Ten Books I Couldn’t Live Without

1. Possession – by A.S. Byatt. Like Heather I have read this book probably 4 or 5 times – I just finished it yet again, and every time I come to it – I see different things, I relate to different aspects. As my life changes, as I grow older … the book appears to take on deeper meanings – I fluctuate between sympathy for Roland, for Christabel, for Val, for poor Ellen Ash, for Maud … depending on my mood, or where I am at in my life. Also, and this is a deeper comment: This is a book about intellectuals having love affairs. The cerebral mixed with the primal. This is something that strikes a very intense chord in me … a problem that has come up in my life repeatedly, because of who I am, and because of my emotional makeup – a fiery mix of brains and passion. Tough for anybody to handle. How will it work? How will I find my way, find peace? My intellectual side is rigid, hard-working, and can be very inflexible. I will not “tone it down” to make others feel comfortable around me. I’ve been asked (outright, and also subliminally) to “tone it down” and the price (for me) is too great. It’s too much of a betrayal. And yet I do not lack feelings, I am not cold … Maud’s struggle in the book with “letting her hair down”, her resistance to love, her fear of having her boundaries melded with somebody else’s, is my eternal struggle. I have never ever read a better prolonged study of the issues a woman like myself has when she falls in love. It’s very specific. There isn’t anything generic about a love affair – and yet most books do not tackle it from Byatt’s angle. Not only did I love the story, but I felt validated and vindicated by it. It’s something I go to again and again, sometimes searchingly, sometimes just with the knowledge that I will be able to lose myself in it … and sometimes with trepidation. The truths revealed in this book are only live-able to me when I am in a good head-space, and dealing with myself openly. If I’m trying to “hide” (in the same way that Maud hides) – then the book rebukes me. I can’t think of too many other books that maintain such a vibrant presence in my life. It cannot be replaced.

2. A Ring of Endless Light – by Madeleine L’Engle I love all of her books but for some reason – if I had to choose? If I HAD to? This is the one I feel I would “need”. That’s the word that comes up. I need this book. I needed it from the first moment I read it – years ago. It has been there for me in really dark times. I have looked to it still, for inspiration, strength. I first read it when I was 19, 20 … And it’s funny … but I still feel the same way about it. Extraordinary.

3. Lives of the Saints – by Nancy Lemann Who can say why some books get into our psyche and others do not? This is a slim novel, a first novel … it is about nothing except an aimless post-college girl living in her home town of New Orleans, having wacky adventures, and loving a man who is gin-soaked and hilarious and tragic. I must get going with my ‘daily book excerpt’ thing again so that I can get into my adult fiction, which will be a lot of fun – damn that Lucy Maud for writing so much! Since I first read Lives of the Saints (and I remember picking it out, at random) – I have read her other books (and there aren’t many) – and while I adore Sportsman’s Paradise and Fiery Pantheon (not too wacky about Malaise) … my heart belongs to Lives of the Saints. Why do I love it? God, let me see. First of all, it is laugh out loud funny. For a good summer after I read Lives of the Saints I found myself writing like her, imitating her. I love her style. It is eccentric, witty … i remember reading it out loud to my boyfriend at the time and he would just GUFFAW. But then it turns around and stabs you in the heart, with sentimentality, sudden pain, loss so intense it takes your breath away. A true Southern novel – with that air of eccentricity and hilarity. GREAT characters, so so funny. Claude Collier – the main guy in the book – was the context through which I saw M., that first crazy summer I met him. M. was just as nuts as Claude, just as hard to pin down … I could see a more conventionally minded girl being driven out of her cotton-pickin’ mind by M. – and somehow … Claude, and the spectacle of Claude, helped me deal with M. But all of this is just words. I love the books of Nancy Lemann and this one is one I go back to over and over and over. I love her sensibility. And more importantly: she is the type of writer who inspires me to keep writing. Here’s an excerpt.

