There is a new internet meme running around the blogosphere, started here, and being followed here, that I just had to get in on, even though I have three regular readers and am in no way a sparkling intellectual like some of these bloggers. This is easily part of the “Desert Island” list I am currently forming and you will be reading more about over the coming weeks.
I stuck with books I love and still read over and over ( yes, I am one of those people). I decided that I had to make the list fictional books as opposed to non-fiction simply because I write fiction and those influence my writing more than anything ( except, perhaps, Roger Ebert). Plus, I mostly read biographies, and I didn’t feel like giving a reason that when I was in high school I read Ginger Rogers’ autobiography about thirty times.
1. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Easily my favorite book of all time. Lee’s classic about life in the depression era South is more than a treatise on bigotry and poverty and how the genteel society of Alabama felt about both these issues, it was a warm story of family and what we do to create a safe place to raise ourselves up to do what we believe is right and just in this world. Atticus Finch, one of the great flawed heroes of literature, remains someone we should all aspire to be. He wasn’t a perfect man, but he was a decent one, and the lessons of that book have reverberated in my head like a bad song lyric for decades.
2. In Watermelon Sugar (Richard Brautigan)
Less well-known than other counter-culture writers like Kesey and Wolfe, Brautigan was infinitely more talented than either, but also ultimately more tragic. In Watermelon Sugar, an allegorical tale of war, consequence, sex and death, uses sparse language and vivid imagery to create a world that can never possibly exist but seems serene in its primitive way. Brautigan’s death in the early ’80s leads me to wonder what he, a true independent spirit, would have done with the decay of America during that decade. With the tumultuous ’60s, he found despair hidden in the beauty.
3. Veronika Decides To Die (Paulo Coelho)
Coelho remains on of my favorite authors, and this one of my favorite books. Anyone who has suffered from crippling depression can see Veronika in themselves, but would we all react the way she does when told that her suicide attempt puts her into hospital with what she is told is fatal consequences? Given a certain death sentence plays with your head, and the book ends on a surprising note.
4. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Helen Fielding)
Yes, it’s chick lit. It’s superficial and not literature so much as a diversion. But if all diversions were this well written and joyous we’d all be better people. Fielding’s insecure heroine may finally find love in the end, but the journey getting there, filled with Bridget’s own self-destructive ways, is all the fun.
5. Pride And Prejudice (Jane Austen)
The greatest example of both British class morality and grand feminist idealism, Austen creates the single greatest female character in all of English Lit with her Lizzie Bennett, strong-willed and determined to meet a fate that suits her. Fortunately, Austen created a foil that was equally well written in Mr. Darcy. The battle of wills between the two as they attempt not to fall in love with each other nearly ends with despair, but we get a happy ending that doesn’t feel contrived. Instead, we feel joy, for two people as lovely as Lizzie and Darcy deserve all the happiness in the world.
6. Turn of The Screw (Henry James)
James’ ghost story remains one of the few real thrills I ever got reading fiction ( Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is also right up there.) Whether our poor governess is crazy or if there was really ghosts seems ambiguous despite James’ own notes. Either way, it remains the classic ghost story, one that has inspired countless imitations that never quite measure up. (The link leads you to the Gutenberg Projects copy of the story).
7. Farenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
I admit being torn between this book and his classic Something Wicked This Way Comes and ultimately decided that this dystopian classic remains my favorite of the two. Damning in its view of an increasingly anti-intellectual America, Bradbury’s tale now seems like gospel as opposed to sci-fi. As I follow Guy Montag’s journey from mindless drone to a witness of the fall the society he knows because he dared to break the rules, I become enamored of the idea of accidental activism and think that sometimes, passive may not be as passive as you believe.
8. Dance To The Music of Time (Anthony Powell)
A serial of twelve novels that span several decades of 20th century British classism and history, this masterpiece differs from Proust’s equally ambitious Á la recherche du temps perdu by being readable. As Powell follows Nick Jenkins’ life from school boy in 1921 to his middle-aged years, all the while contemplating the follies and successes of his friends. The books create a snapshot of a particular type of life in Britain during the century where everything changed for a once mighty Empire. Also astonishing is how while writing style may jump from book to book, it remains one of the singularly strong thematic works ever published.
9. Watchmen (Alan Moore)
It’s an alternate world where Nixonian paranoia and fascism run deep, and no one looks for heroes. Reading this for the first time as a teenager, I felt radicalized, and it certainly lead me to my current political beliefs. Re-reading it now as an adult, it just confirms what I have always believed. Expect the worst in people, you will never be surprised that way. And money really is the only thing.
10. Slaughter-house Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
This powerful novel about time, war, and memory remains a marvel of economy and of detachment. Vonnegut describes the war-time experiences of Billy Pilgrim with vivid detail, while his post war life remains remote and almost calculatedly cold. As far as novels infused with fatalism, this remains the masterpiece. Billy travels through time and sees his own demise, causing Billy to live a life full of compromise and bitter defeat.
These are merely ten. I didn’t go into my love for Dickens’ Bleak House, or my love for Catcher In The Rye. Truman Capote, Joseph Heller, Henry Roth, James Baldwin, Douglas Adams, Flannery O’Connor, P.G. Wodehouse, Patricia Highsmith, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Isaac Asimov, Iris Murdoch, J.G. Ballard- the list of authors I admire is long and I read so many books.
But looking at my list, which was done without a ton of thought and purely on gut instinct, I have come to realize a couple of things. One, I love Elizabeth Bennett, and Pride And Prejudice, so much I essentially have it twice on my list, seeing as Bridget Jones is an updated retread of the same themes. Two, I have a very dark view of humanity. Most of these books are dystopian in their views, and show of the worst of civilization. Three, I love a well-written protagonist, even if he’s Billy Pilgrim. And four, I love British authors. ( Okay, that last one doesn’t surprise someone who read the complete Shakespeare by the eighth grade and has always wanted to live in London.)
Curiously, I left off books that ten years ago I would have never hesitated to add. Why did I leave off Daphne du Maurier’s gothic Rebecca, a book i read constantly throughout junior high and high school. Is it because I’ve read it so much its lost all its power over me? Is it because I’ve somehow outgrown it? Is it because I think du Maurier wrote much better works?
I now feel sorry that I don’t do this more often, write out these lists every five or ten years, and try to chart my growth as a reader. I know what I read in high school impacts the books I read today and how I read them. When I first read Vonnegut back in the ninth grade, I wasn’t as enamored of him as I am now. I was reading Stephen King and the like ( still read Stephen King- good writing is good writing despite genre). Douglas Adams at first seemed out of his mind when I read him, Dickens was “old and dead”, and I hadn’t even heard of Richard Brautigan. It’s safe to assume when I was eighteen in 1995, the only book that would be on both lists would be Pride And Prejudice. Maybe Watchmen as well, although I was still at that point of time looking at graphic novels as more of a novelty thing than pure literature. Mockingbird would have been excluded due to its nature of being a “school book”, meaning that the joy of reading the book was sapped out of me by arbitrary English teacher grades on my papers. Honestly, is there ever a right or wrong from what one takes away from a book?
So this is my current list, and I’ll have to think about coming back to it again after some time has passed and doing it all over again.