Study the Canon
Have you read War and Peace? The Brothers Karamazov? Anna Karenina?
Have you watched Double Indemnity? Casablanca? The Grapes of Wrath?
This is work.
This counts as work.
It’s also fun.
I was lucky enough in my late twenties to have two years straight when I did nothing but write and read. I read Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes. I read Caesar, Livy, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius; I read Flaubert and Victor Hugo, Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld. I read Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Knut Hamsun, Andre Malraux, Giuseppe Lampedusa, Jean Rhys, Italo Calvino. I imbibed the full modern canon—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev. Stendhal, Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Japanese, writers, Chinese writers. Was I crazy?
I was learning my craft.
There are books and movies and plays and songs that you simply have to know if you call yourself a writer or artist or aspire to one day become one.
Have you listened to Rosanne Cash’s album, The List? Here she is, from an interview with Terry Gross on NPR:
“When I was 18 years old, I went on the road with my dad after I graduated from high school. And we were riding on the tour bus one day, kind of rolling through the South. We started talking about songs, and he mentioned one, and I said I don’t know that one. And he mentioned another. I said, ‘I don’t know that one either, Dad,’ and he became very alarmed that I didn’t know what he considered my own musical genealogy. So he spent the rest of the afternoon making a list for me, and at the end of the day, he said, ‘This is your education.’ And across the top of the page, he wrote ‘100 Essential Country Songs.'”
Despite his heading of the list, Johnny Cash didn’t limit his definition to what might be called “country” music.
“The list might have been better titled ‘100 Essential American Songs,’ because it was very comprehensive. He covered every critical point in Southern and American music: early folk songs, protest songs, Delta blues, Southern gospel, early country music, Appalachian. Everything that fed into modern country music was on that list.”
My own (Hollywood) version of Rosanne’s come-to-Jesus moment happened—more than once—in story meetings at movie studios. Someone would make a reference to a line from Out of the Past or an action sequence from Red Sorghum. Of course I had never heard of them. All I could do was my best Homer Simpson impression and hope the conversation moved on quickly.
You have to know the canon.
Thank you for reminding us dear Steve,
One fact about me is that I can’t really read books. My mind is too chaotic to stay with a story for days or weeks, it can easily wander, and the secret agony inside about survival calls me to always look for more practical ideas and wisdom, and so I usually don’t get easily through the literal diamonds to tackle their hidden treasures.
The paradox is that I do read though, in my own “authentic swing” way, every day for the last 17 years. I fool my chaotic nature by giving it to read or listen to a whole collection of different books and stuff, concerning many important aspects of life ant the world and my own workings, even as I run or drive. There are works that I have read/listened to many times, I think I listened to the work of art and some other stuff maybe100 times each.
I can’t wait for that day when I’ll reach for all the great stuff. To make it live, to become one with it. To talk with the heroes and the villains. I have thought of a clever way to do that, if I’ll ever have the practical sources and the time needed.
From Les Misérables to the lord of the Rings, from all Philosophers to all Spiritualists, from Einstein to the great leaders and scientists and sciences of the world.
I wish a great week to all our friends here.
And a good week to you, Tolis!
Joe and Tolis! I am listening to Rosanne Cash on this fine Wednesday–virtual coffee cheers to you both.
A couple of my favorites are “Etta’s Tune” and “A Feather’s Not a Bird.”
I’m legitimately adding them to a playlist on YouTube now. I’ve never listened to her, but I love her dad!! Johnny Cash’s Hurt is one of my favorite songs ever. It’s so moving. Thanks Joe!
Thank you so much Joe, Kate!
Looking at the depth and breadth of Steve’s reading list against his dozen fiction and dozen nonfiction works, I’m thinking again of Hemingway’s iceberg.
Just yesterday, I visited the library where I used to hold a day job. I looked around at that hall of learning. Gratitude filled my being. Half of everything worth learning came to me from books, another part from great parents, the rest from failure, and experience. Not being able to attend college wasn’t an excuse for not seeking knowledge. Because of those writers who sat their butts in a chair, I learned philosophy, history, how to paint, to write, how to grow plants, how to be the best person I could be, etc. I’ve learned from Seneca, Kipling, Dickens, Tolkien, the Dalai Lama, Harper Lee, Vickor Frankl, Cheryl Strayed, Ryan Holiday, and yes Mr. Steven Pressfield to name but a few of the hundreds of writers who’ve influenced me. Those who come before teaching others if we but care to learn. Now back to work, I still have much to read, much to learn. Thanks, Steve, for the reminder that reading is not wasting time.
