Friday, January 8, 2010

Great Books

Aristotle wrote, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”  Our habits speak volumes about us.  It strikes me as a corollary that what we love also reveals much about us.  And to be clear, I do not mean the things we profess to love.  Although, even what we profess to love says much about us.

For instance, when someone tells me that he loves Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, I instantly know two things:  (1) I will never like or respect this person; (2) he’s lying.  I firmly believe that only a handful of people on the planet have finished reading Atlas Shrugged (I’m not among them), that those few did it through perseverance rather than enjoyment, and that they did it because one is supposed to have read and loved this book if one is to be considered a literary intellectual.  (To which I say:  horseshit.)  The rest put it down because, in truth, it’s an overblown, underintelligent, mess of a book that gives a good appearance of being intellectually significant, without actually carrying the required substance.  And after putting down the book, most people proclaim it a work of profound genius, in order to fit in with (perceived) smart people.  But I have digressed.

The point of this post is to discuss a few of the books which I love.  I list them in no particular order.  My list is not exhaustive; I have loved other books which do not appear here.  Why?  Because I’m an old fart with a rotten memory.  I list these books mainly to reveal a little of myself here, but if the post results in someone picking up a new book and loving it as I have, then I am happy.  And lastly, how do you know I actually love all these books and am not merely professing my love for them?  You don’t.  But in either case, you’ll learn something about me.

Paradise, by Toni Morrison.  Morrison’s prose is about as beautiful as any I’ve read.  And this book made me think it was about one thing – thoroughly convinced me – because the writing was just that compelling, but then at the end I realized she was really trying to make me think about something else entirely.  And going back to reread it with that in mind produced a wholly different, but equally rich experience.

The Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien.  The original, and still the template for all sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels.  Tolkien started writing these because he felt that the English lacked a mythology as strong and archetypal as Norse or Greek mythologies.  He succeeded.  Plus, he invented several conlangs in the course of writing his books, so, you know, bonus points.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson.  When you read it, remember it was written in 1983.  Invented both the word and concept of cyberspace, and the idea of The Matrix.  In a sense, predicted the internet in a recognizable form.  And in the process, Gibson became the bellwether of a new sub-genre of science fiction.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson.  Cryptonomicon, also by Stephenson, is still one of my top ten books, but Anathem is even better.  Brilliant, fun, and brimming with geekery.

A Canticle For Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller.  Sci-Fi classic.  Meditation on knowledge and ignorance and human nature and so much more. 

[Interruption:  Looking at this post, and considering how many books I want to include, it now becomes obvious that this could occupy far more space than you might be willing to read.  So from this point forward, I will simply list books and authors, without the exposition.]

  • Shogun – James Clavell
  • Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
  • American Gods – Neil Gaiman
  • The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
  • The Wheel of Time (series) – Robert Jordan
  • Harry Potter (series) – JK Rowling
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians (series) – Rick Riordan
  • Latro in the Mist – Gene Wolfe (also Soldier of Sidon, of the same series)
  • The Giving Tree – Shel Silverstein
  • Calvin & Hobbes (series) – Bill Watterson
  • Picnic, Lightning – Billy Collins (poetry)
  • Above the River – James Wright (poetry)
  • His Dark Materials (series) – Phillip Pulman
  • Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco
  • Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Stand – Stephen King
  • Iron Sunrise – Charles Stross
  • Glasshouse – Charles Stross
  • William Shakespeare’s complete works.
In fact, let me end this post with the following.  There are a few authors whose work I will purchase, sight unseen, no questions asked, assuming while doing so that I will love it, whatever it is.  They include:  Neil Gaiman, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross, Billy Collins, Gene Wolfe, William Gibson.  (Shakespeare as well, but since he isn't publishing anymore, my expression wobbles a bit when you include him.)  This is a group of authors whose works I will pre-order as soon as I hear a new one is due.  I can't even say that about some of my other favorite authors.  Even though Toni Morrison has written several of my favorite books, for instance, I also dislike a few of hers.  Likewise Stephen King, C.S. Lewis, and others I can't recall right now.  I also have loved dearly certain works by Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Thomas Pynchon, and Herman Melville.  And it surprises me every now and then that I just can't get into Kurt Vonnegut or John Irving.  I feel like there's something wrong with me for that.  A few authors I vehemently dislike and will not read, including, but not limited to:  Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyers, and John Updike (less vehemently, but just as consistently).  I feel certain I have neglected some works which, at the time, changed my life, but which I now cannot recall.  In that spirit, I close by pointing you to an appropriate and wonderful poem by Billy Collins, called Forgetfulness.  (Click here.)

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