Thursday, October 16, 2008

What's your favorite book?

Because I teaching writing and literature (aka “English” (wink, wink)) people sometimes (often) ask me what my favorite book is. For the first few years people were asking me that question I would rack my brain and try to decide which of the hundreds of books I’ve read is my top pick. I’m not sure, but I don’t think I gave the same answer twice. In fact, over time the answer to that question morphed into, “It depends."  I would do that maddening teacherly thing and say, "It depends..." (and wait for dramatic effect)  "... on what I’m reading at the moment.” My “favorite” book is very often one that I’m enjoying at the moment. Quite a bit of the enjoyment I get from reading comes from discovering new stuff—new authors, new genres, new approaches, new ideas, new worlds—so whatever I’m reading right now tends to be top(ish) of the list. My mythology class has just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, for example, so I have just made my way through it twice in the last 6 weeks (once to prep the course and again to be able to say something about it when we got to it in the class). That makes it one of my current favorites. You should read it. Soon. It’s worth your time.

I have other favorites, of course. There are books that I re-read periodically because I like them so much. They’re like a comfortable pair of shoes or slice of Grandma’s caramel cake with a glass of cold milk. They’re familiar territory with known pleasures. I re-read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead from time to time. I’ve come back to Angle of Repose or The Sparrow more than once. The Robe was an annual summer read for quite a while. (Can you name the authors? Without the help of Google? (That, by the way, is another annoying teacherly thing... asking what you know about MY area of expertise.))

When I’m overwhelmed with life, or with student papers, I sometimes take refuge in the recognizable rewards of a story that I already know and love. What do you re-read? Why?

 On a related note, people sometimes (though not as often as I’d like) as me what book or books I might recommend—either for themselves or for their children (I especially like the latter query—there are so many!! good children’s and young adult books out there). Early in my teaching career I would recommend things in a kind of willy-nilly fashion—not taking in to account the reader very much. This practice came back to bite me once or twice. When I was in graduate school, working as a pharmacy technician,  I recommended Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping to a woman that I delivered prescriptions to and she was not too happy after reading it. She said the book was way too strange for her. If I had been a little wiser and a little more observant I would have noticed that she had row upon row of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey books on her shelves. What was I thinking, recommending a book with no horses, and nothing a fan of “westerns” would call action in it? I don’t know. Anyway, I’m a little more careful now. I ask what people have already read and liked before I pop off and recommend Black Like Me or Left Hand of Darkness or even Huckleberry Finn. (Notice, however, that I did recommend the Kingsolver book without asking you, gentle reader(s), what you’ve read and liked. Deal with it. . .  And read the book!)

 My dire warning notwithstanding, what reading would you recommend to a friend? What book or books have so changed your life, or at least your outlook on life, that you want to share them with the world?


Patricia Murphy, a resident of said...

I just have to comment on this one even though I suspect I'm gonna embarrass myself. Last spring, after almost five years at my current job, I finally taught a lit class: the novel, in fact. I selected texts I hoped would make my students think and texts I knew would both entertain them and make them think. I did pretty well, for the most part. A few didn't like Frankenstein (too hard to read); they all loved High Fidelity, and Margaret Atwood picked up several new fans, as did Jonathan Lethem. It was a delightful class -- invigorating, bouncy, in short everything we book heads love.

Until, that is, we got to my favorite book, the one that still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I reread it, the one about which I wrote one of my doctoral papers: Graham Swift's Ever After. My students didn't like or care about all that cool inter textuality, didn't appreciate Bill Unwin's dilemma or the way Swift undercuts history to make the private (his)story (as critics love to call it) as important as the larger grind and spin of dead white men's tomes. While they might have felt compassion for him, they thought Unwin ought to just get on with it, loosen himself from that solopcism to which he seemed to cling so tightly. They would admit to really liking some lines and paragraphs, to really appreciating some aspects of Swift's style, but as a whole . . . the book left almost all of them cold. The psych majors proclaimed borderline personality disorder: so much for postmodernism.

In the long run I learned a valuable lesson: don't teach the book you capital L Love and expect everybody else to feel the same way. They were such a good natured bunch that I didn't fly off the handle and get all imperious English teacher on them. But at times I did feel like I was trying to sell them, oh I don't know, a 1997 Corolla with 153,000 miles on it by making it seem like a safe car to take out on the New York Thruway. Yes, that example is from my real car life.

You'd think I would've learned my lesson when I tried to use Dog Years in my memoir class. Previous student had liked Firebird, but Dog Years went THUD. As I read (well, reread) it closely with them, I too found it a bit much, too over the top, almost cringing and definitely overwritten. I learned another valuable lesson from that one.

Wow, that was a long answer, sorry, but now you know two of my favorite books. To the above shortlist I'll add Housekeeping and As She Climbed Across the Table. The former in a sense got me in to my current gig, and the latter is about our gig -- academe and all its foibles and follies.
Happy Reading
P.S.: One student wrote on the IDEA evaluations for the novel class "Let Dr. Murphy teach more literature classes!" Isn't that sweet?

Mark Brown said...

My Antonia by Willa Cather
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Sun Under Wood by Robert Hass
My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok