Monday, August 26, 2013

5 Books with the Museum Docent

Hi, it's me again. I've asked a few people to make a list of their top five favorite books for the blog. For a book lover, for the truest of true bibliophile, that's a terrible challenge. I know what I'm asking them to do is difficult, a task of metaphysical proportions, maybe it'd be easier to wrestle an angel. I know that. So I'm making my list as an act of contrition. I'm suffering first so I know the struggle first hand. Every time I sit down to make my list I think of a book, or the books, that led to my encounter with the one listed, and so I reconsider--does the book that led the way deserve a spot on the list instead? I don't know. I think of related books, books as a theme, books I've read more than once. Certainly, if I've read a book five times or more, as I have Fahrenheit 451 and The Great Gatsby, then I should have a place on the list for that book, right?

So I'm wondering how to catalog these books, these thousands of books I've read and loved, except for maybe a few, like The Da Vinci Code, and Tuesdays with Morrie, how do I pick only five? It turns out I don't pick only five. I made FIVE LISTS of five. Not fair, I know. I made a list of favorite poetry collections, favorite novels, favorite fantasy novels, most influential books, and books I've read the most times. I could probably stick to themes and do five books by men, and five by women, five 19th Century titles, five international authors, my top five favorite Neil Gaiman novels...are there five? Let's see...

1. Coraline
2. Stardust
3. Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett
4. Neverwhere
5. American Gods

Easy as pie. Or Annie Dillard, who I love:

1. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
2. Holy the Firm
3. For the Time Being
4. An American Childhood
5. The Writing Life

But I didn't do any of those things. Instead, I made a list of the books, culled from all the lists I made, that most influenced not only my writing, but my inner life, as well. The books I read more than once, yes, and the books that I think about when I'm sad and tired, in the midst of moral quandary, when I don't know the right things to say to my wife or daughter, and when I need strength to be a good role model for my son; the books I recall when I need patience, when I need to be reminded of the goodness in the world and in myself, when I need to be reminded that everyone, including my 'enemies' should be treated with dignity. These are books that inform my own poetry, my politics, and my dreams. They influence the way I want to tell stories and the way stories take shape in my imagination when I'm at work, my hands busy, but my mind free to fly. These are the books that gave me wings.

I'm going to write a brief explanation of the why of each of these books. Some of the other folks I talked to might also explain their choices, and others may just give me a list and leave the whys of it up to our imaginations.

Here's mine. I hope you'll be encouraged to make a list of your own, and feel free to share it with me. I'd love to see a million lists of favorite books.

In no particular order:

1. Reader's Digest Guide to North American Wildlife
My grandparents gave this to me as a Christmas gift one year. I took it to school, church, and sleepovers. I slept with it, and carried it on walks in the woods. I stayed up late nights, the only one awake in my house, leaning over its pages and learning about the animals in my backyard. I made lists of animals I'd seen, and held, and chased. I made lists of animals I hoped to see one day. I treasure this book, as a gift from beloved relatives, and as a beloved relative itself. It's the book that gave me the names of the world, and therefore enlarged my world beyond reckoning.

2. In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan
It's only the sweetest and most sinister fantasy story you'll ever read.

3. The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
I don't know what to say about this book. I learned a lot about the grammatic history of poetry and myth from it...or did I? Apparently the scholarship has been questioned several times over the years. Never the less, this book illustrates and articulates the vast realm of poetry, its political importance, and its role as a cornerstone of human civilization. Mythology has always been an important source of ideas and solace for me. This book is a robust history and defense of mythology and poetry as shapers of our shared human imagination. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, was a runner-up for this position on my list.

4. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
The first book that ever put into words feelings I had about God and Nature that I couldn't articulate but understood. I revere it as my Bible. I am flung about by its words, I am tugged between faith and reason, the sacred and the profane. The book is yoga for the mind seeking God in the wild abandon of Nature. I read this book and I come out of its pages loving the created world so damn hard.

5. The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse, ed. Oscar Williams
I found this collection at a critical point in my life. A few things were happening, the least among them was my realization that I had neither the skill nor the ambition to be a comic book artist, which had been my dream for many years. I was 17 and writing my first poems, and my maternal grandmother had recently died. I found this anthology on top of a pile of books while we were cleaning up the artifacts of her short, tumultuous life. I took it outside with a cigarette I pinched from my father's soft pack of Basic Ultra Lights, and my life changed forever in the middle of the night as I turned those old, yellowed pages, and found myself in them.

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