Jody asked me to write a post as a guest blogger for her blog this morning because she’s feeling down having to think about the prospect of moving and looking for a new job but still likes seeing people visit her blog. Apparently the uptick on her traffic meter makes her happy.
I asked her what I should write about. She said anything I wanted. I asked if I could write about my butt. She said no.
So, I thought I would write about books. There’s a little internet meme going around right now where all the cool bloggers are writing about the 10 books that influenced them the most. I thought about what my list would be like and immediately had a few problems with the concept. First, I often like a lot of books by the same author. I can’t really separate them out. Second, I don’t know that I could stratify them into any sort of rank order. So, instead I’ll write about authors I really, really like and who I can read over and over again. The list will probably be in the ballpark of 10.
A few words before I get started: you may notice that most (if not all) of the authors I like are dead. I don’t know if that’s a comment on my background (lit major in college) or my indictment on how I feel about current literature or what, but there it is. Also, as I was thinking about this list I noticed that many of my choices were what you might call novels of ideas. Not all, but a lot. It’s not that I don’t appreciate good story-telling or a well-developed character, but these are the kinds of books I’m drawn to.
So, here we go:
- Jorge Louis Borges Author of mostly short stories and essays, his Ficciones is one of the most intriguing books I’ve ever read. The story, “The Library of Babel” should be required reading.
- Albert Camus I think he’s a little unfairly known as an existentialist philosopher and linked with Sartre. At the end of the day, he just wrote some damn good novels. The Stranger is probably his most recognized, but my favorite is The Plague about a town quarantined by the bubonic plague and the struggles between the doctor and the priest.
My favorite quote from the book: “Yet after all—since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the Heavens where He sits in silence?”
- John Gardner Usually required high school reading for his novel Grendel, Gardner also wrote The Sunlight Dialogues and a lesser-known but well-loved (by me) The Wreckage of Agathon. He was a creative writing teacher who also wrote a book called The Art of Fiction where he argued that art has to have some sort of moral element. While, I might argue with him on some of his theories, I love his novels. He was, above all, an ambitious writer.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov were my favorites. But when I was in college, I probably read every book he wrote. They’re a little daunting at over 500 pages each, but written with passion.
- Raymond Chandler The father of detective fiction, he’s responsible for creating the penultimate detective, Philip Marlowe, in works like The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep. I like his books because of the lonely morality of his protagonist but mostly because the prose is so incredibly fun to read. For example:
- Chess is the most elaborate waste of human intelligence outside of an advertising agency.
- Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.
- I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday.
- I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle, so he won’t let himself get snotty about it.
- From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class. From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.
- Robert Fagles This one cheats a little bit. He’s a translator of Homer’s works. But here’s the reason I love him, the opening stanza from his translation of The Iliad:
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
Great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
Feasts for the dogs and birds,
And the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
- Graham Greene Probably the greatest modern writer never to get the Nobel Prize. I recommend The Third Man and The Power and the Glory.
- Kurt Vonnegut When he’s on he’s on, but when he’s not, meh. I loved Cat’s Cradle and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.
- Gabriel Garcia Marquez His longer novels can be a bit of a drag sometimes, but his short pieces are close to perfection. Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Of Love and Other Demons are wonderful. And I really like the rhythm of Spanish when it’s translated into English. Makes me feel exotic or something.
- Robert Graves He is the classics scholar turned novelist (and poet). I, Claudius and Claudius the God are two of the best novels ever written. His post WWI-era autobiography, Goodbye to All of That is supposed to be phenomenal. It’s on my list to read.
- T.H. White The Once and Future King is all I’m aware he’s ever written. I guess it could be described as a children’s novel – basically the re-writing of the Arthur legend. But it’s so bittersweet, funny, and moving. I’ll love this book forever.
- Milan Kundera I’ve read most of his books by the Czech novelist, but the one I liked the best was his most famous, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Like Borges, he really struggles with the idea of infinite and where humans fit into it.