The Book Meme: Day 8

Day 08 - A book everyone should read at least once

I know, I know, it seems like the first thing I do in every one of these entries is take issue with the prompt, but today there's no way around it. I have a few incontrovertible beliefs about literature, and one of them is this: there is no Canon. No divine force has decreed that any book (or any list of books) is required reading. Indeed, the whole idea of "required reading" is one that immediately leads me to ask the question "Required by whom, exactly?" As a teacher I have certainly required my students to read certain books, and the same thing occurred to me when I was a student. That said, outside of a classroom or similar setting, any book will be chosen on a voluntary basis--and consequently, any book may be refused.

This is kind of like my usual grousing about Best Of lists, or lists that Everyone Must Follow Before They Die, which offend me because they're so ridiculously presumptive. Who made YOU the arbiter of what is Best, oh internet listicle creator? I didn't vote for you. And I didn't vote for Harold Bloom, either. When the urge to list your favorite books strikes, accept that as an opportunity to list YOUR favorite books. No more, no less. If you're widely read and thoroughly trained in the assessment of literature, there's a chance that many people will find your list useful, but that's no guarantee. The high list positions commonly granted to the works of Herman Melville and Henry James haven't made one bit of difference in my ability to enjoy either.

In short, when I recommend a book to you--and I am going to get around to that, I promise--I want you to understand that there is no obligation to read it, nor any obligation to agree with me after you've read it. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

But there's still more to unpack here. Why should everyone read this book? Am I looking for a book that will improve the world? A book that will give everyone a few hours of pleasure in a world that's often harsh? A book that will teach an important lesson? A book that's just so beautiful I want everyone to marvel at it like the Grand Canyon? A book that will benefit me in some way?

If the latter, great: I recommend both The Verb 'To Bird' and Along Those Lines, available online and at better bookstores everywhere.

But let's assume it's some other reason--one I'm choosing rather arbitrarily. There are many books I've finished with a feeling of pure satisfaction, but there are only a few that have left me with the powerful desire to begin reading again as soon as I've finished. It wasn't exactly an "I didn't want it to end" feeling--more that I wanted it to begin again, and continue again, and end again, over and over and over.

I remember this feeling most powerfully with A.S. Byatt's Possession, which was a rich garden of literary delights, and anyone with any love of poetry (and the poetry of love in particular) is likely to find it a worthwhile experience.

The complex fairy-tale designs of John Crowley's Little, Big left me in a similar state, almost unable to believe that what I'd read was a single story composed by a single individual; I wanted to go back over it and trace through all the intricacies.

The prose of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale almost pulses with light and heat in places, and its fantastical cityscapes and countrysides are worth exploring in depth; I frequently found myself compelled to stop and read passages aloud to Kelly.

I've been a comics fan longer than I can remember, but I was still absolutely astonished by Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which balanced interiority and interpersonal relationships more beautifully than I could have imagined. It also made for a truly wonderful and inspiring evening of theater in its musical incarnation. Read it, see it.

And most recently, G.B. Edwards' The Book of Ebenezer Le Page wrapped me up and hauled me away to Guernsey; I could not have imagined that a book set entirely on a small island could contain so much of the world--a true microcosm.

You may not like any or all of the above, but I honestly feel they're extraordinary, showing something about humanity and the world we inhabit in a unique way. And if everyone had read at least one of them, I feel as though the world would be a better place. I definitely think the reader would be a better person.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 12, 2018 9:28 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 7 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Book Meme: Day 9 is the next entry in this blog.

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