I don’t know if this has infested your Facebook newsfeed yet, but there is a post going around asking people to list their top ten books. And as an English major/writer/blogger, I thought I should at least attempt this. I apologize in advance for the pretentious choices. It comes with the degree.
1. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
This is my absolute favorite book. I’ve never felt a stronger connection to a writer than I do with Dave Eggers. The book is a fictionalized memoir, chronicling the difficulties of losing one’s parents suddenly and at a young age. Eggers brilliantly expresses the breadth of emotions one feels while trying to make sense of mortality, and attempting to use heartache to create art.
“I stand up quickly and throw, this time some of the cremains sticking to my palm, which is now sweaty—fuck!
… how lame this is, how small, terrible. Or maybe it is beautiful. I can’t decide if what I’m doing is beautiful and noble and right, or small and disgusting. I want to be doing something beautiful, but am afraid that this is too small, too small, that this gesture, this end is too small…
but even if so, even if this is right and beautiful, and she is tearing up while watching, so proud… I knew I would do it, and I know this, I know what I am doing now, that I am doing something both beautiful but gruesome because I am destroying it’s beauty by knowing that it might be beautiful, know that if I know I am doing something beautiful, that it is no longer beautiful. I fear that even if it is beautiful in the abstract, that my doing it knowing that it’s beautiful and worse, knowing that I will very soon be documenting it, that in my pocket is a tape recorder brought for just that purpose—that all this makes this act of potential beauty something gruesome. I am a monster. My poor mother. She would do this without thinking, without the thinking about the thinking—
oh fuck. I throw more.”
2. Harry Potter Series – J.K. Rowling
Thank Merlin for the crush I had in fifth grade and Scholastic book order. I begged my mother to order this book about a boy wizard, and it isn’t ridiculous to say that this decision changed my life. Harry Potter taught me about struggle and choices, right and wrong. It opened the door to writing for me, gave me a community of peers. I will always be grateful for these books.
“You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble? Your father is alive in you, Harry, and shows himself plainly when you have need of him.” (Prisoner of Azkaban)
3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
Oh man. This book taught me so much about race and gender and sexuality—perhaps more than any other book in the “literary” canon. Le Guin uses a platform (SciFi) that is easily dismissed as escapist to explore such remarkable emotional depths, and cultural struggles. I love Le Guin for her take-no-prisoners attitude, her eloquence and her storytelling. She gives us such an incredible love story.
“A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.”
4. Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis
This book made me fall in love with C.S. Lewis. I was surprised by this retelling of the Cupid/Psyche myth from the point of view of one of the jealous sisters, as I expected it to be mere entertainment. Yet Lewis uses these brilliant characters to give such profound insight into the struggle with a deity, the silence of the gods. This book changed many of my views in such remarkable ways.
“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
5. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
I did my senior thesis on this novel, and I still don’t think I understand it. I love coming back to this text, it is so rich. This book taught me a lot about literary study, and how enjoyable it can be. Even after studying it for a year, writing a 16-page paper, and watching the sunrise over my laptop the day it was due, I still love this book.
“…I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire… I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
6. Underworld – Don DeLillo
This is definitely one of my pretentious English major books. But having conquered this ridiculous 832-page monstrosity, I feel like bragging. But I did love this novel. I loved that while I followed it, there was so much more I didn’t follow, that there is so much happening under the surface that I can return to it again and again and find a different book. I love the giant canvas it is written on, the ludicrous things it tries to say. I love everything about this book.
“Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.”
7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer
I don’t know if I’ve ever cried as hard reading a book as I did reading this one. This book taught me so much about form and style, and how it can be used not only to make a literary point, but to make an emotional point. Foer builds such moving and real characters, and I never wanted it to end.
“You can’t love anything more than something you miss.”
8. New and Selected Poems – Mary Oliver
The importance of this woman in my life still surprises me. I never expected to fall in love with Mary Oliver, but the moment I read Dogfish I knew I’d found someone who understood struggle and knew how to put it into words. I am so grateful to have found her poetry.
“I wanted / the past to go away, I wanted / to leave it, like another country; I wanted / my life to close, and open / like a hinge, like a wing, like the part of the song where it falls / down over the rocks: an explosion, a discovery; I wanted / to hurry into the work of my life; I wanted to know / whoever I was, I was / alive / for a little while.” (Dogfish)
9. The Waste Land – T. S. Eliot
This might be the quintessential “pretentious English major” book, but it’s difficult for me not to love Eliot. His poetry is just so full—it continues to reveal itself again and again after every read. I still don’t think I understand this poem, but I love that every time I read it, I can find something new.
“In the mountains, there you feel free. / I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.”
10. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
This man taught me a lot about subtlety. I have to admit, when I first experienced this story as the independent movie with Andrew Garfield, Kiera Knightly, and Carey Mulligan I hated it. I thought the plot twist was unmerited, and the entire piece made no sense. But the story haunted me, I couldn’t stop thinking about. So I picked up the book. And I loved every minute of it. The subtlety that felt surprising and off-putting in the movie just shone brightly in the book. Every minute decision of the characters had purpose, and it broke my heart to watch their pain. The book is breathtaking.
“We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.”
Now it’s your turn. What are your 10 most influential books?