27 March 2007

Memorable Books

What Books Actually Made a Difference to You Five Years Later?

The seemingly-recent explosion of books, articles, and Internet-fluff made me wonder, "What have I read so far that I actually remember it making some sort of impact on me? What didn't disappear from my short term memory moments after digesting it?"

Those questions have been floating around in my head lately, and I've come up with the following list. If any of you ends up trying this exercise, I'd be interested in the results.


1 comment:

TroopOfChimps said...

You said post, so I'm posting. It's a very, very hard question. I've got so many books which make at least a superficial impact on my life that I don't quite know how to separate out the ones that matter in a larger way -- the ones which have changed how I've thought about things, and so forth.

I'd say The Master and Margarita and Jane Eyre and the Little House on the Prairie books all made a big difference in my life comparatively early on -- I mean around the age of 10 or 12. Those were the only grown-up books I deigned to read. But they made a big impact. For many years I was a dedicated Tolkein geek, but that's pretty much over now; I spent eight or nine years in college and after deeply affected by Martin Buber's I and Thou and Jean Amery's book about the Holocaust whose title I now to my horror forget; the philosophy book I think of most often these days is Sartre's Being and Nothingness (yeah, I know, I know) -- not because I understood it the one time I read it but because I find his definition of bad faith so entirely useful (lying to yourself without even admitting that you're lying to yourself). Also I'm constantly coming back to his position that you can never truly know someone else; I think he's wrong, but I find his claim more memorable than the claims of people I agree with (that's Buber). Philip Hallie's book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed also made a big impression on me -- actually, in particular, the introduction, in which he talks about being desensitized to evil over years of reading about the Holocaust, and then finding himself weeping when he read about a French village which helped save 6,000 Jews.

But except for the first two on that list none of those are books that have anything to do with my work, and my work is books... so of course Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which really is responsible for my dissertation and now my book; and Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales, which was part of what tipped me from reading kid-books to adult-books at the age of 14; and Nabokov's Pale Fire; and Keats; and Yeats, who come to think of it is probably my first love; and Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop and Auden, who are going to be the subject of my next book if I ever finish with the one I'm writing now; and Browning, I come back to Browning quietly, on the sly, without any ulterior teaching-and-research motives, pretty regularly; and Stoppard's Arcadia, which has changed how I think about the interaction of science and literature; and -- oh good grief, this is impossible. Because I find myself wanting to list books that it would be a horrible nuisance for me not to know, books which have been professionally useful to me, say Hamlet, rather than books which are sort of purely personally useful, and that's in part because I can't really draw a line down the middle of my reading self and say "from here on over is all my private reading, and the other side is my work." It all blurs together, the trashy romance novels, and the first two chapters of Sword of Shanarra which even in 8th grade I thought was too bad to finish, and King Lear, all into a big crowd of books which change how I react to everything else later.

Dante. Dante made me learn Italian. Well, let's be realistic: Dante made me study Italian. William Carlos Williams, who makes it harder for me to write poetry. Wallace Stevens. Frost, who makes it bloody impossible to write about birds and always reminds me of my father, even though they're nothing alike. Diana Wynne Jones, particularly Witch Week, which JK Rowling unrepentantly ripped off and debased to make up Harry Potter. Asterix and Tintin.

And then, what counts? George Eliot: she hasn't changed how I think about things, but I come back to her work with relief and gratitude on a pretty regular basis; ditto Dickens. Jane Austen--my life would be poorer without Jane Austen. She doesn't change how I think about the world on the long term, but that's partly because she's one of the ur-sources for how I think about the world; you don't look at the 10 commandments and say, "You shall not kill? odd idea", and I don't look at Jane Austen and say "Human beings are selfish and silly and ripe for satire but also ripe for love? odd idea" for pretty much the same reason.

I can't but feel that my list seems at once pretentious (how many of the Major Novelists can I list at once?) and trivial (where the hell is the non-fiction? I read three philosophy books in college once, and everything since then has been novels and poems). But it's currently accurate, I think.

Why is this so hard, I wonder? I suppose this is why the "greatest novels" lists are all so ridiculous.