Jackie the last line of your post reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about writing, from short story writer Deborah Eisenberg: “Whether it is done quickly or slowly, however splendid the results, the process of writing fiction is inherently, inevitably, indistinguishable from wasting time.”
Love it, Sam!
Is this a way to borrow someone else’s encounter with The Muse?
Incredibly encouraging words this Writing Wednesday! I am signing up for a Russian Literature class this summer at my University. Why? Because I am inspired by their poetic use of language. If we want to create something new, we must know what our value and belief system is. What inspires us? I like Paul’s letters for suffering and faith. Stoicism for difficult people and situations. Soren Kierkegaard for my weekly existential crisis mode. Steven Pressfield for my warrior woman mindset, growth mindset, and kicking my ass into gear with truth bombs for creators. I like Neil Gaiman’s creativity. Carl Jung’s archetypes. Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. MLK Jr. Gandhi. Nelson Mandela. Seth Godin. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance! The Alchemist. So many life-changing words. No wonder some controlling governments burn books.
This is a terrific post and an example of how to frame people/places/experiences for gratitude. As I’m typing, I thought about doing the same thing for people with whom I’m struggling. There is something we can learn from everyone if we are open/curious enough to look. Well done.
Also your short summary of each lesson makes me curious to engage with authors you mentioned that I haven’t read and to reread others with your description in mind.
Everyone is an expert at something! I like your comment about being open and curious. It can only help us as creators to be open-minded. If you feel inspired to, please share your list! I could use some motivation for cardio or new exercise routines. I keep saying I’m going to try kickboxing…RESISTANCE!! grrr.
Kate, protect and nourish your shining creativity and wonderful exploration! They are some of the most beautiful parts of the meaning of life.
Let us know how and when will you “kick-box” your Resistance 😉
Thanks Tolis! I’ve spent the majority of my life feeling or thinking I am “too much” or “not enough”, so it’s very nice to read these encouraging words!
You need some women on you inspiration list. May I suggest… Woolf, a room of ones own, Karr, Liars Club, Brach, Radical Acceptance, Carson McCullers, the heart is a lonely hunter, Anjalou, Caged Bird…to name a very few. So many books…
Hi Anne! I’m a huge fan of When the Caged Bird Sings. I’m adding the others to my Goodreads list now. A heartfelt thank you!!
I also loved Rosanne Cash’s interview with Krista Tippet for ONbeing. She talks about having a dream that labeled her as a “dilettante” which alarmed her, and got her back into the studio to study and practice, to master her craft.
This is on my mind right now as well…..how and what do I need to do to master my craft? It’s a bit of a conundrum when you are a dabbler of several crafts, but master of none. How do you choose? I don’t think I have to, but I do want to study and practice each of them more, which requires me prioritizing my time. thank you for letting me think outloud, a reminder that I’ve got to get to work!
Alisa, I recently took classes from a local artist, Barry. In his Art for Artists classes, he said one thing that stuck with me. “I will probably never become rich from my art because I do not have consistency. I choose too many forms to express myself. But that’s okay, it suits me. I’ve done life my way.” Barry is an accomplished singer, songwriter, musician, ice carver, painter, and pencil artist who has been committed to teaching and sharing his talents with the community, adults, and children alike. In our little depressing nook of the world (Johnstown, PA, poorest city in PA), he is a shining star. Keep working, Alisa.
You have to be joking. I will never be able to read all of those books. So, how about listing five that you feel are the most helpful.
Think of it as a lifelong endeavor, Harrison. Just start with one book and keep going. You’ll be amazed at how many you will read if you just start. Kind of like what we have to do everyday with our craft, right?
Another way, Harrison, is to pick ONE book yourself that is “right up your street” in terms of a work you really should be familiar with. Then let that book lead you to the next one, and so on. The aim of the exercise is to acquire “cultural literacy” within one’s chosen field. If you’re a comedy writer for the movies, you should know GHOSTBUSTERS inside and out. (A nod to Ivan Reitman, Rest In Peace.)