4. Moby Dick – by Herman Melville I wrote a little bit about what it was like to re-read Moby Dick on my own – as opposed to being forced to read it in high school – here. This book makes my heart pound faster. Every damn word is good. It’s an overwhelming experience … it’s gluttonous … because Melville is so spectacular, sentence after sentence after sentence … You want him to take a break and be MEDIOCRE for just a page or two so that you, the reader, can not feel so inadequate. I read the book in high school but I didn’t really READ it until 2001 – and my experience of reading that book was excitement. And also: growth. The chapter about “The Blanket” touched me on such a profound level that I can honestly say my mind-set slightly shifted after reading it. How would I approach life, how would I protect myself and yet also remain open and alive … these were questions I was truly grappling with in the early months of 2001, a generally terrible time for me. And I read that chapter – and it landed within me so hard that I felt like I plummeted through the floor with the impact. A book that can do that is a book I want to have around.

5. The Dead – by James Joyce. Now this was a really tough choice. But if I look deep in my heart, I realize that the thought of never being able to read the short story “The Dead” again actually causes me pain.

6. Hopeful Monsters – by Nicholas Mosley Crap, I keep saying I’m going to write about this book but it feels too huge. This book, when I read it, explained me to myself. It felt like my own system of beliefs – which are erratic, and yet make perfect sense to me – had been written down. It’s an intellectual feast, a 20th century romp through politics and science … I honestly don’t know how to write about this book coherently. If my soul could take the form of a book – it would be Hopeful Monsters – which is really funny because “soul” sounds like such a mushy rainbow-y girlie word – and this book is stringently intellectual, full of piercing questions with no answers – pondering contemplative intellectual hypotheses, cameos by Heisenberg and Einstein and others … so it’s a funny book to attach the word “soul” to. But that’s part of Mosley’s point. One of my favorite books ever written. Can’t live without it.

7. Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller One of the greatest books ever. Talk about having every sentence be brilliant and funny … seriously, how can one author sustain a ba-dum-ching energy through that long of a book? I came to it late, despite the insistence of pretty much my entire family – all of whom are Catch-22 FREAKS OF NATURE. And within the first 2 pages I was hooked. This book is like crack. Not that I do crack. But if I did, I bet it would feel a little bit like reading Catch 22. I mean, come on. Chief White Halfoat? Is there a funnier character? Major Major Major Major? I love them all. Crack.

8. The Pigman – by Paul Zindel. I’m not sure, and don’t quote me on this – but this might be my favorite book ever written. It’s certainly in the eternal top 5 … in the same way that Empire Strikes Back is, on my movie list. It might not always be number 1 – but it NEVER falls far from it. I first read this book at age 13. I still read it about once a year today. It’s strangely connected, in my mind, now, with Sept. 11 – in a way that moves me profoundly. Strange what one remembers, the connections one makes. It’s in my life – always. I babble about this book here.

9. Mating – by Norman Rush. Like Possession, like Goldbug variations, like Hopeful Monsters – this is a book that takes as its topic the intellectual component of falling in love. This is something that resonates with me … and also is something that is rarely discussed, or talked about in books. Mating is all about that. I can’t really add to my feelings about the book. I love it fiercely. And the section about Victoria Falls is something I refer to, over and over and over again. I never EVER get tired of it. I remember when I first read that section, thinking: “Okay. I’m hooked. I love this book now.” Put a fork in Sheila. She’s done. I’ve actually started to re-read it again. Every time I read it, I see something new, I get something new out of it. This, to me, is the mark of a true classic. I can re-visit it and it seems like the BOOK has changed – only no, it’s just me.

10. Emily Climbs – by L.M. Montgomery I know, strange … it’s the second book in the series – but there’s just something about it. Every part of it – the journal entries, the different episodes that have become almost mythic to me: Emily being trapped in the church, Ruth Dutton, Emily and Ilse sleeping in the haystack, Emily’s second sight, Emily walking home to New Moon in a rage … I think Lucy Maud is truly at her best in this book. I just lose myself in it every time I pick it up. Like I said at the beginning of this post, it is HARD to choose … How can I leave off Tangled Web? Or Anne of the Island?? But for now – right in this moment – I feel that I cannot bear to be parted from Emily Climbs.

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16 Responses to Ten Books I Couldn’t Live Without

  1. Emily says:

    These questions are kind of like those “Desert Island” ones…only ten books? Um, is there a “drink the poison” option?

  2. steve on the mountain says:

    Just finished a reread of the great ‘Catch 22’. In my head as I read I could see and hear Alan Arkin. What a perfect job he did as Yossarian in the flick.

