Tuesday, December 17, 2013

This is not the Facebook-mediated list of books that have "stayed with you"

If you're on Facebook and if you devour books, you have undoubtedly been asked to list 10 books that have "stayed with you" - and then to ask 10 of your friends to do the same. I got a barrage of requests all in one afternoon, accompanied by formidable book lists heavy on theologians and literary novelists.

No way was I going to join that game of intellectual one-up. I was feeling too much like Charlie Brown in one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons. Linus and Lucy have been discussing what they see in the clouds: the map of British Honduras, for example, or a profile of the sculptor Thomas Eakins. When they ask Charlie Brown what he sees, he replies, "Well, I was going to say I saw a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind!"

Still, I started wondering what my book list would look like, should I be brave enough to post it. It wasn't going to be easy to find out: faced with such a question, my mind goes completely blank. I couldn't peruse my bookshelves, since nearly all my books are in storage (we're getting ready to move). Fortunately--since I have a hard time remembering what book I read last week and therefore can't make intelligent conversation at parties--I've been keeping reading lists since 1997.

So I read all 17 of my lists and was amazed at how many books I've apparently read that I can't recall ever hearing of. I was also amazed to see that a book I discovered just this year--Kate Atkinson's Case Histories--was also on my list from 2005. No wonder I wrote in a review that it "sounded eerily familiar": and here I thought it was because I'd seen it on Masterpiece.

Clearly if a book sticks with me, it must be great. Or not: I do remember Jill Conner Browne's Sweet Potato Queens Big-Ass Cookbook and Financial Planner, but I don't think I'd put it among the all-time greats.

Eventually I came up with a list after all. It's not an entry in the Facebook game. For one thing, it's not off the top of my head, since no books reside there. For another, it includes way more than 10 books. Besides, my list is annotated and has subheads and links!

Fiction and Poetry
Being quite capable of getting depressed without outside assistance, I prefer books (and movies) that make me happy--especially if they involve mythical places and bygone days.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder, the entire Little House series, discovered when I was 8 and read over and over to myself and eventually to my daughters. I still own a hardcover set and will probably read them again one of these days. I have never analyzed their appeal.
  • L. Frank Baum, The Land of Oz and The Tin Woodman of Oz. My strong-willed Great-Aunt Blanche gave me these books when I was 10 years old. My mother disapproved of fantasy, but she approved of politeness. Besides, she was just slightly afraid of Great-Aunt Blanche. My heart leapt up when I saw the books but instantly subsided at the thought of my mother's likely reaction to them. I looked to her for guidance, and she was vigorously nodding. I accepted the gift with joy, and never feared fantasy thereafter.
  • C.S. Lewis, the entire Narnia series, but especially the first and the last books (though the Bacchanalian feast attended by Aslan in Prince Caspian is hard to beat). Aslan on the stone table, Aslan romping with the Pevensie children through fields of daisies--what more theology does anyone need?
  • J.K. Rowling, the entire Harry Potter series. I want to go to Hogwarts, especially if Slytherin could just be shut down.
  • Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April (I'm so excited--I just got it free on my Kindle!). I fell in love with the movie before I knew there was a book. The book is better: funnier, and the humor has more bite. Also, it has staying power: it was published 69 years before the film version.
  • Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night. It's refreshing to read about a woman who is loved more for brains than for beauty.
  • T.S. Eliot, Complete Poems and Plays. To be honest, I haven't read the plays, and I don't understand most of the poems (the Book of Practical Cats being an exception). But I love them and keep coming back to them, and would probably take this book with me if I had to be stranded on that mythical bookless desert island.
My fantasy-averse mother (see comment on the Oz books above) eventually relented and let me read fiction (even if Great-Aunt Blanche wasn't there) as long as I balanced it with an equal number of nonfiction books. The nonfiction category I came to prefer could loosely be called "wisdom literature" (my favorite biblical book is Ecclesiastes). If fiction could take me away from my daily life, nonfiction could help me live more fully in it. Here are some enduring favorites.
  • C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed. What stayed with me about this book was not its chronicling of Lewis's grief or its wisdom on how to handle grief. It was Lewis's deep, passionate, heart-rending love for a bristly, brilliant woman--a serious version of Lord Peter's passion for Harriet Vane in Gaudy Night. For a gangly girl raised in the 1950s, better at academics than at flirting, this was wonderfully affirming.
  • Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture. This book would make my list if only for its title (I also own a book called The Joy of Not Working). It's not about laziness. It's about making time for what truly matters.
  • Niles Newton, Maternal Emotions. If you want to read this one, you'll have to get it used. It's a 1955 monograph, probably a dissertation, subtitled A Study of Women's Feelings Toward Menstruation, Pregnancy, Childbirth, Breast feeding, Infant Care, and Other Aspects of Their Femininity. I read Newton when I was teaching childbirth classes. She opened my eyes to the important distinction between being female and being culturally feminine.
  • Jacques Ellul, Money and Power. Amazon is mistaken: I didn't edit this book, I translated it. I'm glad I did, because I was forced to pay close attention to what Ellul was saying about the near-demonic power of money as it subverts the kingdom of grace. If you want to know why you can't serve God and Mammon, read this book. Ellul often sounds impractical--but then, so did Jesus.
  • Elton Trueblood, The Common Ventures of Life (another book you'll have to buy used). I first read this when I was 16, reread it when my first child was a baby, reread it again once the kids had left home. In a few years I may have to read it a fourth time: the "common ventures" Quaker philosopher Trueblood discusses are marriage, birth, work, and death. A very grounding book for someone at home in Narnia and Hogwarts.
Back to the ducky and horsie: though these are the books that have stuck with me, my everyday reading doesn't look much like this list. Right now, for example, I'm reading the newest Bridget Jones.


poetreehugger said...

You had me at "devour books".
I thank you (though my longsuffering husband may not) for your many additions to my books-I-want-to-add-to-my-collection list.

This is me, and an apology I wrote to my husband:
Yes, yes, there will be cake that I will make.
But now there is book and I must look
Into what's in it, just for a minute
Or maybe an hour, a day, a year,
Forget for a while what's now and here.
Yes, yes, I will clean, fill the washing machine,
But think of the words skimming like birds
And taking me far from where we are
To wonderful, frightening or spellbinding places
New worlds and old stories and familiar faces.
There will be food put on table again,
But I'm reading now and can't promise when.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to give you a book recommendation (which you may have read already) Victoria Sweet's book, God's Hotel especially with your interest in health care. I've been pressing this book onto everyone I know. Also Dr. Sweet wrote a recent article in the NYT that you might enjoy: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/04/health/florence-nightingales-wisdom.html.

I always find your blog interesting - Thank you!