Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers:
“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”
When we are young, reading opens up a whole new world, infinitely grander than the banal existence we desperately want to escape. We measure our tiny lives up against what seem to us the great works of poetry and literature like some Little Leaguer pretending to swing the bat like Yasiel Puig.
Some of us, wanting to be writers ourselves, spend too many early efforts attempting to imitate the style of the writers we adore. That is why any of us who do eventually become writers hold ritual bonfires of our old manuscripts.
This equation changes as we mature. Where once we compared our lives with the works we read, we now — as our own lives become cluttered with failed loves, office politics, medical emergencies, death of parents or worse, death of children, divorces, betrayals, remarriages, trips, arthritic knees and the recognition that a girl who knew all Dante once should live to bear children to a dunce — turn the whole transaction around: As we age, we in turn test the books we read against the truth of our own lives. Instead of questioning whether we measure up to the glory of our favorite books, we question whether the books measure up to the lives we lead.
It is at this point we can comfortably shed any naive idea of the importance of books and instead realize their genuine value. We give up the shadow for the substance.
For me, this includes the books that most vividly capture the whatness and nowness of the experience of being alive, and those books that most precisely and melodically use language to express fresh thought.
As I read, I rub the words between my fingers like a farmer squeezing the spring mud to see if the soil is dry enough to plow and sow. I value less that prose that deals in ideas qua idea, and more deeply appreciate that which can provide me the richness of touch, smell, sight and sound, give me the living thought of human life in all its variety and with the raw tender flesh of a recent wound.
I find this in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Exhibit A. There are complaints that the book is “difficult,” although I cannot see any obstructing difficulty. I find the opening chapters some of the best-written and clearest prose in the English tongue. The so-called “experimental” stuff in ensuing chapters are only difficult if you refuse to surf through them a few times and upon re-re-reading, they become nothing more than a practiced set of chord changes you have mastered on a guitar. Hard at first, but eventually natural.
And the world Joyce gives us is as true as any I’ve found between any covers anywhere.
“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.” This is not merely so descriptive that one can nearly taste the sauteed comestibles, but can do so most because of the sound of the words over the tongue, which is both the organ of language and of gustation. You practically chew the sentence as you speak it, before swallowing and digesting. Feel your cheeks, tongue and lips as you masticate those words.
“He liked the thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”
The world as it is, not as you would have it.
I have also read and re-read many times his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is also full of crystal phrases and accurate observation.
Not so much for Finnegan’s Wake, which I cannot, for the life of trying, even enter, much less transcompass its periplus.
The only other writer I know whose words have such aural weight is John Milton, whose Paradise Lost creates worlds and psychologies that I can recognize in those craggy consonants and melodious vowels. Weigh them out in the index of your Bartletts and you find that none but Shakespeare and the King James Bible can best him for having gifted our mother language with so many memorable phrases so completely digested into the language that for most speakers, they have lost their roots. Milton is one of the inventors of our speech.
But it is the thrust of that language and its vivid imagery that keeps me coming back. I cannot help but weep uncontrollably every time I face those final pentameters:
“The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
There are several poets whose words ring true rather than merely “poetic.” Wystan Auden is the most grown-up poet of the 20th century. There are no castles in his sky.
“I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.”
Check the daily paper for reinforcement of this.
“But love has pitched his mansion
In the place of excrement.”
Or, in words that are closer to the bone than most any I have read:
“Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young,
We loved each other and were ignorant.”
Oh, I want so much to go on. There are so many other books I want to list. When you have been reading for six decades, there are so many that you hold dear to your chest.
But I have tried your patience too long with this series of posts. Through them all I wanted, not merely to share which books have built a person out of me, but how they have done so, in hopes of helping you recognize the same in your own reading life. It is the larger issues that count, not the particular books, which will be different for each of us.
How could I have left off Tristram Shandy, the funniest book I have ever read, or Edward Gibbon, whose irony-drenched sentences pull long loads of dependent clauses and parenthetical complexities — such beautiful writing I cannot hope to approach — or Ovid, dear Ovid, whose Metamorphoses is one of the consoling books of my senescence, and that connects me once again to the long, continuous line of culture of which I am one minuscule link, and I see each writer through history as a flower that turns to fruit and then to seed that turns to seedling, to plant, to flower and to fruit all over again. Each flower like a mouth and each fruit like a word.