Top Ten Books, Footnote on a Diploma, Lowest Common Denominator of Lists

I was recently tagged on Facebook with the task of listing ten books that changed me or affected me or that were my favorites. Something like that. I’ve seen variations of this challenge go around, and so while wondering how I could possibly limit myself to ten books, I came across an article by Alexis Kleinman on Huffington Post that called out people for their lists, that argued most people were lying by including things like Ulysses and 100 Years of Solitude. I don’t doubt that some of that is true. Some people just want to look smart and say, “Look, I read Ulysses!” while doing the Homer Simpson chant, “I am so smart. S M R T.” For myself, I’ve read both of those books but remained unmoved by them. That was during my eight years of college, ’87 — ’95 where in various bits I worked and played in bands but still took enough classes here and there to eventually wind up with a degree in English Literature.

Life was simple in those days. I just wanted to read books and play music. And I did. I read much of what Kleinman offered in the list she called bullshit (see the image in her article), and I have to admit that I’d be lying to include those books in my list of ten, with the possible exception of The Things They Carried. Great book, but for me more like a top twenty or twenty five. I could (and can) certainly appreciate the art of the other books, but they didn’t move anything in me. When I finished them, I put them on the bookshelf and carried them from apartment to apartment never feeling the need or urge to pick them up for another go round. The only book on the list that I haven’t read, or attempted to read, is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and because of Kleinman’s article, I’ve added it to my To Read list because it reminded me of Diaz. I loved This is How You Lose Her and would consider it for my top twenty five, maybe top thirty. I wonder if the tale of Oscar Wao is better.

So what, then, is a realistic list for Kleinman?

1. Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone 2. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets 3. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban 4. The Phantom Tollbooth 5. The Hunger Games 6. Fifty Shades Of Grey 7. Gossip Girl 8. A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One 9. The Lord Of The Rings 10. Where The Sidewalk Ends

Uh, no.

That list is as unrealistic as the other one. Is there not one piece of serious literature that moved her more than any of those books? Not one book that contained language so beautiful that passages must be read again and again not for understanding but to simply float along on the majesty of the words? She says in her article that she studied English in college, but if that’s true, it makes me wonder what she read in those classes. What English program was that and how do we direct students to other schools? My own English degree is from Ohio State, and while I doubt its English program is ranked anywhere near the top of anything, I still managed to find one book in my own top ten directly from one class and in another class was introduced to an author who would later pen one of my top ten, one of my top two actually. I also read Ulysses in college and that got me interested in more of Joyce’s work, and thereby I found another top ten entry. Studying English in college has a way of doing that.

And don’t get me wrong. With the exception of numbers 5, 6, and 7, I’ve read all of the books on her list, and with the exception of Fifty Shades Of Grey, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the titles themselves. One of them is even in my own top ten. I have to wonder though. Were those the books she read in those college English classes? I don’t mean to put her down, but I question the simplicity of such a list, especially from a writer and from someone who says she studied English. I have to check, but I think there’s a line at the bottom of my diploma that says the following.

Notice: In order that we, the English Department of the Ohio State University, may maintain a serious academic reputation, inclusion of Fifty Shades Of Grey in your top ten favorite books, even in jest, or even to hint or suggest that it should be there, will render this diploma null and void and require you to wear a patch labeled “50” on the front and back of your clothing for the remainder of your days.

Was Kleinman joking? I don’t know. Maybe the article is just click bait. Maybe I should just ignore it, but I can’t. Her list is the lowest common denominator of book lists, and I have faith in people to read and absorb books, at least sometimes, at a higher level.

As for my own list, here goes. This is more of a chronological list rather than an ordered top ten, and I have read all of these books multiple times.

  1. Old Yeller / Rascal — I read these in third grade I think, maybe fourth. I’m not sure. These two books implanted within me the desire to read.

2. Lord of the Rings — I marveled at these when I first encountered them in middle school and continued to do so all through high school. These books made me want to write, made me want to create whole worlds of my own.

3. No One Here Gets Out Alive — Like many, I went through the “I Want to Be Jim Morrison” phase. I wanted to live like that. The book enhanced my love of the Doors and also of music in general, and of music writing. I owe something to this for the style of my own music writing.

4. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — As I said, Tolkien made me want to write. This book made me want to write literature.

5. To the Lighthouse — I referred to this book twice above. First, it’s something I was required to read for a college course, but even so, it stuck with me. Imagine that. One can study English in college and find some books that mean something, that settle somewhere deep inside you and reside there for years if not for a whole life. Also, it’s one of those books that just has some beautiful writing. That middle section called “Time Passes” is a remarkable piece of writing. Woolf made me want to write beautifully, not just basic prose, but something more, almost poetic.

6. You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense / Love is a Dog From Hell — And speaking of poetic writing, I know Bukowski is a far cry in style from Woolf, but I love his poetry. It’s narrative in a way, beautiful for its non-beauty. His writing reminds me that sometimes you have to remove the artifice and cut right to it.

7. Last Orders — I discovered Graham Swift in college when I had to read Waterland for a Contemporary British Literature class and immediately started reading more of his work, and then in 1997, two years after I graduated, he came out with this gem. It’s such a beautiful book, so deserving of the Booker Prize that it won. It contains what in my mind is one of the most moving passages of literature I’ve ever read (a woman’s goodbye to her grown daughter) and also a chapter that’s only two words long, only two words, and yet, it still works completely, makes me laugh every time I read it. If I was ranking in order of my favorites, this book would be number one or number two.

8. The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship — Again, Bukowski, but here we have him keeping a journal very late in his life. It’s honest, touching, funny. He never takes himself too seriously. I carried this book with me for a couple years during my time overseas, so much so that the cover came off.

9. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World — My introduction to Murakami. I love the duality of the book. The real world is the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” and the subconscious is the “End of the World.” A few years after college, I gave up writing because I knew I wasn’t ready. I needed more life experience, and I needed to read more great books, books worthy of a top ten list. When I read this at the age of 35, this and The Captain is Out to Lunch, that desire to write came back full force. That was a good year of reading for me.

10. The Road — I love the simplicity of the prose, the sparseness, and yet this book is anything but simple. It’s deceptive that way. What a great piece of writing. With Last Orders, it’s my number one or two.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Norwegian Wood The English Patient Unaccustomed Earth High Fidelity Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions The God of Small Things The Things They Carried Dubliners Devil in the White City James and the Giant Peach Curious George