On my nightstand, a selection of current touchstones in lieu of a personal canon

I have been on Facebook long enough now that I have begun to get those sunny reminders of what I was up to one year ago. Yesterday I discovered that it has been a year since I published my first piece of personal creative writing. The essay, Your Body Will Betray You, remains pinned to my Twitter timeline and continues to generate conversation. Readers have found it informative, inspiring, and, in one important case, a ground for opening a conversation that had been unspoken in that person’s life. And that particular response made baring a piece of my soul like that worth it. A writer may write for him or herself, or to entertain or educate, but to speak to the very core of one reader who needed those words more than anything… that is a gift.

My most recent piece of writing to be published comes deep within the pages of the new issue of The Scofield 2.2: Conrad Aiken & Consciousness. This issue marks my first opportunity to edit the work of other writers—a tremendous honour and thrill, with deep thanks to Tyler Malone and Dustin Illingworth for their faith in me. Putting a publication of this size and scope together is an enormous task and my role is a modest one, but I am proud to be involved. My written contribution is even more modest. I wrote several hundred words about Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room for the “On Our Nightstand” section (it’s on page 287 if you care to have a look, the issue can be downloaded for free and has a wealth of good reading). In this piece I talk about my evolving relationship to this book by one of my favourite writers. I turned to it as a possible avenue into the task of writing about one’s self—which, for me, after more than a decade of deeply closeted existence and a life lived in two genders, seemed terrifying and overwhelming.  Galgut’s attempt to record three distinct experiences in his own life was so spare, so translucent, that I could not begin to imagine taking an approach like that to my own. In the end he comes to believe that memory necessarily fictionalizes our “truths.” I am, at this point, closer to and yet less troubled by that conviction than I was three years ago when I started to understand that I needed to write. I go back to In A Strange Room often. As I say in my Scofield piece:

This book has become one of my touchstones, an elegant example of the way personal experience can be pared down to its essentials and explored through the lens of time and memory. It remains, for me, some of the most meditative and precise writing about what it means to be grounded, in one’s self and in relation to others; the allure of the road and the ambiguity of home; and most vividly, the way that all truth lived is, in essence, a fiction.

In other words, if I had a personal canon, which I would argue I don’t, this book would be on it. And I do keep it on the shelf inside my nightstand.

In the past few years, as writing has become more urgent, my reading has become more explicitly targeted. I am especially drawn to smaller, quirky, experimental works and, in many cases, books by people I have been fortunate enough to come to know—writers who have become part of a virtual network people who inspire me and suffer my creative ideas. The majority of those books are literally on (or technically inside) my nightstand. In lieu of a personal canon, here are the books that are currently fueling my literary scribbling. (Links to reviews, if applicable)

Beastlife by J’Lyn Chapman — I am always on the lookout for unique approaches to the personal essay. I have a large selection of books waiting to be read, but this little meditation on life, death and taxidermy is a treat.

Fear and Trembling  by Søren Kiekegaard — Well, just because.

Intimate Stranger by Breyten Breytenbach — This is a collection of essays and poems to a young poet. I ordered it when I came back from South Africa; it arrived when I was in the hospital recovering from cardiac arrest. I’ve mentioned and quoted from this book several times, but the post I’ve linked was written shortly after  I returned from the hospital. It addresses one of the key concerns—loss of a memory—that I am taking with me into the outback this month.  Reconciling one’s own near death is no small matter. I carry it deeply and have not yet found a way to write it out.

Thy Decay Thou Seest by Thy Desire by John Trefry — This little caprice or, as we’re advised, “Meditations for Sedentary Labourers,” is so delightfully eclectic that I found in it inspiration for an experimental project that, in contrast to the deeply personal work I write, will allow me to distance myself from the salvaging of the language I use and, depending on the constraints I set, some of the construction. I am proud to count John among the writer friends the internet has afforded.

Roland Barthes: Mourning Diary, Camera Lucida, and Incidents Three works that intersect for me, at a personal and literary level at this moment. Incidents, may well be one of my very favourite Seagull Books as well.

Will Eaves: The Absent Therapist and The Inevitable Gift Shop. Experimental, insightful, and devoid of pretension. Fragmentary works fascinate me. It seems to be a bit of popular device lately, but in my mind, these books—one fiction, the other essay/memoir—work very well. Eaves has a presence that is immediate and personal, he is good company.

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut (see above)

The Surrender by Scott Esposito — This is one of those books I watched and waited for. I am cautious about trans themed writing but I knew this one would be different. This book holds infinitely more for me than I included in my review. My reading of this book coincided with the release of my own Minor Literature[s] essay, and the beginning of a valued friendship.

Aphorisms by Franz Kafka. Yes, I also love The Castle — one of the few books I own in multiple translations, but this is the Kafka I need to have close at hand at the moment.

Róbert Gál: Signs & Symptoms and On Wing — When I was first looking for a way to begin to write about my life and experiences, I was looking to fiction. But in defiance of conventional narrative form, I wanted current, accessible, experimental models. I read In A Strange Room and The Absent Therapist in late 2014 but it was almost a year later when I picked up On Wing. It remains a book that I read all the time, it has impacted my thinking in ways I cannot describe (because we ideally absorb and filter the work that drives and inspires our own—it should not be obvious in the final product) and Róbert was one of the first writers to suggest I should write a book. I don’t know where that book is, but it is no accident that a quote from On Wing opens Your Body Will Betray You.

Daniela Cascella: En Abîme and F.M.R.L. It may not be evident, but getting to know Daniela and her work has revolutionized the way I engage with language. Her enthusiastic approach to reading, listening and hearing work into being is wonderful. I find I am so much more attuned to sound when I read now. Maybe it will come through in my own writing one day.

Proxies by Brian Blanchfield. Again, this is another work that asks questions and contains ideas that are important to me. Essays that make me think about writing essays are my favourite kind.

If there was enough room, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Austerlitz would also count as work of current relevance. (They would probably be in that non-existent canon too, if I had one.)

14 thoughts on “On my nightstand, a selection of current touchstones in lieu of a personal canon

  1. I would like to write a private note to you, but cannot find a contact e-mail address on your site. If you would care to provide me with one, I would be grateful. Thanks. Timothy Balding (tbalding09@gmail.com)

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    • I’m sorry but I don’t have a contact form or email on my blog for a reason. I am on Twitter and Facebook (under my real name) and that is typically how I prefer to engage until I know someone. I am, by the way, leaving for Australia in a few days and will be more or less out off line for the rest of the month.

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  2. Your usual unique approach sees the most personal ‘personal camon’ yet. The only downside to these wonderful lists has been the absence of commentary so I appreciate your reasons for inclusion. It won’t surprise you to learn I’ve read very few!

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    • A collection of personally important books should be unique (and subject to complete revision). These are mostly books that are directly important for my present writing projects.

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  3. I’m not familiar with many of those titles either – but then up came Sebald’s name (not ‘seabed’, as this wretched autocorrect tries to impose). Now I’m on firmer ground. My own personal favourites of his are Vertigo and the non-fiction collection of literary-cultural essays, A Place in the Country, and Rings of Saturn – perhaps the genre-transcending type of text he’s best known for. Keep up with the personal/lcreative stuff, meanwhile, Joe. How heartening for you to learn what a profound resonance your keynote piece had on one reader in particular.

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    • Thanks Simon. There are a few more names I could have appended here (but the it would have started to look like a canon). I’d like to read Sebald’s A Place in the Country. The Emigrants and Austerlitz deal with migration and identity, hence the relevance for me at this time. But then, he’s pretty essential reading in my books, no matter.

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  4. In a Strange Room is a wonderful book, one I’ve not read for a long time but bears re-reading. Thank you for reminding me of it. I love your approach to the personal canon, I think it’s very hard to choose books as a ‘canon’ because often what we value is tempered by our current frame of mind, or at least that’s my experience. It’s an interesting list.

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  5. I’m so glad you’ve read Galgut. Despite being short listed for the Booker twice he still seems to escape people’s notice. I do believe out literary needs, interests and appetites do evolve and change. I can think of many books I’ve loved that I know I have moved beyond. At the same time, since I started writing critical reviews for journals I often seek out stranger, more challenging works because they offer more to write about. Of course there are many books in the “accepted” Western canon that I ought to read. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Hopefully I am more confident in following my own reading muse.

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  6. Congratulations on your work for The Scofield! And thank you for the list of books. I know you have mentioned many of them before but it is nice to have them as a list for easier reference 🙂

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    • Thanks Stefanie. Work with The Scofield is, as is common for online literary journals, a labour of love (ie unpaid). It is not only a wonderful opportunity to learn but it is a publication to be very proud of.

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  7. Ive just re-read Your Body Will Betray You and was as moved by this second reading as I was the first time around. It took tremendous courage to write that piece. As for your personal canon, I can’t say that I’ve read any of these authors beyond one essay by Barthes that I found interesting but quite hard to get into.

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    • Thank you, it pleases me that the essay has had such lasting impact. As for the “canon,” it’s sort of an anti-canon because I always feel I have fallen short on reading so many of the classic works I feel I should have read. 🙂

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