A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.
5. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.
Back in graduate school, we thought about making “I Survived Gravity’s Rainbow” t-shirts, but we never did. Perhaps it’s because we knew that, in spite of the book’s labyrinthine plot and dozens of characters, the book is something to be savored, not survived.
World War II is on, and Tyrone Slothrop finds himself meandering through the European theater, seeking Rocket 00000, a particularly deadly weapon. To say much more about the plot would be futile and just plain mean, since half the fun (and frustration) of reading the book for the first time is trying to keep things straight—who’s who, what they’re doing, where they’re doing it, and why. Dead people don’t necessarily stay that way. Kinky sex is had. Double agents appear; limericks and bawdy songs supplement the traditional narrative; and eventually, our protagonist—what? Explodes? Disappears? Evaporates? Becomes irrelevant?
Gravity’s Rainbow is truly a tour de force. You may have to read it two or three times before you start to get a real handle on it, but it rewards repeated readings. Though it takes place in wartime Europe, it is one of the quintessential texts of Postmodernism, and a book that is somehow very much American.
Other texts that would work well: Mason and Dixon; The Crying of Lot 49; Inherent Vice.
4. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.
A candidate on the list of books that might actually qualify as the mythical “great American novel,” Melville’s Moby-Dick is another book that rewards repeated readings. From what I have gathered from talking to different people, the usual experience goes something like this. First reading—you get lost in all the footnoted material (or, worse, you read an edition with no footnotes and stay lost half the time) and the minutia of cetology, and so you’re afraid you missed half the plot. Second reading—you retain more of the information; you notice material that you may have missed the first time; and you realize that, in terms of plot, not a lot actually happens. Third reading—you start to appreciate the genius.
About that plot: our narrator, Ishmael, arrives in Nantucket, determined to go to sea, basically because he is sick of people in general (a feeling with which I can relate). He meets Queequeg the harpooner in a hotel. Together, they sign on to the Pequod, a whaler. The ship sails, and they meet the monomaniacal Ahab, who reveals his true agenda—to find and kill the creature that took his leg, a white whale named Moby-Dick. The Pequod sails about the world’s oceans, asking other ships if they’ve seen Moby-Dick, killing a couple of different kinds of whales, and philosophizing about the nature of whales, humanity, obsession, revenge, religion, history, and a dozen other subjects. Eventually they find Moby-Dick; things go badly.
That’s about it.
In between all that, we get some of the most eloquent first-person narration in world letters and from the American Romantic era in particular. The action sequences are detailed and thrilling. The philosophy is thought-provoking. The symbolism is deep.
As Ishmael says, “Surely these things are not without meaning.”
The result of all this is a book that is absolutely essential. I never get tired of it. If you have the wherewithal to stick by it, it will grow on you.
Other texts that would work well: Typee; Billy Budd; Redburn; White Jacket; The Confidence-Man; the collected short works, which would include one of my favorite stories in existence, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”
3. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
War literature is often hard to take—for the former soldier, who might find him/herself forced to relive painful memories; for the civilian, who often has to wade through buckets of blood and gore, gallows humor, and the foulest of foul language; for the writer, who must give part of him/herself and live down in the trenches with the characters. Yet this kind of writing is crucial to the evolution of the world and the world spirit of which we are all a part. Art does not have to be pretty; in fact, it often needs to be ugly, horrendous, painful, so that it can drag kicking and screaming into the light things that we might otherwise gloss in order to avoid discomfort.
I’ve said this before. I say it again because Tim O’Brien’s—what? Linked story collection? Novel-in-stories?—The Things They Carried manages to be ugly and painful and unutterably beautiful, often all at the same time.
It’s an abstract examination of concepts like war and bravery at the same that it’s a concrete representation of how those concepts can manifest. It is a minute examination of how war affects the individual psyche even as it follows a group of men and the ways that they connect and disconnect, laugh and cry, live and perish, zapped while zipping.
From the opening story that scrutinizes all the different ideas that the words “things” and “carry” might mean, to the unravelling of the very concept of narrative in “How to Tell a True War Story”; from the coming-of-age-in-a-pressure-cooker tension of “On the Rainy River” to the gender-complicated heartbreak of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”; from the personal recriminations of “In the Field” to the desperate search for closure in “Field Trip”; from the loss and disconnection of “Speaking of Courage” to the redemptive power of stories in “The Lives of the Dead,” every single line and word in this book is indispensable.
Along the way, O’Brien examines such American concepts as patriotism and courage, individualism and group membership, language and action, war and that elusive concept we call peace.
The Things They Carried is a staggering artistic achievement and a deeply personal experience. Buy it yesterday. Read it now. Remember it forever.
Other texts that would work well: Going After Cacciato; If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; July, July.
2. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
I knew that McCarthy would make the list, and that, if it were truly an ordered list, he would be near the top. I was not sure which text I would go with. How do you choose between Blood Meridian and the shattering experience that is The Road? Or the Border Trilogy? Even the short and highly disturbing Child of God or the mediocre-according-to-critics No Country for Old Men? Suttree, Outer Dark, The Orchard Keeper…any of them are worthy of this list.
While I almost went with The Road, and might well do so if you asked me to remake this list tomorrow, I must, at least for today, choose Blood Meridian: or, the Evening Redness in the West as the McCarthy book I cannot do without.
The scene: the American southwest in the late 19th century. Dramatis Personae: The Kid, our protagonist, a teenaged survivor with a vicious streak a mile wide; The Judge, the towering, hairless, possibly supernatural philosopher who just might literally be a devil; Glanton, the leader of a gang of bloodthirsty thugs who scalps Native Americans for fun and profit; and Glanton’s gang, any one of whom might make the subject of a long case study in socio- and/or psychopathy.
Based on historical events, Blood Meridian chronicles the travels and acts of this gang as the drown the southwest in gore, not all of it from “Indians.” We are witness to literal massacres. Death is never further away than one careless word or unguarded facial expression. Through it all, McCarthy’s unforgettable characters ponder the nature of humanity, of war, of freedom, of God. The Judge’s speeches alone are endlessly quotable and chilling.
Some find the book hopelessly bleak, and it’s tough to argue against that characterization, except…
Well, near the end, the Kid shows us a couple of glimmers of a human soul. What happens to him as a result is wrenching and ambiguous.
Several years ago, I gave the book to a relative who wanted a good read. The next time I saw her, she said, “What the heck did you get me into?”
Pick up the book and find out for yourself.
Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named texts. Start with The Road, which won more awards than a Spielberg film, and go from there.
1. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner.
Among the world’s people of letters, Faulkner has perhaps been the biggest influence on my own work, though he might have to duke it out with anybody else on this list (and a few dozen others) for that honor on any given day. He’s also another writer whose works are almost impossible to choose from. Even his minor works (if you believe in the viability of such a term) are good, thought-provoking reads.
During the 1920s and 30s, Faulkner went on a roll that is among the most creatively satisfying in history. The works normally described as his masterpieces were written during that time—not just GD,M but also his most complex work, Absalom, Absalom! (which was originally in this spot); his master class in point of view and voice, The Sound and the Fury; his insightful examination of race and class, Light in August; his surprisingly pot-boiling novel, Sanctuary; his story collection/novel-in-stories The Unvanquished, which takes us through the Civil War and beyond; and his OTHER master study in point of view and voice, the darkly comic and deeply sad As I Lay Dying.
One of my graduate school professors, a national authority on Faulkner and southern literature, once called Go Down, Moses Faulkner’s greatest work about race. That is, of course, debatable. But there can be no debate that this book—another collection/novel-in-stories—is a masterpiece of creative energy and daring.
Focusing on the families of old Carothers McCaslin, an antebellum plantation patriarch, the book begins in pre-Civil War times with the hilarious, deadpan, at times slapstick yet still dramatic tale “Was.” We first learn that there are two sides to old Carothers’s family—the white side and the black side, the latter of which resulting from his forced miscegenation—i.e., rape—of his female slaves, thus the references to Tomey’s Turl as “that damn half-white McCaslin.” The characters we meet in “Was” are the ancestors of those we’ll meet in the other stories, notably McCaslin Edmonds, Ike McCaslin (who would inherit and, out of shame, repudiate the land of his fathers), Carothers Edmonds, and Lucas Beauchamp, the African-American descendent of Old Carothers by the male line.
What follows in these stories is often funny; see, for instance, the way that Lucas outsmarts all the educated white men in the area. It is often shocking and emotionally draining; see “Pantaloon in Black” for one example. It is often confusing; try reading the second half of “The Bear” just once and see if you can keep it all straight. But the book is always fascinating and powerful.
Here are only a few topics you will encounter: family connections; how race impacts family connections in the south; economic class, and how race impacts it in the south; gender roles and assumptions, and how race impacts them in the south; the disappearance of nature in the face of encroaching urbanization and development (look for the heartbreaking images in “The Bear,” a story that is mythic in its scope and aims); the responsibility of an individual for his sons—or his fathers; how we relate to our elders; and the illusory nature of what we often call progress.
Look for characters like those named above and Sam Fathers, who brings to the book his own convoluted history; Boon Hoggenback, the backwoods anti-marksman who loves his dog more than his own life; and the Beauchamps, whose familial drama is as powerful in its own way as anything in literature.
You can’t go wrong with Faulkner. If you start with this book, look up a family tree so you can keep track of who’s who and how they are related. Then sit back and watch the master work.
Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named works; The Uncollected Stories; The Town; The Hamlet; Soldier’s Pay; The Wild Palms; Intruder in the Dust.
There you go—the top 25 books on my ideal bookshelf, at least for now. If you haven’t read them, get started. You’re never too young—or too old—to appreciate greatness.
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