A while back in the Letters section of this august journal there was an ongoing impromptu forum discussing folks’ top ten literary pics. I enjoyed reading our readership’s lists and was by turns impressed, amused, charmed, repelled, enamored, and sometimes a little skeptical regarding your choices. I'm pretty sure a few of you fudged on your lists to sound more erudite and sophisto.
For instance, those who chose turgid sociopolitical manifestos — I'll grant that you own them, and you may even have read them. Mayhaps you even derived something from them. But was it enjoyment? Really? And, I'm sorry, but Ulysses is no one's favorite book. I'm not sure anyone has ever actually read it.
But I’m not about to hate on what anyone has read or pretended to read because despite what I may have said to the contrary in a satirical letter recently printed in these very pages, one should not be ashamed by one's tastes. I myself have decidedly lowbrow tendencies in the area of situation comedies and will happily enjoy reruns of Mr. Belvedere or Charles In Charge for hours on end. I also watched the entire runs of both Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place and can (and often do) discuss character and plot points from those shows to this day.
Clearly, I'm not ashamed of this and neither should anyone else of anything they like that doesn't conform to the standards of the canon or their peer group or educational background or the bounds of taste and decency. Let your freak flag fly!
I wanted to participate in that discussion but was unable to compile a list I was comfortable with. I knew that immediately on posting it I would remember ten others I liked more and would feel like I had betrayed. I've read a lot of books. I did a rough calculation and it comes to around one weighed shitload. I doubt I'd ever be able to narrow down ten favorites.
But there are some books I would single out for their nearness to my heart, books I return to again and again year after year that hold no surprises but form an essential part of my makeup. Books that made lasting and profound impressions on me and I continue to nest snugly on those impressions when I pick them back up.
Here following are a few of those books and authors who have made my life a little more livable in their way.
I'll begin this with a little story.
In 2002 I was in Colorado Springs standing (yet again) amid the rubble of my recently ruined life. Freshly wife- and job-less, I flew to southeast Texas to commiserate with an old friend. Said friend was subsidizing a wicked pill habit through fraudulent enrollments at several Houston area pain clinics so I spent the next three months obliterating my woes with vodka and OxyContin.
One night while driving to the liquor store I was arrested for something I had absolutely no involvement in. It was a serious charge and one that, if convicted, could result in me enjoying the hospitality of the Texas Department of Corrections for the rest of my natural life.
Being innocent, I wasn't a bit worried and in fact laughed at the arresting officers. I figured I would be sprung once we got to the station and their mistake was discovered. But the first thing they did was bring in an eyewitness who fingered me. I was charged, processed, and housed in the hole, where followed the worst two weeks of my life.
I shook, sweated, seized, screamed, hallucinated, cried and puked pretty much nonstop. When the worst of it had passed, a guard came in and handed me a piece of paper informing me that the grand jury and returned a true bill, i.e. voted to indict and bind me over for trial.
I decided right then that I was through. I was going to write a few letters of explanation and then have done with the whole stupid stinking mess. Like any self-involved addict perpetually soaring on the crests and wallowing in the troughs of life, I had toyed with the idea of suicide before, but this was the first and only time I really meant to go through with it.
I was lying on my rack bolstering my resolve when a volunteer walked through with some books. Did I want one? Sure, I said. I wasn't dead yet. She handed me something called Stone Junction by Jim Dodge. I began reading and when I put the book down several hours later I had both feet firmly planted back in the land of the living.
It wasn't anything dramatic, the clouds didn’t part to reveal a beam of purest sunshine accompanied by heraldic trumpets, but reading that gorgeous and uplifting fairy tale reminded me of just how much there was to enjoy about life, imprisoned or no. That book quite literally saved my life. I've since read it in considerably less straightened circumstances and I am always utterly charmed and enchanted by Daniel's journey.
In an interesting footnote, after resolving that whole Texas mishegoss, I found myself quite by accident in Mendocino County — Albion specifically, right near where much of the book played out. Odder still, in a strange chain of events involving Ruth Weiss, a pair of leather pants, and the San Francisco mayoral race, I was able to meet the author. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield. Not even my favorite Dickens -- that would be Bleak House -- but something about Master Davy’s travails and redemption keeps me coming back. The most earnest and endearing of all Dickens heroes, and supported by the greatest cast of characters ever dreamed up.
Louis de Bernieres, Corelli's Mandolin. Many of my favorite books are much more than one thing and more than the sum of their parts and this is a perfect example. It is a satire, a romance, an historical novel, a war novel, and more. It is hilarious and sad and poignant and silly and moving and when I first read one particular pivotal point in which was described the most perfect scene of love and selflessness ever put to paper, I was quite literally overcome and could not continue until the next day. Brilliant book. (Horrible movie.)
T.H. White, The Once and Future King. This book is pure comfort food. The Arthurian legends retold with wit and verve and in my opinion really the only readable account.
J.K. Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces. As fictional characters go, Ignatius J. Reilly makes my top five list every time. He is the prickliest, most vicious and irascible social critic ever and even after dozens of readings I still laugh out loud.
P.G. Wodehouse, Anything. There are actually very few things in life I'd rather do than sit down with Bertie and Jeeves. He is a perfect wizard of language and while it may be "farce" or "like candy," nobody but nobody can do what he does. There are still 25 or so of his books I have not read which I shall space out over the remainder of my life so as always to have something new to enjoy.
Mark Twain, Collected Short Works. The Greeks may have invented and codified satire, but Twain perfected it. He is the spiritual father of modern humor and still cracks me up although when I get to the end and read The Mysterious Stranger I'm always saddened by his clear loss of faith in humanity.
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove. I have a love/hate thing with McMurtry. Sometimes his mission to make everyone as sad as he is wears on me and the pathos becomes tedious, but I can forgive nearly anything of the man who gave us Captains Call and McRae.
W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage. I came to this book already well into adulthood which is a shame — every confused, directionless and searching adolescent/young adult should read this. Proof that our struggles are eternal and timeless.
Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Novels. It is billed as a fantasy, but it's no place any right minded person would dream up or dream of visiting. Gormenghast and its inhabitants are dark, clammy, creepy and unsettling. There's no one to root for and no hope for anyone. So why do I keep returning there? He has wrought with words a terrible and compelling vision, complex, beautiful and deeply affecting.
Michael Chabon, The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. It's kind of a perfect novel. Every necessary element is lovingly attended to and beautifully drawn. All the right buttons are pushed and the result is immensely satisfying. If what I've described sounds formulaic, it's not except insofar as it could be held up as an example of masterful craftsmanship. It's a grand adventure and a joy to read every time.
Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code. I'm kidding of course. People who encourage this sort of trifling dreck by purchasing, borrowing or even discussing it should be flogged in the public square at midday.
Happy reading, everybody!