A couple of weeks ago I got tagged on Facebook to “name 10 books that have stayed with you in some way.” “Don’t take more than a few minutes,” the instructions read, “and do not think too hard.”
Here’s why I’ve delayed responding: Books that I’ve read are always popping into my head, and I hardly have to think at all (let alone “hard”) before the memory of one book leads to an association with another (or several others), and the chain gets pretty long pretty fast if I don’t put the brakes on. They expect me to shut up after only ten books? Do my Facebook friends know me at all?
But let’s have a go—onward and associatively—and see where we end up.
Catch-22 is the obvious place to start. I reference the opening lines, and Clevenger’s trial, and the soldier in white, and the soldier who saw everything twice, and the character who was an old man when he died at age 19, and plenty of bits of Yossarian’s dialogue (in French even: “Ou sont les neigedens d’antan?”) on a fairly regular basis. That’s some catch, that catch-22. (“It’s the best there is.”)
And now I’m off on other war stories: Tim O’Brien’s classics, Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried; Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five; Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (the last two much more about homefront America than the wars they meditate on).
Set aside science fiction wars, though I’m sure a much younger me would have had Starship Troopers on the list; but don’t abandon science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and his short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” two different takes on some big questions about human existence. (I’ll digress to mention one more short story by a genre writer, “[X] Yes” by Thomas M. Disch, which is most haunting for the details it leaves out; and actually, a month doesn’t go by that I don’t mention Disch’s novel Echo Round His Bones and its very disturbing premise.) And then Philip K. Dick’s various takes on the big questions, in novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (probably my favorite of his books and, strangely, still not a movie); not to mention his twisty take on alternative history, The Man in the High Castle, with its doubly altered outcome for World War II. (I see now that the Library of America is on my wavelength, having collected those three novels, plus the delightfully trippy Ubik, into a single volume.)
And I do love that alternative history: Keith Roberts’ Pavane (the Spanish Armada restores Catholicism to England), Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (the south wins the Civil War). And thinking of the era of great postwar SF, I’m always recommending George Stewart’s Earth Abides, the first great “ecology science fiction” novel; and then there’s the psychological acuity of Algis Budrys’s Rogue Moon and Who?, which makes me think about Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco.
But I almost lost the thread of big questions, in particular religious ones, something I ought not do without mentioning Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah (which I describe as Moby Dick meets God is dead).
Religious non-fiction sticks with me too, with Karen Armstrong’s book about the Axial Age, The Great Transformation, and Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, which challenges the easy truism that all religions are aiming at the same ultimate ideas, and which maybe gets an unintended response in Sandy Eisenberg Sasso’s splendid children’s picture book In God’s Name, beautifully illustrated by Phoebe Stone. (And I can’t bring up any children’s books without pausing to extoll Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee.)
Big questions get a memorable workout in Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, and the admonition the narrator directs at himself on the final page (“Be one person!”) shakes me up every time I think about it (and makes me think of the story of Rabbi Zusya on his deathbed, though that connection may indicate that what I took from the line is different from what Pirsig meant by it).
Around the time I read Zen and the Art, I also read a book called The Unchanging Arts, which really changed my sense of how to think and talk about art—not in terms of whether something qualifies as being art, but in terms of what art does.
The time I read those books would have been the mid- to late 70s, and now I realize that only three of the books I’ve mentioned so far were published in the current century. Coming up to speed, there’s Cloud Atlas (which probably would have shown up as #2 after Catch-22 if I’d been ranking these as favorites); I can’t forget David Mitchell’s follow-up novels either—Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet (and though I think his new one, The Bone Clocks, has some serious flaws, I’m pretty sure its main character will stay with me for a long time).
Mitchell leads me into the whole realm of “good” books–good in the sense that the level of the writing is high and the concerns of the author are important, and also good by virtue of brimming with story (maybe “plot” is a better word) and characters that keep my full attention—like the aforementioned Moby Dick or (how could I have gone this long without bringing it up?) Huckleberry Finn. Put Robertson Davies high up on this list for me: his interrelated novels like the Deptford Trilogy (especially the first volume, Fifth Business) and the Cornish Trilogy, but also standalones like The Cunning Man. More recently, the Irish novelist Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies took its place in my personal canon of unforgettables, and boy, did I like a novel I read just a couple of weeks ago, Your Face in Mine by Jess Row—an indelible story about race that posits a way in which race might itself not be so indelible.
Great writing and great story and “written in the 21st century” come together in a couple of genre books I’ve been pressing on friends for the last few years: Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World and China Miéville’s The City and the City, both of them mindbenders, and genre-benders too. Speaking of genre-busting (and going back to the 70s)…William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel is a detective novel and occult novel rolled into one, and for the entire time I was reading it, I assumed it would have to “decide” to be one or the other, but it didn’t; it’s both.
OK, running out of quick, random associations—not out of books, but remember, I’m not supposed to be thinking too hard (and I’ll resist adding titles that come to mind even as I’m writing these words). So I’ll end with two comic books, and surprisingly, given the degree to which comics are a part of my life, it’s easy to stop with two that for me stand head and shoulders above the rest. One is the first comic I ever read, an issue of Sheldon Mayer’s Sugar & Spike. I don’t know which issue it was—hey, I was five years old—but Mayer was brilliant, and Sugar & Spike was brilliantly conceived and executed; it was just the thing to put in front of a susceptible child who, upon first exposure to what comics are and what they do, could intuit that this was something breathtakingly wonderful, and that the only response to reading one was to demand more.
The other comic is actually a reprint of stories that were then a couple of decades or more old. In 1966, Harvey Comics published a giant-sized (it cost a quarter) collection featuring some of Will Eisner’s greatest Spirit stories from the newspaper-insert comic he began in the early 40s. I’d never heard of Eisner or The Spirit before then; there was nothing on the cover to indicate that these stories were classics or exemplars of the best of what comics can do. But the latter fact was easy to discern, and these relics (in both senses, that of being ancient and that of possessing an almost sacred quality that made them worthy of veneration) awakened me with the force of revelation.
Over the years, I’ve bought plenty of Eisner’s books, many in beautiful hardcover packages. But when I met the man himself at a Motor City Con in the 90s where we were both guests, and I could choose any one of those books for him to sign (the con was close enough to home to drive there each day), there was only one I wanted his autograph on: my battered, beloved, 30-year old copy of Harvey Comics’ The Spirit #1.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have books to read.