Literary Canon – once more, with feeling!

At a forum where I post occasionally, one of the other posters asked us yesterday what our personal literary canon would look like, if we were to make one? The list should include a maximum of 25 works; novels, poetry, dramas, whatever was important to us. I took up the challenge immediately, loving the idea!

Now, I’d like to stress that I disagree with the concept of literary canons, mainly because I think that a canon tends to serve as a kind of guidebook, taking away the joy of the exploration and all the great little findings that roaming randomly through the history of literature can give you. But of course this only makes me love the idea of each of us making our own canon even more!

So I’ve made my list and I thought I’d post it here! If anyone feels like adding their personal canon in the comments, they are more than welcome to do so.

1. James Joyce – Dubliners (short stories)

2. Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (novel)

3. Ovid – Metamorphoses (epos)

4. Georg Büchner – Woyzeck (play)

5. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Faust (play)

6. Shakespeare – Hamlet (play)

7. Søren Kierkegaard – Either/Or (novel)

8. Paul Celan – ”Todesfuge” (poem)

9. Tony Kushner – Angels in America (play)

10. Stendhal – Le Rouge et le Noir (novel)

11. Thomas Mann – Der Tod in Venedig (novel)

12. Søren Ulrik Thomsen – “Tilgiv at jeg ser dine knogler før kødet” (”Forgive me for seeing your bones before your flesh” – poem. Yeah, obscure little Danish thing… but it’s so good! J )

13. Marie de France – “Laüstic” (poem)

14. August Strindberg – The Father (play)

15. Oscar Wilde – Salome (play/libretto)

16. Hugo van Hoffmansthal – Elektra (libretto)

17. Gerhart Hauptmann – Bahnwärter Thiel (short story)

18. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Die Leiden des jungen Werther (novel)

19. Heinrich Heine – “Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten” (poem)

20. Graham Greene – The Quiet American (novel)

21. Jakob Knudsen – “Se, nu stiger Solen” (”Behold, the sun is rising” – poem)

22. Lawrence Sterne – Tristram Shandy (novel)

23. Rainer Maria Rilke – Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (novel)

24. Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland + Through the Looking-Glass (novel)

25. J. D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (novel)



November 2, 2006. Lists, Literature.


  1. Denise Thea replied:

    I agree with most of those wonderful books (at least of the ones I’ve read), except Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann instead of Death in Venice. I also want to add Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Centaur by John Updike.
    And Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream instead of Hamlet (what a wuss he was – I know that’s the point, but still, I’ll take Oberon every time – and all the hierarchal magic that Shakespear works into his words)!

  2. confidentialattachees replied:

    Thank you for your comment, Denise, I’m so glad you liked the canon!

    You know, it’s terrible but I’ve never read any of Jonathan Safran Foer’s og John Updike’s works! I’ve heard nothing but good things about them; I’ll really have to look into that.

    I was always more fond of Shakespeares tragedies than his comedies which sadly don’t do much for me, but I almost replaced Hamlet with Macbeth – such a powerful drama, that one. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day…” Beautiful.


  3. Denise Thea replied:

    I’m sooo with you on MacBeth. And all the time imagery and sleep references, too cool for words. John Updike wrote Gertrude and Claudius which is the story of Hamlet BEFORE the play. Given your fabulous taste in literature I bet you’d love!

  4. confidentialattachees replied:

    Thanks! Both for the recommendations, and the compliment :).

    Yes, the Macbeth sleep-references are incredible! Macbeth’s insomnia, Lady Macbeth sleep-walking, the image of murdered sleep… it’s the most powerful depiction of a guilty conscience ever written, I think! …Man, I really should have put Macbeth on the list, instead of Hamlet. Oh, well. Maybe I’ll change it.

    So, I’m curious about the Thomas Mann-thing: Did you read both works, and liked Magic Mountain better than Death in Venice? And if so, how come? I’d be interested to know! I’m better aquainted with DiV than MM, so I guess that’s probably why I’m partial towards the former. In my canon I’ve tried to include works that touched upon as many different literary themes as possible, and DiV was my canonized work of choice within the category of “literary representation of decadence” :D. I love the depiction of middle-aged Aschenbach and his awkward roaming through the Sinking City, of the sickenly bright red of the over-ripe strawberries and the pomgranate juice, of the eerily wrinkled dandy, all contrasted in Aschenbach’s mind by the youthful Tadzio… Awesome. Awesomely decadent.

    Anyway, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter!


  5. Denise Thea replied:

    Yes, I read both of them. Not in the original, but the translations are inspired. My senior honors thesis as an undergrad was on Magic Mountain. Mann’s prose is magical no matter what he writes and Death in Venice was beautiful and eerie. But the Magic Mountain . . . it’s in my top five books, the prose is incredible from line one, the world he sucks one into is yes, decadent and hopeless and completely wrapped in the mind, going up the fog into the mountain, plummeting deeper into the half-feverish lethargy of the tuberculosis institute and he can’t pull himself away. And it’s all lovely. Uh, in case you can’t tell I recommend this book.
    This is so nice finding someone to whom to talk lit!

  6. confidentialattachees replied:

    Can I just say that I loved this sentence: “the world he sucks one into is yes, decadent and hopeless and completely wrapped in the mind, going up the fog into the mountain, plummeting deeper into the half-feverish lethargy of the tuberculosis institute and he can’t pull himself away.”
    Beautiful! I need to get to know Magic Mountain better! I’ve only read excerpts so far.

    Ooh, have you read his short story “Tristan”? I love that one, too, and it touches upon a lot of the same themes as Death in Venice (a critical view on the bourgois writer) and Magic Mountain (the tuberculosis institute as a setting) – and it’s a delicious kind of sardonic (quite a trademark for Mann, isn’t it? ;-)). And then it revolves around the music of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, and of course I love that, opera lover as I am! 🙂

    I enjoy these discussions very much, too! Do post your canons, as soon as you’re ready with them. I’m sure there’d be some great books there for me to add to my must-read list.


  7. Denise Thea replied:

    Oh, this is funny. I just finished rereading John Updike’s “Four Sides of One Story” which IS based on the Tristan and Isolde tale! So far it’s my favorite short story of his. And I have NOT read Mann’s Tristan. I absolutely HAVE to. It’d be interesting to do a little essay on the three stories, the original, Mann’s and Updike’s.
    I’m relatively weak in opera, although back when I was your age I fell in love with it. Took a backpack around Europe, ended up in Venice and saw, night after night for a week, in a little section in the back (for the equivalent of $2) a different opera at the Venice Opera House. Still get dreamy when I think about that production of the Magic Flute. I have no music training (or ability) though, so I feel hampered talking about it.
    OK, have to go find Tristan somewhere! Thanks so much for the recommendation!

  8. confidentialattachees replied:

    Yay – now *I* cannot wait to read the John Updike story! This is so great – discussing literature and getting recommendations from you!

    That backpack trip sounds amazing. I often feel like I’ve missed out on a lot by never having gone backpacking myself, but I guess there’s still time to do that. And I’ve never been to Venice, so maybe I should combine those two things. I’ll just have to remember to stay clear of any strawberry-salesmen I might encounter in the street. 😉

    The Magic Flute was one of my first operas, too. Not my very first opera, because that was Wagner’s Tannhäuser, but I used to listen to TMF constantly during my high school years, and I even wrote that dorky tabloid article about it in German class that I posted here on the blog a while ago. Anyway, it’s a great opera, I still love it. I’m particularly fond of Pamina’s “Ach, ich fühl’s es ist verschwunden” – beautiful, heartbreaking aria.

    Ooh, if you happen to like Ingmar Bergman and are interested in purchasing a dvd version, Bergman did a really nice film version of The Magic Flute back in the 70s! The singers aren’t the best I’ve heard, but it’s a very nice film version of the opera. It’s kind of a meta direction, and meta direction in opera is generally hit and miss I think – but it works well in this case.

    …But I’m digressing. Thanks for the Updike-recommendation! I’m off to the University library website right now to order it.

    Do let me know what you thought of Mann’s “Tristan”, if you feel like it!


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