There’s a meme going around on Facebook, and I got tagged twice, once rather parenthetically and once directly. I’d planned to do it anyway, but midway through my first try, I lost the post, and gave up on the whole thing. I came up with a list of ten, as directed, but kept on thinking about the subject, and about what books mean to me both as a writer and as a human being, so I thought it might be a good thing to bring that Facebook post here and expand on it a bit, talk about not just what books have stayed with me and why, but what sorts of books I actively seek out. I think this might end up being a multi-entry thread, which is fine. I need to post here more often.
Anyway, let’s start with some books that have stuck with me. In this case they’re books I’ve liked or loved. In no real order, mind you.
1 – Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — honestly you didn’t think I’d forget this, did you? I read it for the first time in college, coming to it late because I was just that stubborn. Everyone was reading it in HS and I dug my heels in. And there is a lesson for all the rest of you not to be so fucking bull-headed about not trying something because it’s popular. K? I read it in a brilliant class called “The Quest in Western Literature.” I remember taking the bus to Andersonville to meet Pam for lunch, and I stepped off the bus in tears because I had just read the Song of the Entwives. And there was Pam, waiting for me in tears because she’d just read it, too. You don’t forget books that do that to you.
2 – Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicle — Six books that have never, ever gotten old no matter how many times I read them. Six books that continue to delight, infuriate, confound, and educate me. Barbara had urged me to read them for a long time (she swears it was the other way around, who really knows anymore?) but I held off because I was working at a bookstore at the time and was sick of the sight of books. (Long story) I finally broke down and bought Game of Kings, the first book, and started reading, and my first thought was: Why is this guy the hero of six books? He’s awful!
I have this rule that says if a book doesn’t grab me in the first 50-100 pages, depending on the length of the book, it goes in the To-Sell pile. I got to page 100, approximately, while I was having lunch by myself at Hoolihans in Woodfield. I was sitting in the bar reading, and in the middle of the Don Luis scene, I got the joke, and howled. Everyone in the bar turned to look at me. What did I care? I had just fallen utterly and hopelessly in love with Francis Crawford, and his story.
I got friends to read them. That’s what friends do, and being fans we got hooked up with the Lymond APA which had so many members it came around here about once every 12 to 14 months which for new fans was not nearly often enough. So after discussing it with Karen, Barbara, and Jody, I wrote to Dorothy Dunnett and asked her for her blessing to produce a letterzine devoted to the books. She responded quickly and graciously, and “Marzipan and Kisses” was born. Karen and I edited the letterzine for a number of years, and it spawned a sister letterzine entitled “Whispering Gallery.” (WG is now the only Dunnett zine being published as far as I know.) So you see, my association with Lymond is long and happy. I read the books every few years, and there’s always something new for me.
3 – Here’s an odd one: Schulmann’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. A week ago, I wouldn’t have put this on the list since I hadn’t read it since 1970, and while bits of it had stayed with me, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to list it here until I reread it this week. It was on sale for the Kindle and I thought, “Let’s see if it holds up.” It does and it doesn’t, but the reason why I’m adding it to this list is because I saw quite clearly, how my initial reading colored a great deal of my life, and my attitude towards gender roles, marriage, children, and the way society is set up to penalize women no matter how they choose to live. This book became part of the way I viewed the world, and if that’s not staying with me, I
4 – Davenport, Tatlin! Nobody writes like Guy Davenport. Nobody. His prose is difficult, it’s brain frot, dense and erotic. I love the story “The Dawn at Erewhon” but it’s a passage from “Robot”, a story about cave paintings, which begins: “The Drachenberg bears, their jaws full of shadows…” which stays with me and touches a place so deep I can’t even name it. It is mysterious and dark in the way of earth, magical as art can be.
5 – And speaking of stylists: Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy. Even if I didn’t love the story and the characters, and the setting, I would love her prose. But I do love her characters, and their love story, and those around them who both suffer and prosper because of them. Taylor gave me the book for Christmas a few years ago, and I have read it each year since. The story of Rupert and Istvan, and their adopted family continues in The Mercury Waltz, and will conclude in a third volume. Soon, I hope.
