Your Own Personal Canon
“Canon” is an interesting word. It comes via Greek from a Semitic original meaning something like “measuring rod”–thus, by extension, a “canon” is a “standard”. It has come to mean a standard in the sense of the standard or officially approved writings of a particular religion. Over the last few decades it has been extended from that to mean the accepted or approved works in a literary, cinematic, TV, comic, or other series of ongoing fictional stories–in short the “real” Star Trek or Harry Potter or such, as opposed to fanfics, pastiches, ripoffs, and other such works of heresy. This makes an interesting connection between fandom and religion–but I digress.
What I’m interested in here is not holy writ per se nor fanboy stuff, but personal canons. What do I mean?
I think that most thoughtful people, of whatever faith (or lack thereof), have “personal canons”–books (or other media, but for now I’m restricting it to books) that have greatly influenced them and which have continued to influence them. Such books of a personal canon may be the scriptures of one’s religion, obviously, but are not limited to these, and don’t even necessarily include the “official” canon, at least not all parts of it to the same degree. They may also be works of philosophy, history, literature, and so on. They may be things we keep returning to, or things that we have been profoundly influenced by once, after which we never re-read them. The possibilities are manifold.
A list of my own personal canon–not an exhaustive one, but representative–would look like this:
The Bible, of course; though I’d say that the most significant and influential books to me are Ecclesiastes, Job, parts of Psalms, and the Song of Songs from the Old Testament, and the Gospels (most particularly the Gospel of John), Acts, and Romans from the New Testament. I give greater weight to the New Testament in general, not only as a Christian, obviously, but because as I’ve been re-reading the Bible, I find the nastier bits of the OT harder to put up with. I’ll be putting up a more detailed discussion of that issue later.
The Dao De Jing (or Tao Teh Ching, in Wade-Giles). I have been profoundly influenced by this classic, and sometimes describe myself as a Daoist Catholic. I first read it as a freshman in college, and have done so many times since.
The Dhammapada. These verses from the Pali Canon, said to be the words of the Buddha himself, are ever worthy of re-reading and pondering.
The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. ’Nuff said.
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, by D. T. Suzuki. My attitudes towards Suzuki have changed over the years–that’s a long story–but still not a bad source for a beginner to use in learning about Zen.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. Both more profound when you’re a teenager, but still sentimental favorites of mine.
Miracles and The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis, both instrumental in the process of figuring out which faith to join.
Beyond Good and Evil, by Nietzsche. I certainly disagree with him on many things, but he’s one of the best aphorists of all time, and it’s always useful and bracing to have the opposite perspective to think upon at times.
I could add more, and I could put in tons of commentary, but that’s a good start. Let me open it up to all my readers in general here: would you share your personal canons