I’ve seen a couple lists of people’s favorite books and authors lately that inspired me to think about what my own list would look like. But what springs to mind is not a list of my favorite books so much as a list of the books that have transformed my thinking about books. Perhaps the two lists are actually the same. I’m not sure. But a list of transformational books seems different somehow. These are books that have changed my idea of what it’s possible to write about and how it’s possible to write. They are the books that excite me and make me want to share them. People who love (some of) these books are people whose taste I’m likely to trust.
I decided to omit a few categories, for the sake of simplicity and brevity. I’m not including children’s or young adult books, although those are perhaps the most transformational books out there. But that’s a subject for a different post. I’m also not including books that have influenced my life generally – obvious examples are religious, political, or philosophical books that have changed my thinking about the world – but am instead sticking to books that have changed my thinking about literature specifically. It also occurred to me that I could put some books on this list that are negative examples, books that have helped me define my literary aesthetic by helping me figure out what I don’t like. But I won’t get negative here.
This list is in no particular order.
- Virginia Woolf’s works, especially To the Lighthouse but also Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own
- Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey
- All of Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice
- Montaigne’s essays
- Mary McCarthy’s essays and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood
- Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire
- David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and his two essay collections
- Phillip Lopate’s edited essay collection The Art of the Personal Essay
- George Orwell’s collected essays
- Nicholson Baker’s books, especially U&I, The Mezzanine, and The Anthologist
- Jenny Diski’s Stranger on a Train and Skating to Antarctica
- Mark Doty’s Dog Years
- Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book
- Janet Malcolm’s books, especially The Silent Woman
- The Quest for Corvo
- Joan Didion’s The White Album
- Richard Holmes’s Footsteps
- Lauren Slater’s Lying
- Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals
- W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn
- Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time
- David Shield’s Reality Hunger
- Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage
- Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo and Our Tragic Universe
- Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust
- George Saunders’s Civil War Land in Bad Decline
- Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49
- Tom McCarthy’s Remainder
- Henry James’s novels, especially The Wings of the Dove
- William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience
- Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key
- Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone
- Maggie Nelson’s Bluets
- Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris
- Mary Oliver’s American Primitive
- Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley
- Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater
- Boswell’s Life of Johnson
- Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Looking over this list, it feels partial and unsatisfactory, but it’s not a bad start.
And because this pregnancy thing is getting serious, I’ll close with one of my latest pregnancy pictures, at 29 weeks:
It’s been quite the week around here, although I will be the first to say that though we were hit by hurricane Sandy, we had it relatively easy. We lost power on Monday night during some truly scary winds and spent four days waiting for the power to come back, but those four days were made much more enjoyable by a friend who offered to lend us a generator. Plus there’s the fact that even in a power outage we have not only running water, but hot running water. So thanks to the generator we had a working refrigerator, wireless, a microwave, and some lights. A quick trip to the hardware store to buy a space heater made everything just fine, and now after 24 hours with the power on, I feel back to normal. All in all, it was an easy experience, and I only wish the same were true for everyone who has gone through this storm. Sadly that’s not the case, and I keep reading stories of houses ruined and people who are struggling to get by without basic necessities and lives lost. Let’s hope the recovery moves along quickly.
As for bookish news, I’ll have to do a quick round-up of books I’ve read in the last few weeks. So here’s the list:
- The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger. I listened to this one on audio, and found myself getting impatient with it. There were moments I got caught up in the story – it’s about a young Bangladeshi woman who marries an American and moves to the U.S. (to Rochester, New York, of all places, the city I grew up near) – but I wanted more. More in the way of ideas, more interesting writing, something beyond the story that’s there.
- More Baths, Less Talking, by Nick Hornby. This one was fun. It’s the second collection of Hornby’s Believer columns I’ve read, and I’m ready to read more. These columns are monthly round-ups of his reading and the books that he’s bought, and they are written in what I can only think of as blog-post style (which is not to say that all blogs are written this way!) – chatty, informal, and personal. Hornby is always amusing and he reads a wide range of books, many of which I’m not about to read myself, but sometimes our tastes overlap and occasionally he’ll get me to add books to my TBR list.
- Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf. I’d been reading this book for ages, but I don’t mean to imply it’s not a compelling read, it certainly is. It’s just very lengthy and is written in shortish chapters that provide good stopping points. I loved this book. Lee’s approach is to move roughly chronologically through Woolf’s life but to focus on themes or topics along the way, so the biography is more idea-driven than it is driven by strict chronology. This works for me as I have a sorry mind for facts and prefer to focus on ideas.
- Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek. I really liked two Taylor novels I read a few years ago, but this one disappointed me, and I’m not sure if it’s a matter of my tastes changing or the book not being as good. I’m inclined to think it’s the former. I just didn’t care much about the subject matter – unhappy marriages, affairs, children, disappointment in society. The characters were unlikeable, which I don’t mind generally in novels – I don’t need to like the people I read about – but these didn’t seem unlikeable for interesting reasons. The writing was lively, though, and there moments of insight into human nature I appreciated.
- A.M. Homes’s Music for Torching. This book covers much the same subject matter as the Taylor novel, if in a different country and time period, but I liked it much more. It’s a story about suburban family unhappiness, which doesn’t sound promising, but it’s a step or two beyond strict realism in its approach, and I found the exaggerated, strange behavior of the characters and the almost surreal atmosphere of the novel exhilarating. The book starts with the couple deciding on the spur of the moment to burn their house down, which, we quickly find out, fails completely. From there, the plot maintains a brisk pace. At first, to be honest, I kind of hated all the plot strangeness and the book felt cold, but as I kept reading, I began to get in the right spirit for it. The characters behave like no one I know, and frankly I’m grateful for that, but I admire their desperate bravery.
- Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel. This is a collection of essays, in some cases in dialogue or list form, in other cases in more traditional essay format. They describe Kundera’s understanding of the history of the novel and its relationship to history more broadly, and they also offer a summary of Kundera’s own fictional aesthetic. Kundera’s understanding of novel history was fascinating if narrow – by which I mean he drew from a small selection of favorite novelists and I couldn’t help but feel that the history of the novel might be completely different with a another group of authors. But still, there were lots of ideas to ponder here.
- Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station. I loved this book. This is an example to prove my claim that I don’t need to like the people I read about, as the main character is pretty awful – self-absorbed, untrustworthy, immature, and not only that but an unlikeable guy who’s led a very privileged life. But he is aware of his failings and thinks about them a lot, which saves it for me, as does the fact that the book is meditative and idea-driven and has a lot to say about emotional experience vs. detachment and about poetry and its purpose, if there is one. The main character is an American in Spain on a prestigious fellowship, but he spends his year abroad mostly not working on the project he set for himself, and instead he processes his experiences, observes the people around him, and generally tries to get by without too much unhappiness. It’s a thoughtful, philosophical novel, and it made me want to read more poetry.
- Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries. I feel like every book I like in this list sounds awful when I describe it – in this case, it’s a diary written by an old curmudgeonly type who spends a lot of time thinking about death. But I loved this book too. It’s sort of a diary, but the entries are more like mini-essays where Gray recounts memories from the past or contemplates the fate of his friends (sometimes famous ones like Harold Pinter). He describes the world around him and alternates between satirical amusement and panic at the nearness of death and what he’s made of his life. The style is very informal and conversational, and Gray can tell a story well. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I will have to find the other two.
And now to close with my latest pregnancy picture, at 27 weeks. My hair is wet not because I couldn’t blow dry it without power, but because I never blow dry it, being kind of lazy that way: