The Personal Canon

I’ve been thinking recently about personal canons. Most of us are familiar with some variation of “the canon,” or specifically “the Western canon.” Turning to our good friend Wikipedia, we get the following: “The Western canon is the body of books, music, and art that scholars generally accept as the most important and influential in shaping Western culture.”

Adapting this to the individual, I think of the personal canon as, “The body of media that have thus far proved most important and influential in shaping an individual.”

Some of these pieces of media – books, music, plays, movies, etc. – may have had a significant impact after only being experienced once or twice. Most others, I think, will tend to be the pieces that a person finds themselves turning to repeatedly over the course of their lifetime. Repetition, after all, creates patterns in the brain, and I think it’s safe to say that things we read, watch, or listen to over and over again tend to shape the way we think about and act in the world.

The personal canon is always evolving, of course. The most significant pieces from our childhoods may stick with us, but some may fade away or be actively challenged and replaced. Whatver forms our current personal canon will be subject to revision over time.

I think it would be a useful exercise to dig into some of the pieces that constitute my current personal canon. Some of these will be throwbacks to my childhood or teen years, and some will be more recent additions. They won’t all be at the height of critical quality, but I don’t think I know anyone whose personal canon would be composed entirely of “great” works by critical standards. Most are problematic in at least some respects, and the list as a whole is tilted towards the creations of white men. An intentional effort to broaden and shift this canon is clearly warranted. Most aren’t particularly original choices, as that isn’t the point. This isn’t an attempt to show off how cool or niche I am, nor is it a list of recommendations; I’m trying to think through which pieces of media I’ve intentionally or unintentionally let shape my thinking.

At a first take, here’s some of what I’m thinking of discussing (and interrogating when appropriate), especially in terms of the impacts I think they’ve had and continue to have on me:

Present Canon

  • Hellspark
  • Casablanca
  • Firefly / Serenity
  • Real Genius
  • The Rook
  • Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy movies, and the works of Guillermo Del Toro in general
  • The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Philadelphia Story
  • City of Stairs
  • The Fifth Season
  • Better Off Ted

18-Twenties Canon

  • The West Wing
  • Freedom Force and Freedom Force vs The Third Reich
  • Watchmen
  • Superman (the Richard Donner film starring Christopher Reeve)
  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Neil Gaiman’s writings (especially Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things, and American Gods)
  • Good Omens
  • Assorted Klingon-related arcs and stories from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • A New Kind of Christian

Childhood and Early-to-Mid-Teens Canon

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Les Miserables (the musical)
  • 1776 (especially its movie version)
  • Star Trek: Birth of the Federation
  • Star Wars, Episodes IV-VI
  • Stories of Robin Hood, as manifested in both the animated Disney movie and the Great Illustrated Classics book
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