Wednesday, August 02, 2006

One book

The one-book meme, via Kate's Book Blog and About Last Night:

One book that changed your life

I had a bad habit as a child of going over to a friend's house for a sleepover and instead digging in so deeply to some book I found on the shelves that I became deaf to everything else including the increasingly frustrated friend until I finished reading it. At sixteen or so I remember sleeping over at my friend S.'s dad's house, her stepmother had done a master's degree in English and I pounced upon Roland Barthes's S/Z and couldn't put it down. I knew the name Barthes but only older and more conventional literary criticism had hitherto come my way; this book transformed my sense of what would be possible in my own writing and reading life.

One book that you've read more than once

My most-reread book ever has to be Pride and Prejudice. I had a beaten-up garage-sale copy as a child, with the most hideous Regency-romance cover (a very blond and supercilious Elizabeth Bennett in a pink bonnet, plus very tight-breeched Mr. Darcy and a strange bumpy texture to the physical cover). I read it again and again until the covers fell off and the spine started to split. It is possible that I have read this book as many as thirty-five times, and I almost burned out on it five years ago when I found myself teaching it in two different classes (Literature Humanities and an undergraduate seminar on Austen) the same week. I have lectured on it to Columbia parents, I own at least four (five?) different copies, I have taught it at least six times, at times I have felt so sick of it that I can hardly stand the idea of rereading it. It is definitely no longer my favorite Austen novel. And yet its formal perfection and its strange and remarkably intelligent use of the third-person voice mean that every time I read it again (I think I can safely say I will reread it at least twenty more times in my life, assuming I teach for another thirty-plus years) I find something striking and new.

One book you'd want on a desert island

This is a wholly boring and conventional answer, and yet there is no doubt in my mind that I would have to have the Riverside Shakespeare. Which is of course not itself a boring and conventional book at all.

One book that made you laugh

Cintra Wilson's Colors Insulting to Nature, which should be much more widely read than seems to be the case.

One book that made you cry

Ken Bruen's The Dramatist. Nothing makes me cry, but the ending of this book made me cry.

One book that you wish had been written

Rebecca West wrote a novel called The Fountain Overflows that is my single most cherished top-choice number-one-favorite-novel of all time. It was with some amazement as a teenager that I found on the new books shelf at the public library two further installments in the story of the Aubrey family, both published posthumously: This Real Night and Cousin Rosamund. The story is incomplete, though; a fourth volume was projected, and at the end the editor published West's synopsis of the entire sweep of the narrative. There is no book I would rather read than the last part of that story, and no author I would trust to complete it in West's stead. She herself felt (I don't have the book here, so I can't give you the exact words) that she found herself bumping up against the very limits of her own technique and couldn't figure out how to meet the challenge posed by the story's completion, which included among other things Rose Aubrey attending the Nuremberg trials and hearing an account of the behavior of a (deceased) concentration-camp victim and realizing it was her cousin Rosamund, and that the entire shape of her cousin's life had been meant to bring her to that point.

One book that you wish had never been written

This isn't a book, exactly, but I wish Jonathan Swift had not written the poem "Cadenus and Vanessa." I love Swift, but this poem's combination of bad faith and general creepiness make me hate him instead for as long as it takes me to read the poem.

One book you're currently reading

Anne Burt's My Father Married Your Mother: Writers Talk about Stepparents, Stepchildren and Everyone in Between. This one comes with a funny coincidence: my friend Steve Burt recently recommended an anthology on stepparents edited by his cousin, I followed the link and it sounded interesting but I am neither a step-child nor a step-parent and its acquisition therefore held no urgency for me, though a few days later I sent a copy to a friend who has found herself recently in closer proximity to these issues. Then I found myself a few weeks ago in conversation before Pilates class (yes, yes, it is ridiculous, I know) at the Columbia gym with one of the few other non-undergraduate-age people in the group. And she introduced herself and I suddenly realized that this was Anne Burt, editor of aforesaid volume and cousin of Steve. It was distinctly disconcerting (I had no idea she worked at Columbia) but in a good literary way, and so I immediately ordered another copy of the anthology from Amazon and have been dipping into it. It seems excellent: definitely recommended on grounds of style as well as substance.

One book you've been meaning to read

Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind. I've got a whole shelf of new novels that I purchased in various fits and/or frenzies this spring and early summer and now don't have time to read....


  1. I'm THIS CLOSE to rushing out the door to get The Fountain Overflows; I might have to run by the bookstore tomorrow to get it, as I'm almost finished with my current novel ...

  2. Pride and Prejudice is my most re-read book, too! (Closely followed by Emma and Sense and Sensibility.)

  3. Hi! I'm Flemish and I'm an avid reader of your blog. I read a lot myself, but I'm staggered by the amount of what you read. What's your secret? Are you a speed reader? Do you take notes while reading?

  4. Hmm--not a speed reader, really, though sometimes I do find myself speed reading a novel that's too lightweight to really hold my attention. A fast reader, let's say, with a lot of reading stamina as well: I think I have grown into a better sense of proportion & try not to indulge this too often, but really if I have 5 very desirable novels to read and a whole free day the chances are good that I will read at least three or four of them (and maybe all five) before I sleep.

    I think I'm like everyone else, I read different things at different speeds. I don't take notes, but what I've found over the last few years is that the best way for me to mark things I might want to remember is with post-its--that's how I mark stuff I use in a blog post, or mark the passages I need for something I'm writing. I have found that blogging actually makes me remember the random stuff I read a lot better, I guess typing the name of book and author and a few sentences is a good trick for consolidating memory--especially crime novels tend to have such interchangeable names, it is sometimes difficult to lay your hands on the particulars of something you read a few years ago....

  5. I too am impressed by the volume of books you seem to read. (I wrote a blog post recently about how I struggle just to maintain a book-a-week pace each year. Magazines and internet reading undo me...) And as an academic, like you, I also find myself in periods where I can read nothing that "isn't for work." Sigh.

    Love this meme though and will use it for a blog post myself.

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  7. One book that changed your life:
    The Counte of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
    When I first read this in junior high, I was amazed. The way that Dumas crafts his story, the vivid life like characters, the rich history that is weaved into the political and social background of the story itself, it really helped interest me and gave me my passion for reading literature.

    One book that you've read more than once:
    The Lord of the Rings - J. R. R. Tolkien
    I read this back in junior high as well and this really sparked my interest in the fantasy genre. I've read it countless times and while not the easiest read in the world (due to its overly flowery language and long prose), it is something familiar like an old friend that I can go back to time and time again and feel comfortable knowing the ending and the characters.

    One book that you'd want on a desert island:
    Ulysses - James Joyce
    It's a 900+ page book that recounts one single day in the lives of a handful of characters, modeled after the epic Odyssey by Homer. There is so much to this book, the way each chapters is broken down symbolically to represent a part of the human body, a specific hour of the day, a specific food, etc, It'd be something you can read and re-read over and over again and always discover something new, it would not be a boring read as there is always something to find.

    One book that made you laugh:
    Crazy in Alabama by Mark Childress
    This book is truly insane and it really made me laugh out loud. A southern belle who has run away because she has committed a crime. The dead talking. Dreams of becoming a star on The Beverly Hillbilly's. It's good times, and also a classic of the American Canonical Tradition. Check it out.

    One book that made you cry:
    Beloved - Toni Morrison
    While I don't think that a book has ever really brought me to tears, there are certain books that have really touched me emotionally and with which I've connected. This is one of those books and Toni Morrison's tale of living in the south in a time of post-war slavery, prejudice, and bigotry, really makes you reflect on a sad moment in history. The main heroine is someone most anyone can identify with.

    One author that you wish still lived today:
    It would be very interesting to see what Oscar Wilde would be writing in today's society. Someone with that kind of wit and sarcasm, thrown in with a very rich literary talent, would produce some scathing reviews and criticisms of society, would make for a unique essay collection.

    One book that had never been written:
    War and Peace by Tolstoy
    Ok, maybe it's a bit harsh to wish this book had never been written, but man oh man is this a whole lot of nothing. There is just so much, unnecessary garbage in this book. Call him a great Russian literary master, I will stick with Dostoevsky instead.

    One book you're currently reading:
    The Year of Magical Thinking - Joan Didion
    Coming off of reading The White Album a collection of essay's about her time living in California, her views on society, politics, people, places, things, all mixed together with her very unique sensibility and dry wit, I decided to get into this true life account of a year in her life, a year in which her daughter going through cancer rehabilitation, becomes even more of a nightmare when her husband dies one night at the dinner table and how she deals with so much loss an sadness.

    One book you've been meaning to read:
    1984 - George Orwell
    I have never made it past page 15 in this particular novel. It's not his writing or anything specific as I've enjoyed many of his other books and essays, just this one particular story is difficult for me to get into. Maybe it's because I know so much about the book already, many of its quotes and its central theme of an urban dystopian future and a corrupt political government, one of these days it'll be tackled.