There’s also the expectation that a favorite book is also on your personal “Best Of” list. For me, this simply isn’t so. This is not always the case with me. There are books that I read during a specific time in my life, and that book, as a result, holds a special place in my heart. That doesn’t mean I think it’s the best collection of poems or the best novel I ever read. It does mean that it had the power to touch me at a time in my life when I needed it, though.
This is an ambition that I don’t get to talk about much. When I’m teaching a workshop or doing a Q & A with an audience, they want to get to the heart of it all by finding the Holy Grail of books that will take their writing to the next level. I’m much more interested in a book that changes my thinking. If I can write that book, then I think I’m really doing my job. So, at the very least, I try to keep it as my ambition.
It’s such a subjective experience, though—the reading of a book, the experience of the read—that you can’t expect it to be the same for all people, which is what the Affective Fallacy is all about. Whatever we bring to the read that informs our experience of reading will help shape how we feel about the book once we turn that last page—if we make it that far into it.
In his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov advises that we really only need to “know” five or six books intimately in order to write one. He goes on to annotate several novels, and, once you’re done reading his take on Madame Bovary or even Dr Jekyl & Mr Hyde, you realize, ‘Yeah. There’s a lot to learn even from one book.’ I stopped telling young writers that the best advice I can give them is to read a lot. I tell them to read a few books they love with an annotating mind. I’ve met too many writers who either don’t know the books that changed my life, who haven’t read them, or who simply didn’t like them and those writers seem to be doing just fine. Similarly, I meet writers all the time who tell me of a book I should read or should have read. Sometimes I have read the book, and I didn’t think much of it. In those cases, I often just nod my head so we don’t have to talk about it.
People often are trying to locate themselves in the work, too, which is only natural. That is to say, I connected much more with Dickens than Austen when I was in college, because I related to the struggle of the characters in a Dickens’ novel; I still find Austen to be tedious for me. (See what I mean? I know there are readers out there aghast at that statement. The horror!)
Well, I feel the same way when I meet a poet who doesn’t connect with Langston Hughes or a novelist who doesn’t like Baldwin. I’m thinking, ‘How sad. I’ll pray for you?’ But, again, they seem to be doing just fine without connecting with The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes or Giovanni’s Room: how, I don’t quite know, but they’re walking around like zombies, perfectly happy. Publishing books and giving readings, like I am without any love for Jane Austen.
So, what I realize is that we have to find our way in and then allow that to be a springboard into other reading. I didn’t like Paul Lawrence Dunbar until I really came to understand Hughes. I read Ellison’s Invisible Man, and it helped me connect with Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” which did nothing for me before Ellison talked about the ways in which it moved him. The beauty of this is that these connections can happen later on the timeline of our reading life. Every year, I find myself filing in the gaps in my reading by finding a new way to connect to a writer and his or her work. This truly is a gift. I have something that can stay new to me well after I’m on a walker in a senior living home. Everyone can’t say that.
So, to return to my point, I want to know what are some favorite books out there and why. They don’t have to be the best book since the Holy Bible, either. I’m often curious about what books have moved people at different stages of their lives. And I’m curious about why that book has stuck with you. I’ll offer a few here to get us started:
1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Why is this on my list? It’s the book that’s been on my personal list the longest: It was the first novel I ever read. I grew up in a subpar public school system, so I only read two novels before college, and I read both of them through a summer reading program at my local public library. “Maple Valley Library” in Akron, OH, if you know the poem by Rita Dove by the same name. Great Expectations was the first book to capture my imagination, and as I get older, I can know read it for its craft. Dickens is a master of the sentence, plot, and unveiling the human condition.
2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. I read this book before I dropped out of a PhD program, taking an MA along the way, In Communications from Howard University. It was worth the time there just to be introduced to this book. Whenever I read it-- I just got a new 50th Anniversary edition of it: I can’t wait to dive back in—I realize how much of the human condition can be explained by understanding natural phenomena in our world. That is to say, our personalities and human behavior isn’t that different from how particles behave in the dark.
3. Victims of the Latest Dance Craze by Cornelius Eady. I think Victims is simply a perfectly sequenced book of poems. I read it before I ever even entered an MFA program, not thinking that poetry was in my future when I was working as an environmental journalist in DC. I read this book, and I was blown away by how well an extended metaphor could be used to show so many facets of emotion. When I read this book, it made me want to read more poetry. The poems are subtle and powerful, the sequence is pitch perfect, and the design of the book is ahead of its time. Find the first edition with the pair of Converse All Stars set ablaze on the cover!
Okay, like I said, there are a few of my favorite things. Write back and tell me a few of yours and why. Keep in mind that your list is for today or for this moment in your life. It may change over time, as mine does yearly. The books above have been on my list for some time, Blue Chip reading for me that I continue to dip into. But one day, you never know, these books may fall off my list, and I might even get excited about Pride and Prejudice.