Dear Lily June,
Oscar Wilde once famously quipped,
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
Of course, the irony is that if I’d never been assigned a collection of Wilde essays in a graduate school course on Emerson, I might never have read his quotation. So maybe this is one of those “If he’s so smart, why’s he dead?!” moments?
After all, what’s his definition of “have to“? When I was a college instructor, I assigned hundreds of thousands of pages of readings (over the years), and my students often didn’t feel any more compelled to read them than to read the pages of my syllabus listing the pages they should be reading.
Is there any scenario where one might be forcibly compelled by circumstances beyond their control (other than, say, a genetic predisposition towards literary passion) to read? Are there terrorist librarians (terrbrarians? librarorists?) holding others’ imaginations hostage? Are they issued weapons?
One hopes they’d need look no further than an onomatopoeic flag gun.
But then, for your mother, Lily June, just having to spell the word “onomatopoeia” feels vaguely threatening.
In the meantime, I quibble with a dead Wilde because most of the books below were, at some point, assigned to me for school (and thus I “had to” read them), and yet, they’ve stuck with me long past the experience of discussing them in classrooms. They’ve made me, in large part, who I am when I can’t help it, even if no teacher is looking.
I pick up where the first post left off…
10. Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger…
…would actually have been better served if I’d never learned that it was my eleventh-grade English teacher’s favorite book, too, and that he, like me, had a dog-eared copy he lovingly thumbed through almost annually. He was the kind of English teacher who thought mocking his students was a classroom motivator and making the smart kids (he taught Honors and AP) cry, a fringe benefit.
I took every chance I could get to non-violently protest his class by pulling out a book we weren’t obligated to read in it, especially while he was talking. After he told me that I’d never go to college, I was all too happy, a couple of years later, to come back to high school for a visit after I’d been attending university to write on his blackboard, for all of his current students to see, that I’d done it without him.
Maybe it’s not all that surprising, then, that we shared a love of a book about a girl experiencing a crisis of identity in a family of geniuses when she decides she can’t get by in a world where everyone else seems so pretentious and/or phony.
“I’m sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody.”
11. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
It was in that same teacher’s class, though, that I was forced to read Kafka’s absurdist work about a man who turns into a bug when his family disregards his value to them. I hated it. I wrestled and wrestled with an interpretation of it that might seem original, blow my stodgy old “ONE right answer to every literary text” teacher out of the water (was he really a bug? was it mental illness? an afterlife, hell or purgatory?).
I never did find the “right” answer. But in struggling against the forces of my own perfectionism–especially in trying to please others–I got it. And I felt somehow strangely relieved knowing that Kafka, too, struggled with everything he’d every written, begging his friend and literary executor, Max Brod, that all of his unpublished manuscripts be burned, unread. (As a writer, I’m compelled to say both thank you and *@^# you, Brod, for ignoring him.)
12. Brave New World by Alduous Huxley
This book, which I read when I was only a sophomore, has influenced me heavily over the years, even though, as if in a soma-induced haze, I mostly only remember it in bits and pieces. I know the people in this dystopian novel medicated their problems away. As the daughter of an alcoholic, that coping mechanism was not lost on me.
What perhaps was most moving, though, was the text’s ultimate message, so similar to the moral of The Giver that I’d loved as a child, that pain has its value and its meaning. That our sorrow, our insanity, our despair and anger and unhealthiness–all of it serves some purpose, heightens our pleasure and joy by being the currency by which we purchase our temporary reprieves. It was, ironically, a relief to me to learn the lesson: Life isn’t about being happy all the time, and if you are, maybe you’re not doing it right, with enough risk or at least compassion.
“… ‘What you need,’ the Savage went on, ‘is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.'”
Honorable Mentions: Naked, David Sedaris; Maus, Art Spiegelman; The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran
13. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare…
…was given to me by a friend, one of my best from high school, Wanda, and I treasured it. I carried it with me around college like I was duty-bound to finish the damn brick of a thing. No one made me read it, though I would of course be exposed to multiple Shakespeare’s plays in my time at college (and had already had my literary inoculations of him in high school, injected as he is into each developing brain to prevent illiteracy).
Over the course of 4 years, I read all 1,488 pages, every play and each of the sonnets. I’m given to understand that some college students drink, do drugs, have copious amounts of sex or at least interact with human beings that aren’t found on pages. That wasn’t my thing. This was, and I was freakishly addicted.
“Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books, / But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.”
14. The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
It’s an ironic book to fall in love with in college. And yet, the whole premise behind The Idiot is that to be good, kind, pure, and compassionate, one must, in this modern world, be completely a fool. I read it for an entire course on the major novels of Dostoevsky, and it stuck with me like the memory of reading it itself did. My boyfriend at the time, Brett, had a job working security at a park, guarding, I kid you not, carousel horses on the graveyard shift.
Sometimes, he’d take me to work with him, and I’d sneak into coffee shops or the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning through any door I could find that was unlocked at 3:00AM, and I’d start reading like the world was caving in, and reading was all that was going to save me. It was in such a fury/fervor/fever that I read The Idiot, delirious with the premise that everything that I was learning in college wasn’t getting me any closer to being a decent human being.
“I almost do not exist now and I know it; God knows what lives in me in place of me.”
15. Galatea 2.2, by Richard Powers…
had, in some ways, the diametrically opposite plot of The Idiot. A writer, crippled by the memories of the one true love he lost, suffers from writer’s block. He’s conscripted by a scientist to partake in an experiment: To teach a computer (dubbed Helen) to produce a literary analysis as well as a human might.
