1. Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
I read Harriet the Spy when I was nine and thought: YES! I want to write! Except I was nine and not so hot on picking up The Message, so I started a burn book about my classmates. It… did not go well. In the novel and its sequel, The Long Secret (an underappreciated beautiful weirdo of a book), Harriet has this tenacity and knowledge-lust that makes a reader dizzy with the possibility of how much you can know about people, about anything, while still knowing nothing at all.
2. Lady of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Diana L. Paxson
A prequel to The Mists of Avalon where the Lady of Avalon and her lover meet, have some space-time-continuum-shattering sex, die in horrifying Rome-colonizing-Britain circumstances, then renew the cycle in their next lifetimes. I think I loved this book because the central struggle of the story was a woman trying to ~HAVE IT ALL~!! Can she live as the leader of her feminist separatist commune without her romantic relationship compromising and undermining her work? CAN ANYONE?
3. Maurice, E.M. Forster
For the lonely and queer in high school, books are where we go to see we’re not alone. Maurice captures coming-into-your-gayness isolation and longing so well, even though it was written by a wealthy white British guy at the turn of the 20th century who was light years away from my own urban Hispanic Catholic community. While Maurice and his love interest, Clive, ultimately aren’t right for each other, Clive’s awkward bookish overtures speak directly to the awkward kid as she reads a copy of Maurice: “I knew you read the Symposium,” he says, just before he admits, “I love you.” Maurice is all about the secret worlds and canons we build to define ourselves and keep ourselves sane.
4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
I can’t imagine a life where I didn’t read Tolkien—for one thing, I met so much of my best friend tier through Tolkien fandom online. Middle Earth changes and grows with us; the answers we demand of its landscape are ones we weren’t capable of asking five, ten years ago. I would make The Silmarillion my secret canon pick. The Silmarillion is Genesis and Exodus, from its serene beginnings to the bloodbaths that shaped the world Frodo saves in Lord of the Rings.
5. The Iliad, Homer (tr. Richmond Lattimore)
The Iliad remains one of those few books that I can open to any page and instantly fall into the story as if I never left. As a writer, the Iliad taught me about immediacy and memory, all the life and history and story that can be contained in a moment.
6. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Speaking of combining immediacy and memory in every scene: daaaaaaaaamn, Mrs Dalloway. Strangely enough, it shares a lot of features with how I envision the Iliad, in that they’re both stories where the events aren’t as important as how the story itself is told. Worlds and characters discovered through the telling of stories.
7. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
Castle is presented as the diary of Cassandra Mortmain, who starts writing to escape the bullshit facade of her family’s quietly suffering genteel poverty. She and her sister fall in love with the Cotton brothers, their new landlords down the road, and money. complicates. everything. Cassandra’s world shows how our circumstances shape our stories, something that more self-indulgent writers writing in vacuums of their own creation forget too often.
8. To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
Connie Willis is the only writer allowed to write about time travel. Her novels build a hilarious world of academic bureaucracy around the science/practice of time travel, and To Say Nothing of the Dog is a charming as hell romcom set in that world. The story uses time travel to raise the stakes and showcase the eccentrics who would be crazy enough to study time travel in the first place. So fun. SO FUN.
9. Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford
The story follows Christopher Tietjens, Gentleman, who slogs his way through life being tactless, embarrassing, and full of integrity, but shh no one cares. His wife, Sylvia, and his lover, Valentine, steal every scene in the novel from him. It’s difficult to care about Tietjens’s existential crises when Sylvia and Valentine burst into a scene, each of them clawing at the eyes of the world to get more than Nice Young Ladies are allowed.
10. The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham
What’s magnificent about The Painted Veil are its selfish characters, their poisonous spite, and the heavy, heavy regret of a reconciliation come too late. It hits too close to the worst part of us that, when hurt, lashes out and wounds to kill. (Don’t watch the movie.)
11. Sappho: A New Translation (tr. Mary Barnard)
Translation matters not so much for accuracy, but in the translator bringing that spark she sees in the original into the new work she creates. Barnard’s 1958 translation reads modern, clear, and straightforward, illuminating the vivid scenes in the fragments left to us. Sappho herself? Here: “You may forget but/Let me tell you/this: someone in/some future time/will think of us.”
Michelle Vider lives in Philadelphia. She has a master’s degree in English, but she’s feeling much better, thank you. She tweets here.