I read what interests me. Everything from Dickens to trashy romance novels. It all influences my work. There is a book called the Well Educated Mind that promises to give you a Classical (Western) education. It is lists of lists. Just tons of lists. I got about 25% of the way through the first book on the first list, Don Quixote. It was a fine book, but like many books, even great books, didn’t sustain my interest. I’m not saying I’ve abandoned it completely, but I will say I have mixed feelings about the need to read a certain approved-by-the-masses kind of book. On the one hand, yes, know your craft, and read the things that make you better at it. But aren’t we ever only led by our passions? I don’t want to waste time on books I don’t love. That can only influence writing I don’t love.
We can learn something from everything if we keep our eyes and minds open, classics to softer reads. Good point, Christy about wasting time on books you don’t love. I commit to 50-75 pages if not captured by then, I move on.
I learned from a Tim Ferriss podcast that he takes the number 100 minus your age and if you aren’t compelled to read any further than stop reading the book. Life is short. I didn’t finish The Lincoln Highway. Meh. To each their own. Onward!
I’d like to know Steve’s canon for historical novels. I, Claudius is good. I’d read Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, but it’s not available on audiobook, so doesn’t seem likely any time soon. Man at Arms and (especially) Virtues of War have certainly entered into my canon.
I have read a lot and let me not go through everything that I have read but just to say I am still reading. I started Dracula last night, and currently reading Shawn Coyne’s Stroy Grid and then there are countless others that I am going to read. Reading isn’t the problem, writing is and that’s what I want to do.
Do you have a list? Would love to see it. I realize it’s somewhat subjective, but would still like to see your selections. Thanks.
The first thing I felt after reading this was shame and guilt. I think this is a test from our beloved guru Steven. I’m still working on “never give up”. There is a saying in AA called KISS “keep it simple stupid”. I like the version “keep it simple sweetheart”. Love you all. – Bing
I wouldn’t call it shame or even guilt, Bing, but I was surprised by this advice. Is it possible the canon varies by the kind of writing we aspire to do?
Thanks Maureen for your response. I am actually working on shame and guilt in another area of my life and so everything I see right now shows up as a shame and guilt trip.
I actually felt a tinge of shame myself…and I consider myself ‘well-read’. I think Maureen’s counsel is wise (it always is…) but I was also a bit taken aback by the list. I haven’t touched the ancient Greeks, closest I got was Joseph Campbell in my freshman English class. Back when they had ‘honors’ programs, I was dumped in with the smart kids. We read Campbell, Orwell, (I was a freshman in high school in 1984), Huxley, Plath, as well as some Shakespeare. I was much more interested in girls, sports, and smoking weed–but some appreciation did seep in.
Before this post, I have made a stab at reading more Classical Literature. Dostoevsky, Hugo, Twain, Tolstoy, back through the dystopian genre, and it has been delightful. I only sprinkle the Classics in with my podcast, non-fiction, and pulp fiction diet–but it is rewarding. I believe (my public school education and plebeian palate on display) Ken Follet’s Kingsbridge series and Century Trilogy rival some of the historical greats.
I wonder if the shame comes from Steve’s list, and knowing that I haven’t even scratched the surface of what he’s both consumed and internalized. It might be a male thing, but when I find an older adult male that I respect–the thing I want to do the most is make them proud. His list didn’t leave me much to celebrate as an achievement. I remain a grasshopper in this realm.
I think it was Stephen King’s “On Writing” in which King makes the point of being a good writer is a secondary skill–being a good reader is primary. At one point he mentions how he never goes anywhere ‘book-less’, a paperback is part of his uniform.
Years ago a buddy was busting my chops about the books I read. He said, “I finally saw your book list, it is in every airport store in America!”
At the time I was enthralled by the current non-fiction of the day about leadership, management, pop-psychology, etc (Gladwell, Michael Lewis, — both great authors, but no one will read their stuff 20 years from now). I thought I was ‘getting smart’, but facts do not necessarily lead to wisdom. That comes from the canon Steve mentioned.
The past 18 months or so, I’ve even gone further back to the Bible. Why not go to the source of all wisdom? I think about it as well, trying to tie something I read in scripture to the things happening in my life, or around my life. I’ll try to add a few of those authors to my list, but want to be much more literate in the best of best sellers of all time first. 35ish years of being a skeptical/cynical agnostic left me bereft of this particular piece of literature.
One example of an insight. 10 years ago we decided to lose some fat. I had added 20+ lbs of fat, while still maxing the Army’s PT test. We dramatically decreased our caloric intake – portion control (can just think of George Carlin’s riff on sanitizing language). In short, it was HARD. SUPER HARD. I was fantasizing about food all the time. About a month in, I passed a really heavy guy in the Y. Saw him 5 days a week for years, and judged the hell out of him the entire time. Well this day I saw him differently. Might say that I finally saw him for the first time. My eyes welled with tears, and I thought to myself, “Bro, good for you. Great to see you here. I finally get it. This shit is HARD.”
