Thursday, November 13, 2008

Ten Books, Part II

When I posted the other day about ten books that will change your life, I never imagined that it would stir so much off-line chatter (thank you Chris and Tony for your thoughtful exchanges on what makes a book meaningful to you).

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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ten Books That Will Change Your Life

The litmus test of a good book is that you find new joys in it upon a second reading. Shorter days and colder nights are a good excuse to turn to your bookshelves and pick up those books you've always wanted to read or the ones you want to revisit. Here is a list of books that have enriched my life in numerous ways. Some I've read more than once. Tell me about your list and just try to keep it to ten.

1. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy. It is said that Tolstoy started this book with the intention of writing about a despicable woman, and fell in love with his creation.

2. Still Life – A.S. Byatt. The sequel to Byatt’s Babel Tower, but a far more poignant story of a family trying to find sanity and love in their disparate lives.

3. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov. The quintessential American road book that started the genre – by a man whose native language is Russian, no less.

4. The Debt to Pleasure – John Lanchester. A cookbook wrapped in a travelogue wrapped in a murder mystery.

5. The Golden Bowl – Henry James. The only writer who could tell such a gripping story with so little action. Hint: the bowl has a fatal flaw.

6. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy. The story of a brilliant young man who finds comfort neither in his native, bucolic countryside nor the august halls of academe where he so powerfully longs for acceptance.

7. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway. Gertrude Stein refers to the men who fought in WWI as ‘the lost generation’ for a good reason. Warning: have good food and wine on hand before opening.

8. Orlando – Virginia Woolfe. A man – no, a woman – er, a person gallops through history finding wisdom through the ages.

9. I Praise My Destroyer – Diane Ackerman. A naturalist, poet and lover of life explores the pain and beauty of accepting mortality.

10. Howard’s End – E. M. Forster. A love story about a house and the people who live in it.

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