for you. That sounds like such a painful experience, suddenly finding yourself adrift in that manner, and I am glad that books can be there for you too. I am still in the process of rediscovering my proper me after everything I absorbed from my dad–who, though he is not violent, can very much be a bully, as the comments on Wildfell Hall kind of give away I guess–and I am trying to unlearn all the lies that I picked up from being in that situation. Books have been so helpful to me in figuring out lots of below-the-surface stuff about myself and other people that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I am glad they are helpful for you too and wish you very well in the process of finding your sensitive soul back again. Books have tremendous healing qualities, don’t they?

      (Re: your last comment, I think you might actually quite like Fanny Herself, if at some point you’re in the mood for a book about a teenage girl moving to Chicago and being wildly, implausibly successful, and also lots of discussion by a Jewish American author about what it means to be American and Jewish in the early 1910s. The writing is incredibly beautiful, and there are lots of nice set piece-type scenes with incredibly well-portrayed settings. I don’t often recommend it but I think you might enjoy it).

  2. * I realized it had been inside me all along

    My, that’s an incomplete thought! I mean, I realized that the sensitive soul I really was had been in me all along. I had become hardened and cynical because I saw myself reflected in his violence. I couldn’t see myself undistorted by him. Books — Montaigne, Emerson, Thoreau — they became little mirrors for me, reflecting me back until I could begin to find a center.

  3. I have soooo much going on for me right now (nothing bad or yucky, just lots of life, work stuff) but you and Jillian and all the others engaging in this process are sooooo inspiring I wish I could get into the right headspace to do this too.

    I started a draft about a month ago when Jillian first posted hers, but I haven’t had the time since to do it justice….and after reading this (and Joseph’s thoughtful response on his blog as well) I want to do the best that I can. To be worthy of this fine, fine company.

    I read Edna Ferber’s So Big last year for the first time. I was suitably impressed and couldn’t believe that an author once so popular and well-known had fallen off the radar so completely. Delighted to come across another fan.

    Mr Books’ favourite childhood book is Swallows and Amazons…one I’ve been meaning to read so that I could share this with him.

    Thanks for sharing your personal canon with us – it’s so heartening to see how many different books have influenced people in such different ways.

    • Thanks for your lovely comment. I totally understand about the busy work stuff! Writing this actually gave me a look outside my busy work situation and helped me regain some much-needed perspective. I understand that it wouldn’t work that way for everyone, though. I look forward to reading your post when you have time to write it.

      I love Edna Ferber’s short stories, but I’m not familiar with So Big. I’ll have to look it up!

      Thanks again.

  4. I’ve read your comment about finding the LOTR community in another post, but it still makes me happy to read because my husband was such a lonely kid, so knowing that online communities have helped lots of people touches my heart. ♥️♥️♥️♥️

    • I think it was honestly the first time in my life when I didn’t feel lonely. I’m always going to be incredibly grateful, even though my life is so much better now!

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