Dispatches | April 12, 2007

On April 13 I turn fifty.  I could say that I’m grateful that my hair is still its natural color-and I am.  That I weigh about what I always have and wear the same size, and still gravitate toward jeans in most situations, if they can be gotten away with, and can still usually get away with them.  That I’m still (sort of) what I was when I was younger.

But I’m not the same, and if I were — if anyone was — at fifty what they were at twenty-five, it would be a tragedy. When someone says, “Live and learn,” they’re usually talking about big mistakes. But try thinking of living and learning instead as the crowning joy of a thoughtful life — a reader’s life.  Normally I spurn lists, especially “top” lists, but because birthdays, especially milestone birthdays, call for a little self-indulgence, I’m going to break my own rule never to make a “top” list.  Here are ten books (listed in roughly the order in which I read them) without which my life would have been much poorer — and also what they taught me. 

The Fairy Tale Book. A Deluxe Golden Book that was a  Christmas gift from my grandmother (herself a reader and teacher of literature) this was my first intimation that books could be big, strange, and full of outlandish characters and events.

An Edge of the Forest, by Agnes Smith.  Unfortunately dated and now out of print, Smith’s children’s novel was my first exposure to allegory. Though I couldn’t have explained then what it meant exactly, it revolutionized my reading by showing me that stories — and experiences in general — weren’t always about what they were about.

The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer.  Words can make music, and it only takes a handful of them to do it.

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens.  Pip was pathetic. Couldn’t he just get over Estella?  She was a bitch anyway.  That was my ninth-grade reading.  Later I learned from rereading Dickens’s novel that you should always reserve judgment about something until you understand it.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller.  The absurd, the unjust, the repugnant, the evil, the corrupt, the insufferable, the inane, the incompetent: they’re all very funny in the right hands.  This book sealed my love of satire.

Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle.  There is such a thing as soul-writing, but it can’t be sifted out from the intellect that creates it or the circumstances that provoke it.

Complete Poems of William Butler Yeats. Love is a transitive verb, whose object becomes more diffuse — and more prized — the older you get.

The Portrait of a Lady.  Character plus gender is fate. And Henry James was an inimitable genius.

The Complete Short Stories of Flannery O’Connor.  You don’t choose faith; it comes and knocks you in the head; and though that’s not really funny, it can be made to appear funny by certain eccentric Southern Gothic authors.

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope.  Masterful humor can heal.