  3. steve on the mountain says:

    10 books! It can’t be done. It can’t be done. I’ll do it.
    1. Ulysses by Jim
    2. Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (incredible achievement defying description by me)
    3. Alice and Looking-glass a twofer by The Reverend Charlie
    4. The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary (includes my favorite character in all of literature, Gully Jimson)
    5. The Magic Mountain by Tom (Go, Hans Castorp!)
    6. Catch 22 by Joe (the insanity of everything defined)
    7. Moby Dick by Herm (like you said)
    8. Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (romance in southwest England of the 1670s)
    9. The Big Sky by A.B Guthrie (the definitive old west mountain man novel)
    10. a 100-way tie. So I’ll throw a dart at the list and hit … The Years by Ginnie Woolf (Eleanor Pargiter is a delightful character)

  4. Emily says:

    “It can’t be done. I’ll do it.”


  5. red says:

    steve – a 100 way tie – hahahahahaha I so relate to that!!!

  6. Erin says:

    Every time you post one of these I buy one of the books or rent one of your movies. You should get a commission!

  7. Eric the...bald says:

    Almost embarrassed to do this since so many of my favorites aren’t what many would call “literature”, but they’re what I like.

    In no order,
    The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway
    Lord Foul’s Bane, Stephen Donaldson
    Iceberg, Clive Cussler
    The Tower Treasure (The Hardy Boys #1) Franklin W. Dixon
    Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
    Foundation, Isaac Asimov
    The Gunslinger, Stephen King
    The Sign of the Four, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    The Twisted Thing, Mickey Spillane
    Farewell, My Lovely, Raymond Chandler

    Where there are series involved, I picked the first I encountered.

  8. red says:

    Please don’t feel embarrassed. At least not here. That’s silly.

  9. red says:

    Erin – I’m actually in the process now of setting up a little “store” at Amazon – joining their affiliate program – so that I will indeed get commissions if anyone buys a book I recommend. Whoo-hoo!!!

    Just curious: which book are you interested in??

    See I wrote this list yesterday and I already want to change it. hahaha

  10. Heather says:

    I really like the way you described Possession. That is exactly how I feel about it. I really love your list and I’m going to have to look up a few of them!

  11. red says:

    Heather – that whole section near the end where we get to see what life was like for Ellen Ash … the part that she DIDN’T record in her journal … my God. What an incredible piece of writing, first of all – but to me that’s the whole point of the book. That you just never EVER know the full truth about somebody. It takes the omniscent narrator to let us in on her personal horror.

  12. melissa says:

    I do the same as Erin… I keep buying books ’cause you write about them!

    You know… its OK to skip past the rest of Lucy Maud… maybe make her a continuing occasional series. I’m MADLY CURIOUS about the rest of the books you own!

  13. Kailana says:

    Thanks for joining in! I was wondering if Steve and Eric wanted their list taken into consideration? I have a post saved in draft of lists left in comments so they can be added in if people want them to be.

  14. red says:

    Melissa – hahaha I love that you gave me permission to skip Lucy maud … I kind of needed someone to say “You know what? Move on!” I get so rigid sometimes, with my own self-imposed rules. I love it – THANK you for that! I’ll skip the rest of her short stories, do the rest of her novels – there are only a couple more I think – and then move on!


  15. Erin says:

    Yesterday I bought Possession. But because of you I have also bought a bunch of L M Montgomery books I never knew existed, and her biography, and Wrinkle In Time, books on the Founding Fathers, rewatched Center Stage and developed a mild Cary Grant obsession.

    I hope I don’t sound like a stalker.

  16. melissa says:

    I’m glad to oblige – I’m really good at giving permission to people to do things :-)

    I’m going to have to order Possession.

    Hmmm. Mine keep changing. books I’d need to have…. I can’t have just one of a series, that would drive me nuts. So.

    Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay (I love this book. Fantasy, but really a study in how memory drives a person. Lovely, wistful, sad, joyful)

    All Three Emily Books.

    Time Enough for Love by Heinlein

    The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir (need a good history)

    The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty – KC Cole

    Assassination Vacation – Sarah Vowell

    Good Night Mr. Tom – Michelle Magorian

    Crap. I can’t stop at 10. Ever. I can’t even get to 10. Sigh.

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