In teaching the computer about literature and love, Powers regains some of his own humanity, and in reading the book, I regained some of my old passion for my English major, even despite regular bouts of reader’s fatigue. That I read it on my hour commute through downtown Pittsburgh to campus, that the noises of traffic and crowds were part of its background static, strangely brought it alive for me.
“Speech baffled my machine. Helen made all well-formed sentences. But they were hollow and stuffed–linguistic training bras.”
16. Dancing in Odessa, by Ilya Kaminsky
My attachment to this book is complicated by the fact that it was one of the first books of contemporary poetry I ever read. That I took one creative class where I read it as a student, then got a grant to co-teach another creative writing class where it was one of the primary texts. That I received the single full scholarship to a writer’s conference in Port Townsend where Kaminsky was teaching, and that, when I got there, he told me I could write beautiful poetry, and that I shouldn’t go to school for it. He said that poetry was made of life, and that I ought to go live it before I simply studied it.
Which was heartbreaking to me as his book was one of those that had made me, just before that conference, apply to MFA programs in the first place. He was from the former Soviet Union, and was deaf, so he had an accent like Sesame Street’s the Count when he’d scream into your face that, to revise a poem, your job was to take what you’d already written, cut everything that didn’t work, and work to make everything left “more beautiful.” And I had to give his book this: Kaminsky knew beauty.
“…all I want is a human window / in a house whose roof is my life.”
17. Centuries, by Joel Brouwer…
…was the book that decided, for me, where I wanted to go to graduate school. As the first poetry book I’d ever open in college, it, like Kaminsky’s Dancing shattered all my illusions about what poetry could–or should–be. I’d never even heard of a prose poem before, and yet, here was an entire collection of poems that looked like paragraphs and read like scalpels dancing over your brain, changing your neuroactivity. Each poem was tight, only 100 words long to be precise (hence the title).
I thought following Joel Brouwer wherever he taught (which happened to be the University of Alabama) would sharpen my tongue and wit on his intellect’s stone. That it didn’t doesn’t change my affections for this text in the least, and all the caustic and compassionate and careful vignettes contained therein.
Honorable Mentions: Ariel, Sylvia Plath; Against Which, Ross Gay; Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut; Catch-22, Joseph Heller; The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
18. Notes for My Body Double, Paul Guest
If I thought the most important reading of my life was ahead of me when I entered grad school, I was soon disabused of that idealism. Reading as a critic stripped so much of the joy of poetry from me that I finally understood what Kaminsky had tried to teach me about taking time off from school. I read voraciously, but less with my eyes than with my teeth. A book had to be incredibly moving to startle me anymore, which happened less and less.
This book, with all of its poetic and philosophical musings about the body and its pains, did it for me. It had wit, poignancy, and originality (the literary trifecta), and I remember being particularly moved by a perfectly paced poem about Godzilla. Your dad and I so bonded over its poems about monsters and fear that we drove over a thousand miles to watch the poet read. It was only there that we learned the poet, Paul Guest, was quadriplegic, and read his book with a stick between his teeth to turn its pages. Suddenly, the poem’s sad queries about the body sent a shiver through me. It pays to know, not just what, but who you’re reading.
“This is before / I hung in the elevator’s throat / and waited for the world / to catch back up, for the world to spit back / lost time.”
19. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders
After your father and I had truly, deeply fallen in love, we decided to take a grad class together. It was the Worst. Class. Ever. Supposedly themed around writing “humor,” we ended up reading stodgy critical theory about the neuroscience of laughter or horribly depressing (but sarcastic) short stories about babies who are dropped or develop cancer. It was as if our teacher had vaguely heard of humor once, but had no idea where to find it or, if she did, how to make it sit still long enough for us to study it.
That should have been clear to us when she turned to your dad, whose long-term graduate-level project often revolved around child abuse, and suggested that he try to make it “funnier.” Guffaws were hard to come by that semester, so it may be that, by the time we got to the course’s real meat-and-potatoes of funny, we were skin-and-bones starved for humor. But for George Saunders, we might not have made it. In rereading the absolutely absurdist (yet sharply accurate) short stories critiquing America’s consumerist culture, I still find them brilliantly hilarious, especially the unfathomably off-the-wall titular piece.
Can you think of another story where you’ve read a sentence like this (not even close to the strangest sentence in the whole collection)?
“‘They insulted a T. Rex who just really loves Coors,’ says the polar bear with the axe in his head.”
20. Collected Essays, Ralph Waldo Emerson
You can’t throw a stone in America without hitting an Emerson quotation. Like Dostoevsky, he was a pretentious, overly-analytical, stodgy old dead white guy. And I loved him, in large part, because I had a brain-crush on the professor who taught a semester-long class on him. When asked, for instance, how our essays–meant to be lyric responses and imitations of the texts we were reading (a series of Emerson’s essays, and the subsequent works inspired by them)–would be graded, he responded, “Oh, I don’t know. How about idiosyncratically on the basis of my personal quest for truth and beauty?” (Can we see a rubric on that, professor?)
And he was true to his word, as fiery and passionate about the famed transcendalist’s essays as he was about each of his student’s works (that he would use as the basis of discussion for the next set of Emerson texts). An embarrassing amount of your mother’s core values on individuality or solitude came, ironically, from Emerson, which he himself accounts for when he writes (and better words I can’t think of to end these posts on influential books),
“Our best thoughts come from others.”
Honorable Mention: Birds of America, Lorrie Moore; Duino Elegies, Rainier Maria Rilke; Collected Sonnets, Edna St. Vincent Millay; Green Squall, Jay Hopler
- By Johannes Jansson/norden.org, CC BY 2.5 dk, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25009679
- By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3262018