Common criticisms of “canon” scholarly reading lists include the following: they are only composed of works from ancient, stuffy men, they include only Euro-centric perspectives, and they completely ignore intersectionality. But I have been lucky. During my undergraduate degree in English and French literature at Mount Allison University, my professors pushed boundaries, including a variety of genders, races, nationalities, and literary periods in their reading lists. We did, of course, read authors from the “canon” like Henry James, T. S. Eliot, and Albert Camus – but we also read France Daigle, Dionne Brand, and Alison Bechdel.
Here, I have assembled a list of some of the books required for my degree that I genuinely believe everyone would benefit from reading. These books are powerful, thought-provoking, well-written, and more accessible to the general public than the academic “classics” might be.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book was on the reading list for an introductory class to prose literature. Adichie is a Nigerian feminist writer also known for her activism. Americanah narrates the challenges Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman, faces living in North America, from places to get her hair done to (in)visibility in a predominantly white society and culture. The characters are complex and deep; their internal emotional conflicts lift off the page to haunt the reader.
I Place You into the Fire by Rebecca Thomas
I read this poetry collection for a spectacular seminar called Local Literature and Diversity. Immediately after finishing it, I rushed to post this review on my Instagram story: “Go read this book right now!!! I Place You into the Fire is an amazing poetry collection by Mi’kmaq poet Rebecca Thomas about love, hurt, and accountability. A call to action for settlers!” I could reread this collection for years and get something new out of it every time. It draws attention to the inner workings and issues of colonialism, capitalism, and environmental and social justice through its powerful words.
L’avenir (The Future) by Catherine Leroux
This novel, available in French and English, combines the story of a woman trying to uncover the truth about the tragedy that separated her family and the life of a community of children living in the forest. I loved this novel so much that I wrote this informal review on my Instagram story: “I just finished reading L’avenir by Catherine Leroux for one of my French classes. The story is WONDERFUL and the characters are strange and there are so many allusions and the writing is beautiful! My head is exploding because this book exists *heart eye emoji* *crying emoji* Actually crying. READ READ READ!!!” A much more controlled review might say that this is a wonderful and complicated story about unique and intertwined characters. Leroux includes perfectly subtle allusions, and her writing is absolutely beautiful.
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
This book was an important part of the class Introduction to Canadian Literature, in which the words “Canadian” and “literature” were both challenged by the reading list. Rice, an Anishinaabe author from Wasauksing First Nation, tells the story of an Indigenous community that becomes completely cut off from the rest of the (colonized) world when the power goes out and never comes back on. It is full of Indigenous wisdom and an overwhelming sense of community during a crisis. This novel is a comment on capitalism, but, more importantly, it is about the value of family and community.
The Overstory by Richard Powers
I read this novel for the most amazing seminar called Ecofiction of the Forest. Here is my review on The StoryGraph: “I don’t even know how to review this book. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully process it. Just—the incredible world of trees. Activism. The complex and intertwining stories of eight people. Just read it.” I learned so much about trees and forests scientifically as well as symbolically over the course of this class, and The Overstory summarizes much of that knowledge. Fantastically well-written, this story will give you access to the magical world of trees.
Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai
This book was one of many that I read for the course Queer Literature in Canada. It is about a Sri Lankan boy coming to terms with his sexuality while experiencing the traumatic and unpredictable events during and leading up to the 1983 Colombo riots. Although Selvadurai is queer and Sri Lankan like his main character, the story is not autobiographical. Besides teaching non-Sri Lankan readers about a life and culture very different from their own, this story is full of emotion, earnestness, and truth that is relatable to a wide range of people. In my opinion, this book’s heart is what earns it its timelessness.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
I read this novel for the coolest Utopian Literature seminar. Le Guin does incredible world-building for this utopia-in-progress. There is plenty of insight concerning philosophy, physics, and politics, as well as really interesting revolutionary ideas and perspectives on capitalism and anarchism. We focused a lot on anti-capitalism, decolonization, and the process of creating a utopia in this class, so Le Guin’s book was a perfect fit. As a science-fiction novel, this story allows us to view our world from an outsider’s perspective and learn about the revolution needed to make change.
Honorable Mention: “Gentle Now, Don’t Add to Heartache” by Juliana Spahr
Although not a book, I had to share this poem that I read for two different classes: Literature from the 1800s to Present and Romantic Ecology. This is most definitely one of my favourite poems of all time. There is a natural arc to its story, and the rhythm flows in harmony with the river it describes. Spahr’s narration of our beginning, our connection with the land, and how some of us have ruptured that connection through capitalism and individualism is absolutely beautiful. You’ll also learn some cool names for flora and fauna!