one of the very many bookshelves in our house
When Amy tagged me several weeks ago with a meme about one’s top five books, and then Kristen wrote about her dream bookshelf, I decided it was time for me to think about this. It’s heroically difficult for me to name my favorite books, and on any such list I know I will have left off some important titles and writers. But I love reading lists like this from other people, so I wanted to give it a try.
I come by my passion for books honestly. My father has said, famously, early, and often, that “home is where you keep the books.” I grew up tripping over stacks of books (in English, French, and German) and in an environment where it was a game to flip open the Norton Anthology, read at random, and ask the person listening to guess the writer and piece of writing. Dad read us Treasure Island and Swallows and Amazons and Mum made me a Pippi Longstocking Halloween costume one year.
Anne Lamott wrote of her family in her beautiful column for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, “Books and wine were our glue, and so also our grace.” This is such an apt evocation of my own family that it brought tears to my eyes.
With that, here is my attempt to list my favorites. In some cases I’m cheating and listing a few I love from a writer or even a category. People, this is still really hard for me. I know I’m leaving some important writers and words out.
Annie Dillard: Holy the Firm, the Writing Life, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Annie Dillard, more than anyone else, shakes the truth in my eyes that divinity is right here in front of me in the natural world. Her voice is a clarion call that reminds me to open my eyes and to see.
Devotion by Dani Shapiro. To say this book changed my life isn’t an exaggeration. I read Dani’s book and Katrina’s (below) within a couple of months and my entire sense of the world shifted. I felt known and seen – by people who were, at that time, strangers – in a way that was eerie, unsettling, and profoundly reassuring. I understand in a new way the power of memoir and personal writing. I felt a surge of fierce hope: I want to (try to) do even a fraction of that. And then the universe, in its incredible grace, introduced me to both Katrina and Dani. I’m wildly honored to call them both mentors and teachers now. My life has never been the same.
The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison. See above. I’m certain that Katrina’s new book, Magical Journey, will join this list immediately upon my reading it. I’m counting days.
Harry Potter: the whole series by JK Rowling. I’ve written endlessly of my passion for Harry Potter and the world of Hogwarts. I’ve named Dumbledore as my favorite fictional character. School as safe haven, teachers as protectors and guides, the magic that is revealed in learning, the quest to find out who we are, the power of love. Rowling’s world has it all. I’m on my third reading through of the series, and I love it more each time. My faith in this series to transform the reader’s sense of the world and of self is so strong that when I meet someone who is not a Harry fan (which has only happened a couple of times) I am instantly skeptical of them as a person. Literally.
Poetry: The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems by Mary Oliver, The Selected Poems by Wendell Berry. Poetry is my lingua franca. I love novels and memoir but it is in poetry that I feel most at home and to poetry to which I turn when I need solace. Lines of poetry that I know deep in my marrow run through my head all day long, pulled from their residence in my brain – my spirit! – by some subconscious need or impulse whose order I would love to divine. It’s very, very difficult for me to pick favorites, but I think these three are they.
Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient, Divisadero, The Cat’s Table. Ondaatje’s prose is poetry. His lines, like those of Rich, Oliver, and Berry, recur in my thoughts several times a day. The novel I’ve been working on on and off for years is named for a line from one of Ondaatje’s books. His stories stay with me, shimmering, and their messages reveal themselves over time, layers and layers of image and metaphor and sensual detail. If I was forced to name a favorite novelist, it would be Ondaatje.
What is on your dream bookshelf? Please tell me! “What are you reading” is among my most-asked questions, and the various ways that people respond tells me a lot about who they are. “What are your favorite books” is also on that short list of common, and telling, questions.
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