Thursday, August 13, 2009

15 Books

This is a Facebook thingy, but I think it says enough about me that I'm posting it here, too.

Okay, I've been tagged by a lot of these. So, I made the list in 15 minutes, but I've taken a lot longer to explain why each is here. I'm not tagging anyone, but it will be here to look at if you want to see it. I have also ignored the rule about the Bible. It totally counts.

The rules, which I have mostly ignored:
Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Tag 15 friends, including me. (I sent this to you because I really am curious what books you have read that have stuck with you. Oh, and the Bible doesn't count!

1. The Holy Bible by God and others
As a whole, it's a great handbook for faith; broken into its constituent parts, there are good and bad works of literature. Oh, boy, but the good is so very good, and is amplified by its insinuation into popular culture.

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
I started to include the entire Chronicles of Narnia here, but I decided against it. I've enjoyed the series, but it is the first book that has always been with me. It is one of the first “grown-up” books (that is, a book with paragraphs and relatively few pictures) I remember reading. I think I have always known it as a Christian allegory, but it is so much more – every child wants to walk into a new world, doesn't he? And doesn't every adult? The adult has just been trained to believe it won't happen.

3. The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
This is a wonderful piece of historical fiction by Michael Crichton that tells the tale of a convoluted plan to rob a train in Victorian England. In true Crichton fashion it features a handful of characters bound together by a stressful situation. It features terrific storytelling. It is rare for me to read books more than once (although nearly every book in this list is an exception); I've probably read The Great Train Robbery a dozen times since I was 10 and it is always within arm's reach of the bed.

4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman
Physicist Richard Feynman's wonderful autobiography is full of omitted truths and included lies. I've read more accurate biographies of Feynman, but they are not nearly so interesting as his own retelling of his life. I was given this book in elementary school, and I think it was the thing that let me know it was okay to apply one's intelligence to try to be an interesting person.

5. The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations by Ellen Conford
When I was entering seventh grade, I could not have been more freaked out. That was probably due to great fears of girls, dancing, social interaction and gym class. My sister, 8 years my senior, did two things for me to try to quell these fears. First, she told me “no one actually dances at dances. When they do, you can pony to anything.” I have found this to be true, and my skills have never moved beyond those of Charlie Brown. The second thing she did was give me a copy of this book. It's about a high school sophomore and her year of school. It is dated – it was written in 1976 – but helped me recognize that there would probably be some other people at school who were uncomfortable, too. It also taught me that in social interactions, bluffing is half the battle.

6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Great American Novel. The Book That Made Me Want To Be a Lawyer. The Book That Became The Play That Made Me Apply To Law School. Every Lawyer Wants to Be Atticus.

7. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
My sister (remember my sister? She got me through middle school) gave me her copy of this book not too long after it was released in English in 1983. She was extremely optimistic – I was a precocious lad, but the Italian translated to English with more than a sprinkling of Latin was a bit much for me. Until high school. I picked it up again, and fell in love with it. It's a classic detective story placed in a monastery. It mixes history, mystery, philosophy and religion in wonderful ratios. And it involves what I consider to be one of the greatest and most important topics in history – the laughter of Jesus. The friends I have who admit to reading Eco have told me (to a person) that they prefer Foucault's Pendulum. I've enjoyed that work as well, but it lacks the mystical quality that The Name of The Rose holds for me.

8. Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
The great historical novel of the 80s that changed how writers thought about historical figures and how they could be integrated into fiction. It's also an excellent musical.

9. The View from Saturday by E. L. Konigsburg
A children's book which I didn't read (because it wasn't written) until I was an adult. Konigsburg beautifully captures what I recall as being the interactions within an “Academic Bowl”-style environment.

10. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
This is one of those books that I avoided reading because of its heft and its “classic” status. I don't think I read it until after college. But it was totally worth the wait. A story with war, spying, romance, hangings, faith, loyalty, international intrigue and an opening passage that is architecturally gorgeous. [As I am writing this, I am watching a documentary about a Harvard – Yale football game. I as I wrote the words “opening passage,” Tommy Lee Jones said “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Freaky.]

11. On Writing by Stephen King
I am a bit startled that the only author to make it on this list twice is Stephen King. But he has earned it. I have read a LOT of “how to write” books, by nobodys and somebodys alike. But King's is the one that I recommend without exception. He gives concrete advice – make this list, write for this long, study these things – that aren't necessary to being a good writer, but which certainly couldn't hurt. I find them to be excellent rules to begin with and to vary from as needed. The book was a gift from my father.

12. Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain
Although I read a lot of Twain growing up, I didn't read this work until law school. I had a terrific Law and Literature course that had nothing to do with the practice of law and everything to do with the practice of law, was the one law school course I had taught by not-legal faculty, and the one I enjoyed more than any other. The quarterback of my high school football team was named Kelly Wilson and it took me far too long to figure out why his nickname was “Pudd'n.” This book, too, is a detective/mystery novel as well as (like so much Twain) a commentary on racism. I wrote about 4 good things in law school and the paper I wrote on this book was the only really good one. I was also given a copy of this by my grandmother a few years before she died. That association probably is why this book is in this list.

13. The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
These books were about the only fiction I read in law school, and I genuinely credit them for helping keep me sane. Rowling's use of language is delicious. The Deathly Hallows is my favorite, but only because it had so much potential to be disappointing and it wasn't.

14. The Black Tower series by Stephen King
This is a series of seven books written by Stephen King, but they are fantasy rather than horror. When I was in high school, I read some Stephen King, and I liked his writing but not his genre. Then I discovered his Richard Bachman stories (books a little less horror-y than his normal stuff, and written under a pen name), which I really enjoyed. Then I re-discovered the first book of the Black Tower series, The Gunslinger. I had been given a copy in Junior High, and had never picked it up. But armed with the new appreciation for King, I read it and devoured it. It took me another 20 years to read the rest of them (and King nearly as long to write them). The series tells the tale of an alternate universe that intertwines with ours, and of a hero who is a cross between a gunfighter and a knight. It covers a lot of territory over the seven books, including King making himself an integral character to the plot. The world(s) and characters are extremely vivid. This, I believe, is the only book that permeates my dreams. I awaken having had intense discussions with the characters. Forced to choose a favorite from this group, I will go with the fourth, Wizard and Glass.

15. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
I listened to this book several months ago, and I don't think a day has gone by when I haven't thought about some element of it. I picked up the CDs at the library and listened to the first few minutes of it, and almost put it away. I'm so glad I didn't. It's a recent novel that tells the story of a pregnant grad student who returns to her familiar home in Templeton, New York. The town of Templeton is the authors' version of and homage to Cooperstown. The story is filled with rich characters, funny beats, great images, and it creates a very satisfying whole.