Monday, September 3, 2012

Favorite Books

Writers love talking about their favorite books.  When I talk to kids, it’s usually the second question they ask me.  (The first one is, How much do you get paid?)

It’s hard for me to answer this question if the asker wants me to name just one book.  Different books mean different things to me, and the longer I live and the more I read, the more answers I have.

Here are some of my favorites, and the reasons why they’re my favorites:

--Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh (Harper & Row, 1964).  A little girl wants to be a writer, spies on people, and writes it all down.  I think I was ten the first time I read it.  Reading Harriet the Spy, I was reading about myself.  It was the first time I saw myself in someone else’s words.  I loved that Harriet wanted to be a writer, that she was a writer, and most especially, that she was comfortable in her own writer-ly skin.

--Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White (Harper & Brothers, 1952).  This book was read to me by my father before I could read to myself.  For the first time, I knew (in the way that children do, which is to say, mysteriously, pre-consciously) that prose could be poetry.  I’ve read it dozens of times.  To this day, I cannot read the last page without crying.

--The Forsyte Saga, A Modern Comedy, and End of the Chapter by John Galsworthy.  Each of these is a trilogy, so nine novels in all, written in the early twentieth century about an extended English family and spanning five decades.  I was a precocious reader and began to read these novels when I was twelve and my family got hooked on the British TV series.  The novels gave birth to my deep love for all things English, as well as to the realization that reading was a way to ogle other people’s dysfunctional families.

--Rabbit Is Rich, by John Updike (Knopf, 1981).  John Updike wrote in the most beautiful, meticulously crafted prose imaginable about a car salesman who drank too much, cheated on his wife, and tried to understand his place in the world.  This novel, the third of four in the Rabbit series, made me understand what it is to be a certain kind of American man.  It also made me understand that a well-drawn protagonist does not need to be heroic, or even likable, to be compelling.

--Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth (Random House, 1969).  The funniest novel I’ve ever read.  More dysfunctional-family drama.  The beauty and rage and pathos of being a Jewish man in America.  Neither Roth nor Updike has many good things to say about women, but boy, can they write.  (Note: This is not a kid's book.  I don't believe in censoring books, but if you're a kid, you ought to clear this with your parents before taking it on.)

--Anywhere But Here, by Mona Simpson (Vintage, 1992).   Dysfunctional Families R Us.  The story of a complex mother-daughter relationship, told from the daughter’s point of view.  Well, of course I’m going to love it.

--Too Much Happiness, short stories by Alice Munro (Knopf, 2009).  Munro is Canadian, widely heralded as the greatest living short-story writer in the English language.  The stories in Too Much Happiness are magnificent, but so are all her stories.  Here’s a wonderful line from “Face”: “In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.”   No fancy words, no exploding cars, no pyrotechnics of any kind.  Just words that make you wish you’d written them.  And lots of dysfunctional families.

What are some of your favorite books?  Send me a comment, or tell me on Facebook.  Really, I never get tired of this stuff.

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