I realized that, counter-intuitively to me, that the tougher I am on myself–the higher I live up to my own standards/values–the more compassionate I am towards others. How does this make any sense at all?
Monday I was out for a much needed run after eating 5000 calories during the Super Bowl, and I thought of ‘take the plank out of your own eye before touching the speck in others..’ Oh. I get it. Maybe doing what I know is right, doing the hard things I know are the right things, it changes my own view of others. I don’t even notice the shortcomings of others, or if I do, I view them with compassion, when I’ve slain my own dragons first.
Hey Brian! Thanks for sharing this! It’s so relatable.
I’m a cynical believer. Oxymoron. The Red Letters of the Bible are the wisdom I need each and everyday–yet I am prideful and distrusting of others. It’s going to be a lifelong journey for me…
Everyday I mess up and every time I ask the source of love itself to help me out of another mess. I like AA’s wisdom–A DAY AT A TIME!!
Thank you Steve. I’m collecting my favorite books by Jean de Brunhoff. To study the art of the childrens pucture book.
Thanks, what an intimidating list. Like others, I am intimidated and guilty. Catching up on great literature, plays, music, films, and art I have yet to experience-is truly a “Myth of Sisyphus” task. This ex-English teacher, ex-film history teacher, ex-NYC “Mad Man”, and now consultant in branding and marketing wants to read, see, and hear so much of what I have missed to date—and dare I say it, write more short stories that give me joy. Gotta put my butt in the seat in the a.m. Giving into excuses (Resistance!) is so easy. Gotta keep rolling that rock.
It’s an intimidating list to me as well, but I don’t write and cannot write like Steve. I write songs, so I took this post as a way to spill out all the books that inspired me to learn how to “paint with words” like the good lyricists do. Resistance will find each and every way to talk you out of your goals–you know your writing voice! You know what inspires you! EFF you, Resistance. Now, back to work 🙂
Not a writer, I am a visual artist. The canon of painters has always shifted some, but certain ones are considered “painters’ painters”, who revel in the possibilities of the oil medium qua material: Leonardo, Titian, El Greco, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Chardin, Watteau, Delacroix, Turner, Degas, Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Rothko, DeKooning, and a few others (fewer after 1970). Today, Richter may be foremost. Yes, I mention all men, as the Titans of viscous, malleable painting (Cassatt was often capable of achieving great heights, though). The key to all these is their “facture”; the actual gestural and dense layering of paint, which often leads to less interest in the image portrayed, as against how it is made. I imagine writers and poets can see within the structure of a piece how it’s author managed it. On the other hand, each time period sends out its own vibe, which somewhat constrains and directs (even if only subconsciously) the style and expected responses to any work of art or literature. Even within a partial lifetime we can look at them and see the “fashion”.
I apologize for autocorrect using “it’s” instead of “its”
Ok, so I’m new here. Forgive this question if it is obvious.
Is there a list of this canon from Mr. Pressfield’s POV?
“Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes. …Caesar, Livy, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius; …Flaubert and Victor Hugo, Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld. …Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Knut Hamsun, Andre Malraux, Giuseppe Lampedusa, Jean Rhys, Italo Calvino. … the full modern canon—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Japanese, writers, Chinese writers.”
I agree, intimidating. I have read a bit of almost all of them, but not nearly in any real depth. I’ll swap Nabokov for Turgenev, please.
Yes. See Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon”. which gives a traditional list of works led by Shakespeare, of course, and is mostly white male oriented. Also see the
Great Books as compiled by the Encyclopedia Brittanica. which gives more attention to ancient sources like the Greeks and Romans. Neither of these gives adequate attention to contemporary writers like Toni Morrison (Beloved), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”) or (“Love in the Time of Cholera”). or F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Aldous Huxley or George Orwell. Good Luck.
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Thank you Steve. I’m collecting my favorite books by Jean de Brunhoff. To study the art of the childrens pucture book.
It seems I have homework to do.
Thank you, Steve.
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I think this is a test from our beloved guru Steven. I’m still working on “never give up”. There is a saying in AA called KISS “keep it simple stupid”. I like the version “keep it simple sweetheart”. Love you all.
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