6 – Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams. Where science and literature meet and have a passionate affair. This is how I understand relativity.
7 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig. When I was going to school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I had a teacher named Bill Brincka, who is now most remembered for his horticultural work. But I was mad about him, and because he recommended this book I read it because that’s what adoring young women do with their first older man. I have reason to be grateful to him for many, many things, but above all, I think, my love for this book and what it says to me about living. As soon as I unearth one of my copies, I’m sending it to my niece who is in Indonesia with the Peace Corps. From an old hippie girl to a young one.
8 – Barbara Tuchman‘s The Proud Tower, and The Guns of August. I feel safe taking these as one because this is one long story of the fall of the old monarchies into the inferno of WWI. My fascination with this era seems endless, and Tuchman took me into it and let me live there. I’m about due for another reading of these books.
9 – Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. I read this in grammar school. I didn’t realize then how awful these people really were. What I did realize was a love for transgressive passions that’s stayed with me and has informed not just my reading but my writing.
10 – Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman graphic novels. Yes, I love Good Omens, which he co-authored with Terry Pratchett. Yes, I love Neverwhere and American Gods, and Stardust and…. But this was my first exposure to Neil’s work and it remains, IMO, the greatest and most beautiful. It’s like being part of a waking dream to read these stories.
After I started discussing the list with friends I came up with another group of favorites that I cherish:
Little Women, Alcott — Was there ever a book so beloved of young girls? Did any woman of my generation read this book without wanting, however briefly, to be part of the March family? To be one of Marmee’s “little women?”
The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot — Not a book in the sense that these others are, but so dense as to be virtually a novel in a long poem. “The Wasteland” is, I think, the poem of the twentieth century. Coming from someone who actually tends to prefer the work of W. H. Auden, that’s high praise.
Daddy Long Legs, Jean Webster — It has virtually nothing to do with the Fred Astaire film. There is no dancing in this book. It’s simply a story of a young woman who is given a chance at an education and grabs for it with both hands. Nothing could appeal more to a bookish girl, I think.
Don’t Knock the Corners Off, Carolyn Glyn — Hard to find these days. I first read it in high school, and reread it yearly for a couple of decades. It’s a British novel about another bookish girl who doesn’t fit into the educational system, and I could identify with that. She doesn’t make friends easily and is, in general, a misfit. I found that it comforted me through a lot of unpleasant times. A few years ago I sent my copy to a young woman who was being bullied at her school. I hope it comforted her.
The Bible — Yes, I’ve read it. Do I think it’s the revealed word of God? No. I think a lot of people with a lot of different agendas wrote these books, and it was political expediency that eventually pulled the disparate bits together into the form we have today. Your mileage may vary and that’s fine, I’m not going to argue about it because it’s your right to see it as divine. What I will say is that it’s an extraordinary work of literature, and so central to western thought that it really should be required reading though without any baggage either for or against. Just take it as a piece of literature, and understand how it has come to color so much of society.
Carrington: Letters and Extracts from Her Diaries, Garnett — If you’ve ever seen the film, Carrington, you probably think “Oh is that the dreary woman who hung around with that gay guy with the beard?” No. She was not dreary. That film is the main reason why I carry a grudge against Christopher Hampton. Carrington was a bright, funny, earnest, charming young woman who was a member of the younger circle of the Bloomsbury group. She was a painter, but never achieved much fame in her lifetime, and she devoted much of that lifetime to author Lytton Strachey in spite of the fact that, yes, he was gay, and she was deeply ambivalent about sexuality. But to focus on that ambivalence is to utterly ignore everything about her that so enchanted Strachey and his friends. She was another talented, interesting young woman who didn’t quite fit in. Do you see a trend here?
There are a lot of others, and I’m saving a whole group for a later post. If you feel moved to do so, talk to me about books which have similarly affected you.
And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not an Amazon.com associate. Those links are for you, not me.