Canonize: Creating a Personal Canon Template

By November 5, 2017Uncategorized

I love the idea of the “personal canon”: an encapsulation, in list form, of those things that have most shaped you. A sort of annotated bibliography of influences.

Over the past few years I’ve come across several excellent examples of people using a corner of their personal websites to provide such a snapshot. These range in complexity and number of items included, but all give an intimate sense at the forces that shape a particular mind.

My favorites of these include: Buster Benson’s canon, part of his public Codex Vitae / “Book of Beliefs”. Mandy Brown’s “A Working Library”, a refreshing inhale-exhale of her reading and writing. David Cole’s Personal Canon, the closest model to what I ended up with. And Bret Victor’s “Links 2007” page, an excellent list of books as well as other media items.

Last year I set out to create my own personal canon. I started with a perusal of the disparate lists I’ve kept haphazardly — books I’ve read via Goodreads, favorite articles and websites via Pinboard — and augmented this with some thought and self-research in combing through things in other areas, like music and movies, that have also greatly influenced me. I came up with five categories of material to include: books, media, websites, articles, and ideas. These are somewhat arbitrary, and there’s of course some overlap, but I found most things fell pretty neatly into one of these categories.

I started with a “longlist” of as many items as I could come up with for potential inclusion, which was nearly 250! That’s way too many for one webpage, so I took a pass at whittling it down to a “mediumlist” of more curated favorites, arriving at roughly half the initial number. Finally I played around with organizing / grouping these items, and in the process narrowed my selections down further to a “shortlist” of 80-some items. Ultimately I came up with 10 categories of my interests, each containing 7–9 canon items.

This project was also an excuse for me to actually try using GitHub for a project for the first time. My girlfriend helped with design ideas and creating the icons I used for each of the five item types, and we practiced making commits to a GitHub repo I made. I created an HTML structure for the canon, played around with design until I had a look I was happy with, and then uploaded it to a standalone page on my site. In the back of my mind I thought it could be cool to eventually make this a public template of some sort, but when I launched initially it was really just a project for me.

This year my friend Tom Critchlow asked about the project, mentioning that he was thinking about creating a “/canon” page on his own site. This got me thinking again that it would be fun to write a bit more about the project and flesh out the GitHub repo to make it more useful for someone thinking about making their own canon. I love finding this kind of thing on others’ sites, enjoyed making my own, and think it would be great if more people did something similar — it’s always a great way to both learn about someone on a personal level, and discover a bunch of awesome material for your antilibrary!

Two projects I really like, with similar aims, have helped guide my thinking on this. First is Diana Kimball’s “/mentoring” project, a “distributed mentoring movement” which encouraged people open to being a mentor to post information on their site making explicit how such a relationship might be initiated. The core of it is a simple mission statement articulating its goal, and a template providing structure for how someone could easily fork and adopt it. While Diana is no longer actively working on the project, I’m heartened to see its influence lives on. Second is the “/now” project by Derek Sivers. This started with a blog post encouraging people to post a “now” page on their sites, intended as a more active supplement to the standard website “about” page, to give visitors a concise glimpse into its author’s current focus. This caught on, and Sivers created a directory page that now lists over 1,000 examples of such pages people have made.

I’d love to see something similar with the “/canon” page. The GitHub repository I’ve created for the project, which I’m calling “Canonize”, contains more detail on the process I followed and how to use the files provided. I encourage you to check it out and consider creating your own personal canon and associated webpage. I’m also open to any suggestions for how to make this more useful — feel free to send me an email, or create an issue or pull request on GitHub. Finally, if you create a “/canon” page of your own, please let me know — I’d love to take a look, and perhaps begin to pull together a simple directory list of these, too.

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