A few months back, Entertainment Weekly published a small article in which famous writers listed the contents of their “ideal bookshelves.” The concept intrigued me. What tomes would I buy over and over? What would I pack if I were exiled to a desert island? What books would I never want to live without?
For anyone who might care, I thought I’d answer those questions with a series of short columns. If nothing else, I hope that what follows might inspire you to think about the books that matter most to you.
Fair warning: 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. You’ll see what I mean.
Without further preamble, below you will find the first five texts on my ideal bookshelf. Comments, alternatives, compliments, and protests are welcome.
[Note: the Bible is not on this list because I didn’t want to suggest it might be “just” a creative work. But I’d take it with me.]
#25. Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman (graphic novel).
For those not in the know, Sandman is simply the best comic-book series ever. If you only read comics for superheroes, don’t buy this series. But if you believe that the medium is supple enough to tell any kind of story—and it is—then give Neil Gaiman’s book about an uber-race of gods a try. Known as the Endless, these gods, unlike any other pantheon, do not depend on mortal worshippers to maintain their power. They transcend human will and belief. They rule the areas of life that all humans encounter, no matter the faith or dogma. Their names are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Delight, Desire, and Despair.
Sandman focuses on Dream, also known by many other names, including Morpheus and Oneiros. A tall, pale stranger with eyes like stars and a cloak made of night, Dream walks the realms of our sleep, building his empire, shaping our nightmares.
I would love to put the entire Sandman series on this list. In fact, I’ll go ahead and tell you to buy it all, either one trade paperback at a time or in the doorstop hardcover editions I’ve been collecting over the last few years. But if you’re going to read one, and only one, I’d go with Season of Mists.
The plot: thousands of years ago, a less-mature, colder version of Dream imprisoned a woman in hell for the crime of rejecting his love. In the present day, Dream incurs the wrath of Lucifer, the fallen angel called the Morningstar. I won’t tell you why. For that, you’ll need to consult Sandman vol. 1. In that storyline, you’ll also see the events that cause Dream to reconsider his earlier behavior.
As Season of Mists opens, Dream finally decides to journey back to Hell and free his old lover. In spite of his fear of Lucifer, the second-most-powerful being in the universe, Dream enters the gates of Hell. Soon enough, he encounters Lucifer—but no one else. Having foreseen Dream’s coming, Lucifer has made a rather startling decision that has a triple purpose—to fulfill Lucifer’s own desires and to torment Dream. This decision will have far-reaching implications for Earth, for the metaphysical plane, for every pantheon of gods, and for Dream himself.
Exploring world religions and universe-shaking powers while concurrently delving into the recesses of individual motivations and emotions, Sandman: Season of Mists is exciting, thought-provoking, and, of course, well-written. Beautifully penciled primarily by Kelly Jones, with Mike Dringenberg and Matt Wagner filling in, this book is a gorgeous and eerie edition to anyone’s bookshelf. If I could pick only one Gaiman work to take with me, I’d pick this one.
Other texts that could work well: Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes; Sandman: The Doll’s House; Sandman: A Game of You; Sandman: The Kindly Ones; American Gods; Neverwhere.
24. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (graphic novel).
Probably the greatest limited series in comic-book history, Watchmen attempts to answer the question, “What if superheroes were real?” The result is not pretty, but it is absolutely fascinating.
Actually, only one of the heroes qualifies as super, and he’s not much of a hero. He’s aloof at best, viewing the world’s mad dash toward destruction with curiosity, when he thinks about it at all. The rest are middle-aged and struggling—undersexed, overweight, psychopathic, egotistical.
When the fate of the world really does depend on these all-too-human outlaws and their godlike acquaintance, they perform much better than you might expect. They reveal they have skills. They work together well in spite of their bickering. They solve a mystery that no one even knew existed. And yet….
It’s hard to save the world when you’re fighting yourself.
A series of deep and nuanced character studies, a labyrinthine mystery, an action-adventure, a romance, a science-fiction romp spanning the solar system—Watchmen is all that and more. It takes its subject matter completely seriously even as it deconstructs the usual tropes of the genre. It makes your average superhero comic seem naïve and quaint. I read it once every couple of years just to remind myself of the medium’s possibilities. You should, too. Skip the so-so film adaptation and go right to the source.
Other texts that could work well: any trade paperback of Moore’s run on Swamp Thing; The Killing Joke; V for Vendetta.
23. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros.
Whenever I teach a multicultural literature class, I try to include something by Sandra Cisneros, and the titular story in this collection almost always makes it into my World Literature II and American Literature II syllabi.
The stories in this book focus on women who live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Sometimes those women cross the border, but no matter where they go, they are confronted with a sense of cultural dislocation, of Otherness, as they encounter patriarchal attitudes and outright abuse. Readers are immersed in a rich evocation of Hispanic cultures and the triumphs, failures, and contradictions of what those cultures mean.
Yet for all the high-minded darkness of that description, the book is also full of joy as women connect to each other, overcome their circumstances, reject the deadening influences of authority in their lives, find the joy in acts of rebellion great and small. Read this book and, like one of the women in the titular story, you might find yourself shouting with the pure joy of freedom and possibility, even if you’ve got tears in your eyes.
Other texts that could work well: The House on Mango Street.
You can’t have a list like this without Shakespeare. This is one of those “cheats” I was talking about, where I’m taking an anthology instead of a single work. Given that this anthology actually exists (there are several versions), that it isn’t just a product of my wishful thinking, I’m including it.
If you’re older than, say, thirteen or fourteen, you don’t need me to tell you what’s so great about Shakespeare. From the great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, etc.—to the comedies—Much Ado about Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, and so forth—to the histories like the King Henry plays, Shakespeare’s work is synonymous with theater and what we often call “literary” work.
One great thing about the Complete Works is that you also get the poetry, especially the sonnets. Shakespeare was good enough as a poet that it almost seems unfair; it would be like discovering that Alfred Hitchcock was also a piano prodigy.
I’m linking to the Bevington anthology because that was pretty much the standard back when I studied the works in graduate school. But feel free to pick your own. As for me, this is the one I’d take with me.
Other texts that could work well: if I couldn’t take Shakespeare, I’d take some other dramatist—Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, etc.
21. In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason.
In the mid-80s, seventeen-year-old Sam Hughes tries to come to terms with her father’s death in Vietnam and her uncle Emmett’s inability to get over the war. What could be a real downer of a novel (not that there’s anything wrong with that; some of my favorite texts are downers) evolves into much more through Mason’s deft handling of Sam’s teenage viewpoints and her dependence on popular culture to define her life (M.A.S.H. in particular).
Sam struggles to understand seemingly contradictory ideas that would confuse anyone who thinks about them for too long—a veteran’s erectile dysfunction with a friend’s pregnancy, the way the world changes around her so fast even as her father’s picture remains frozen in time, and more. Through her, we view the 80s as a confusing landscape that belies the homogenous nature of its politics and pop culture. Through the novel, we see Vietnam from an outsider’s point of view and reimagine it as the crux of understanding different lives, rather than just as a world event that kills.
Often dismissed as “only” a YA novel, In Country is that and much more. For whatever reason, it resonates with me. I think you’ll dig it, too.
Other texts that could work well: Shiloh and Other Stories.
So there you have the first five. More to come soon.
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