It has caused me to revisit the topic. I was asked, “How? How have these books changed your life?” and I realized that every one has different criteria for a life-changing book. My answer is not deliberately elusive. What do I look for a great book? The same things I look for in life. I look for poetry and beauty. I look for stories that enlarge my world and give me a greater sense of what it means to be alive on this tiny little planet spinning in space. I look to literature to “say the unsayable,” to quote Richard Ford. I look for the gaps, between errands and projects and duties, that we call life. I do not look for answers; I look for questions.
There is a newspaper clipping about twenty years old on my refrigerator – an article summarizing a speech given by Cleanth Brooks, professor emeritus of rhetoric at Yale. To quote Brooks, “One role of literature,” he said, “is that it focuses attention on mankind’s purposes, wise or unwise, and upon the values for which men and women have died.”
Years ago, when my niece Grace was born, I wrote a poem for her. In it, I told her to “describe everything around the one thing that holds you in rapture.” This is what I look for in literature.
I might also mention that keeping my list to ten was nearly painful, so I will add two more.
1. House of Mirth, Edith Wharton – Named after a line in Ecclesiastes (“Wise men dwell in the house of mourning, fools dwell in the house of mirth.”), this is a tragic story about a young Edwardian New York socialite who lets pride instead of kindness guide her life. All of Wharton’s books are written with stunning insights about humans. I don’t think she ever wrote a bad line.
2. Iliad, Homer – A life lived without reading this book is incomplete. Iliad serves as history’s golden mean for what literature is can do.