Well, this is just ridiculous.
As I write this, I’m looking up at a wall of cluttered bookshelves suspended precariously over the tiny computer nook in my office (otherwise known as my living room), and I’m feeling a bit like Sophie in Sophie’s Choice.
Which is one of the books up there.
This is a nice little library, but it’s just a tiny fraction of the books that have been important to me in my life. So how am I supposed to pick favorites? They’re all good! Most are older works, because I formed the strongest attachments when I was younger, and also because they’re the ones that have stood the test of time. Plus I don’t have room for any more. New books filter through, joining the temporary stacks on the coffee table before being donated to the Salvation Army. I don’t have an e-reader…yet.
As a writer, I find it necessary to constantly refer back to these books, the way that priests must consult their holy texts – religiously (rimshot!). Seriously, though, these are sacred books to me, because I am the product of their teachings. They literally (literally – ha!) created me.
Hmm, what do we have here…let’s see…
There’s fiction and nonfiction, genre and non-genre, poetry, plays, and prose, sheet music, magazines, comic books – all manner of printed stuff and random weird knickknacks. Happy Meals toys, sea urchins, rocks. Everything is arranged more or less by size (what is alphabetizing but a form of Socialist groupthink?) in order to give the rows a reasonably neat appearance (fail!). The trick is finding anything.
What were we looking for? Oh yeah: fiction – both genre and non-genre.
It’s a pretty random mix. Many of my must-read authors are represented by only one sample of their work, often but not always their most famous:
HUCKLEBERRY FINN in the case of Mark Twain, WHITE JACKET for Melville, THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES for Bradbury, THE GRAPES OF WRATH for Steinbeck, GATEWAY for Pohl, JAILBIRD for Vonnegut, HEART OF DARKNESS for Conrad, DEAD SOULS for Gogol, A ROOM WITH A VIEW for Forster, JUDE THE OBSCURE for Hardy, THE STAND for King, HARD TIMES for Dickens, STARSHIP TROOPERS for Heinlein, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE for Burgess, 1984 for Orwell, ELMER GANTRY for Sinclair Lewis, I AM LEGEND for Matheson, JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR for Daniel Defoe, and so on. The Majors.
My collection has been torn down and rebuilt many times over the years, but I’ve tried to preserve at least one example of each important author. I haven’t succeeded: I’m embarrassed to say I don’t at present own even one book by Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Kafka, William Gibson, Cormac McCarthy, Dostoyevski, Homer, Larry Niven, Harry Harrison, Tolstoy, Mishima, Hemingway, James Cain, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Berger, or scores of others that I admire and think essential.
Actually, some of the more obscure authors in my pantheon are better represented than the giants: I have several books by morbidly funny Irish author Patrick McGinley, and almost the full complement of Charles Portis.
And not to suggest that Robert Graves is so obscure, but I’ve got both his Roman epics, I CLAUDIUS and CLAUDIUS THE GOD, as well as a complete Nathaniel West, Tolkien’s greatest hits, and a bunch of stuff by Jack Kerouac, including his 2-volume SELECTED LETTERS, which is a great help in coping with the doldrums of writing life.
It makes it easier if an author wrote a bunch of books, but only one that I really loved (or happened to read), such as with INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, CATCH-22, JAWS, THE EXORCIST, ON THE BEACH, CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, WATERSHIP DOWN, LORD OF THE FLIES, MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, THE WAR OF THE END OF THE WORLD, REMAINS OF THE DAY, HEART OF DARKNESS, DELIVERANCE, DUNE, PERFUME, SGT. GETULIO, DON QUIXOTE, THE MAGUS, LOLITA, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE SHELTERING SKY, DRACULA…
Enough – stop!
Phew. But you see my point: I’ve barely scratched the surface here, focusing only what’s literally within arm’s reach, and already the list of my favorite novels has become unwieldy. Yet to arbitrarily trim some out would be pointless – if anything, the list should be a lot longer. Not that I have the energy.
Looking at this list, it occurs to me that the element connecting many of these books is an underlying (or even explicit) sense of humor. However dark the subject, my favorite books tend to be kind of funny. Kafka thought of his books as comedies (he couldn’t stop laughing as he read passages to his friends), and I guess that’s what I seek most in literature. Black comedy. Satire. Tragedy so grim one can only laugh.
I admit to being somewhat jaded. I’m not big on sentimentality, on comforting illusions of Good and Evil, and neither are most of these authors. They see life as the bleak and wonderful mystery that it is, and help us to not take it quite so seriously. That to me is the highest goal of art.
Thanks for reading!