Ten Books to Cherish for Life

posted Aug 25, 2010, 10:55 PM by Jeff Brandt   [ updated Aug 26, 2010, 1:07 AM ]
First of all, I ought to acknowledge the obvious: that I've been putting off writing for this blog for many months.

My excuses? I finished one job, started another, fell in love with New York City, visited some college friends in Chicago, and have watched entirely too much History Channel (see picture at right). That's been my summer. I haven't been doing nearly as much filmgoing as usual, but that's OK. Interests change, and I'm sure film criticism is one that will return at some point.

For the meantime, though, I've been looking for ways to save and make money so I can move to New York City and pursue my dreams there. One of those ways has been to sell off my giant book collection. (Click here to take a look at my books and movies on sale; click here to make a bid on my old Pulp Fiction wallet.) I've read a lot, but I've also left so much unread, and I figured it would be easiest just to sell books before I become attached to them -- just plan to borrow them from libraries or buy them again when I have real money to spend.

Which brought up an important question . . . What are the books I own that I refuse to sell because I simply need them? A few minutes ago, I narrowed that field to ten and decided to come write about it. These are not in order of favorites (which would be too difficult) but in order of the author's birth.


Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Selected Poems


There's a lot of love in this book. For you, for himself, for animals, for plants, for everyone. Whitman is a distinctly American poet and the best kind of patriot. Read this in a park on a sunny day when you're feeling worried about life, love, society, politics, whatever.


Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
Bouvard and Pecuchet (1881)


The great unfinished Seinfeld of novels. A pair of French goofballs meet one day, become fast friends, and sell their possessions in order to move to a home in the countryside. Together they try out their shared hobbies and interests. They dig into every harebrained idea wholeheartedly until they run out of steam, and then switch interests.

But there is no real end to it, no strong narrative structure or story arc. It's just a string of interesting events, featuring two odd characters that you come to love. I think this is a liberating book for that reason. (It also validates my own writing style.)


Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

Tender Buttons (1914)

To me, this book is no less than a revolution. It gets my creative juices going instantly when I read it. It changed the way I perceive writing. Think of it like a Cubist painting. Here's an excerpt for you reading pleasure (and puzzlement):

DIRT AND NOT COPPER.

Dirt and not copper makes a color darker. It makes the shape so heavy and makes no melody harder.

It makes mercy and relaxation and even a strength to spread a table fuller. There are more places not empty. They see cover.

NOTHING ELEGANT.

A charm a single charm is doubtful. If the red is rose and there is a gate surrounding it, if inside is let in and there places change then certainly something is upright. It is earnest.

MILDRED'S UMBRELLA.

A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a loss a great loss a restitution.


e.e.cummings (1894-1962)
Selected Poems


I just read this one today in its entirety, so it's the newest entry on this list of ten. I had read a few of his most famous poems here and there in literary anthologies for high school and college classes, but immersing yourself in a whole book of his poems is a completely different experience. Kind of like being beamed into an alien space s
hip and transported to a planet that looks exactly like earth but feels entirely foreign . . . but more truthful.


F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)
The Great Gatsby (1925)


47,094 words poured into thousands of perfect sentences. Easily the best piece of required high school reading, which I fortunately got to take second and third looks at in college English classes. There is almost nothing I can say about it that isn't cliche, so I won't.


William Faulkner (1897-1962)
As I Lay Dying (1930)


Admittedly, I have much more Faulkner reading to do. Despite reading several short stories of Faulkner's in school, this is his first novel that I've read in its entirety -- and it is a beaut. I love the changing perspectives, the stream of consciousness narration, the Southern metaphors and manner of speaking, and the palpable tension and danger that mounts as the story unfolds.


Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway


I would include Hemingway's American debut, a collection of short stories entitled In Our Time (1925), except, stupid as I was, I did sell it on Half.com after having the fortune to use it in two American Lit classes the exact same semester. But this 650-page collection includes all of those great stories, so I guess it's not a great loss.

There's something stern, tragic, and final about his short stories that keeps me coming back to Hemingway. "The Battler," "Cat in the Rain," "Soldier's Home," and "The Killers" are a few of my favorites.


Italo Calvino (1923-1985)
If on a winter's night a traveler (1979)


Finally, an author born in the 20th century. This Italian novel that traces a reader's complicated journey to find the same book he started reading in the first chapter. Each time he contacts a publisher or picks up what is supposed to be the correct book at a store or library, he gets a new book. The logic of the story becomes more twisted and comically absurd as the book progresses. A love interest also develops, but you have to wonder if she's part of the scheme to keep the original book from the protagonist.

Calvino is a magician with words. If you've been away from reading serious literature for awhile, this is a book to make you fall in love with books again.


Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
Selected Poems: 1947-1995 (1996)


Beat Poet Allen Ginsberg is the first of two authors on this list who was actually still living after I was born (1986). I love his poems for many of the same reasons as I love Walt Whitman's. I like their great, sprawling lines, their musicality, their explosive emotions, and their frank openness about very personal feelings. I'd like to think of Ginsberg as Whitman reincarnated in the 20th century.

Read "Howl" ASAP if you never have. And if you don't have time, read "A Supermarket in California."


Raymond Carver (1938-1988)
Where I'm Calling From (1988)


As with Hemingway, there's a beauty to the tension Carver is able to pack into a few pages. And he does it again and again. The dialogue is consistently incredible. The descriptions are spot-on. Many situations the characters find themselves in are surreal -- but the characters themselves are real. The level of artistic craftsmanship in these stories is enviable for an aspiring writer. In a way, Carver is almost too perfect.

If you are already familiar with Raymond Carver's fiction, good! Then check out Robert Altman's 1993 film Short Cuts, which adapts many of the stories collected for the screen. Altman's thin attempts to connect the stories to each other are cheesy at times, but the vignettes taken separately definitely make Short Cuts worth a rental the next time you have 187 minutes to spare.


Comments

Submit your comments