Saturday, April 15, 2006

I Cannot Live Without Books

Last week at "Cogan's Thursday," which is apparently about to become "Softball Practice Thursday" (note to whoever's in charge: couldn't we practice on Wednesdays? I have Thursdays set aside for drinking), Steve and Josh and I got to chatting about five things we would prefer not to live without (mine: wine, music, books, pets, & the ocean). Since we're nerds (the cool kind, not the nerdy kind), books were on all three of our lists and Josh asked us to name our three favorite books. We were settling our tab at the time -- it was 11:30 on a school night and I was fairly drunk -- so I told Josh I'd get back to him, but not before he'd mentioned that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is one of his favorites. Now, I know Josh well enough at this point to know that he was not trying to impress anyone with his love of James Joyce, and he knows me well enough to know that a man who claims to dig highly intellectual crap is much more likely to arouse my suspicions than my libido (especially if he went to UVA), so I believe him about Portrait of the Artist.

I'm just surprised a book by James Joyce would make it onto anyone's top three favorite books list. Top three best books, maybe, but favorite books? I've read Portrait of the Artist and I know the writing is phenomenal -- I mean, it's James Joyce. I think I might even have enjoyed the story, but I read it in high school 14 years ago (yikes!) so I can't say for sure. I remember that I liked it, and I had a good English teacher so I felt like I really understood it. But I also remember that it just wasn't my kinda book. And the more I thought about my favorite books vs. Portrait of the Artist, the more I realized something that occurred to me a while ago about my appreciation of the arts: there are a lot of things I recognize as good art that I just don't like. There are all sorts of books, paintings, songs, etc. whose artistic merit I value but that just don't speak to me.

I'm not sure if other people make this distinction, but isn't that the whole point of art? Isn't it cool that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man speaks to Josh in a way it doesn't to me, and that some other book speaks to me in a way it may not to Josh? And that there is something universal in the other's favorite that allows us to appreciate its goodness without having to fall in love with it?

I've read a lot of books, most of which I've appreciated as quality literature without coming to love them. I've also read a handful of books that are complete crap from a literary perspective, and I've even liked some of them despite their lack of artistic merit. But my favorite books are the books I've read and fallen in love with, books that make me smile while I'm reading them because they're just so good, books that my family sees me reading and asks, "Haven't you already read that book? Like five times?," books that have changed me in some way, books I wouldn't want to be stranded on a deserted island without. There are several more than three of those, but after much consideration I've managed to narrow it down. . .

The River Why by David James Duncan

The River Why is essentially a book about a guy, Gus, who really likes to fish. He moves to a cabin in the woods along a river and devises "the ideal schedule" centered entirely around fishing and notes a few ways to actualize this ideal schedule: "avoid friendships, anglers not excepted (wastes time with gabbing); experiment with caffeine, nicotine, to eliminate excess sleep; do all driving, shopping, gear preparation, research, etc. after dark, saving daylight for fishing only." Gus quickly realizes that his ideal schedule is not bringing him any joy, that he and everyone around him is destroying the natural world, and that what is missing from his life is some sort of spiritual connection with others and with nature. The River Why is a funny but deep study of ecology, spirituality, love, and the connections among the three. It always makes me want to spend some quality time by the water and to learn more about Eastern philosophy.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

You can tell from the title of this book that it's hilarious and irreverent. What you can't tell is that it's so much more than hilarious, and that what appears at first to be mockery is actually a deep respect and admiration for the core teachings of the world's major religions. Lamb chronicles the life of Jesus as a young boy learning to become the Messiah. He travels around the world living with various religious gurus who help him shape his message that "love is not something you think about, it is a state in which you dwell" and that "the kingdom [of God] is open to everyone. Ev-ree-one, get it?" This is a book that makes me laugh out loud while reminding me of the beauty of what Jesus stood for. Every time I read it I come away feeling more enlightened, and sometimes I even find new jokes.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

I don't even like winter and I love this book, which is 673 pages of winter. Winter's Tale is beautifully written and magical. It is a novel of big ideas --love, god, justice, and morality -- set in a fantasy version of New York City. Just reading this book makes me happy to be alive. Hell, just reading the first sentence of this book makes me happy to be alive: "There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood." My friends have learned not to mention Winter's Tale because they know that within minutes they'll be rolling their eyes and wishing I would shut up about how wonderful it is.

So there's my list of the three books I most adore. To the best of my knowledge, none of them have won any awards. I've never seen any of them on a summer reading list, nor is Oprah considering one of my picks for her next bookclub selection (thank god!). But they're my three favorites because, in addition to being well-written, they just make me happy. And now, if you'll excuse me, I'd like to go re-read each of them.


Melissa said...

First of all, I love that you have Thursdays set aside for drinking. So do I.

Second, I have not read The River Why; I have not read Lamb, but I have read another book by Christopher Moore, something to do with whales and I can't remember the name but it was really interesting; and I love Winter's Tale.

Third, I read Portrait in high school and I hated it, but I've been meaning to re-read it to see if my tastes have changed at all on that topic.

I not only can't live without books, I wouldn't WANT to. (Oh, and may I link to you on my blog? I came this way through your brother's.)

Megan said...

Sure thing. . .I promise to keep the ranting to a minimum, but I cannot commit to posting 8 or 10 times a day as he does. :)

The whale book was Fluke -- I've read several of his books and Lamb is far and away my favorite.

And now, off to the drinking. . .

Brian said...

Look who's got jokes!

what was the other moore book? island of the something-sequined love nun? that was a good one too.

Maritza said...

I wanted to add "The Dubliners" to my list but, since people who read blogs don't read but skim, I skipped it. "Portrait" is great and yes, it did have a profound influence on me but I prefer "Dubliners" and "Ulysses". I wanted to include short stories.

I can make book lists forever but I think that would be a whole other blog for a limited audience. Hmm... maybe I should...