-- Albert Camus
Losing my library in the fire was heartbreaking. Having studied literature for twelve years meant that I had over seven hundred books, many of them contained little notes I had made in the margins or photos I had in the creases to remind me of the time when I read them. I had planned on giving them to Maiken someday in hopes that she would find my scribbles and wonder what they meant. I imagined laughing together at my cryptic underlinings (I’m known to underline the strangest things in books – my friends who borrow books from me all agree). After I lost my books, I didn’t only grieve them, I grieved a future filled with memories of Maiken and me bonding over books.
Searching for a way to make it up to the future Maiken, I promised myself that I would write about my relationship to my books…for her. Even though she will never inherit a library full of scribbled notes and random photographs, at least she would have a clear picture of what my books meant to me.
So…in the spirit of fading memories, I made a kind of summer reading list. And by summer, I mean Camus’ definition of summer: these books made this list because they reflect the invincible summer in me.
From the first page: "A few days ago I received a couple of bird's feathers from far away, from one who need not have sent them; just two green feathers folded in a sheet of paper with a coronet on it and fastened with a seal."
In Norwegian, the wording is more poetic - if I remember correctly, the narrator says the feathers have been sent from someone who didn't owe him anything. This sentence killed me when I read it. Just the thought of receiving two feathers in the mail. To this day, I've always wanted to do that for someone. Maybe I will.
This was the first serious novella I have ever managed to read in Norwegian so it was also a pretty important landmark for me. When I was teaching literature, I always dreamed of creating a course on the works of Hamsun and Hemingway. I read somewhere that Hemingway once said that Hamsun taught him how to write. I didn't find this out until recently and it completely made sense. Their sensibilities, their landscapes, their aesthetic - it rang completely true as soon as I read it.
This book is a beautiful meditation on the simplicity of life in the forest, Norwegian culture and landscape, and the beauty and troubles of solitude.
2. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
This book is full of one-liners that will kill you for days. I'm really not sure why there are so many modern day versions of Sherlock Holmes when Phillip Marlowe is a much more charming and complex detective figure. I've read most of Chandler's novels, but this one is my favorite. Chandler was a fascinating character. I've often thought of Hammett and Chandler as the 40s versions of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Chandler worked in Hollywood and co-wrote several noir screenplays, including one of my favorites - Double Indemnity. As one of the most successful writers of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction, he's best known for his masterful use of similes - my graduate mentor, Paul Skenazy, wrote so eloquently about Chandler's similes that I still haven't forgotten his words: "Nothing is only itself. We are reminded that we live in concrete and jungles, reality and dream, the known and the barely conceived. The similes provide a swinging door between limit and possibility."
This book will make you want to watch the classic movies this genre inspired. Start with Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, then watch The Killers, and finally, Double Indemnity. Don't watch Robert Altman's version of The Long Goodbye until you've read the novel. You'll appreciate both so much more.
3. Anais Nin, Henry & June
If you've ever loved two very different people at the same time...
You'll know right away if you're the intended audience for this book in the first five pages. I read it when I was twenty-two and it opened my mind to so many new ideas, feelings, experiences I've never had, but I felt the wisdom of having gone through them anyway. I did not understand then that it is possible to love someone without being "with" them - that sometimes it's preferable not to be with them. Love was a very straightforward thing in my mind for a long time. And then I realized there are many nuanced versions of love, desire, and passion and my world opened up. This book made me feel free to love anyone. And that is a freedom I will never give up again.
4. Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spider Woman
A completely bizarre premise for one of the greatest literary surprises of my lifetime. I read this as a first year graduate student when I was a teaching assistant for an Intro to Literature class. The professor was an expert of Latin American literature and culture and all of the assigned reading was by Latin American writers I had never heard of, with the exception of Pablo Neruda. I was blown away by nearly everything I read for that class. Another notable reading assignment for that course was Julio Cortazar's short story, "Axolotl."
This book made my heart hurt it was so strangely beautiful and unexpected. The re-telling of the films is brilliant - at first, I wanted to watch the films they were talking about but for some reason, I never did. When I taught the book, I had an interpretation of the relationship between the two main characters that I was really proud of at the time and we had an amazing class discussion around it, but now I cannot remember what it was. I hate when I feel left out of a memory from my own life!
5. Joan Didion, Play it as it Lays
When I taught a creative writing class, my students had a problem with being/writing too literally. They would write scenes about death and betrayal and infidelity and suicide but they wrote about it so earnestly - as if all characters said what they were feeling exactly when they were feeling it. The assignment for the week was to write a page and a half of dialogue. A lot of them sounded like this:
"I want to die." he said.
"Please don't say that," she said.
We had just started reading this novel by Joan Didion and I remember thinking that it was perfect timing. After discussing Didion's dense prose, I prompted them to rewrite without mentioning the big "it" that was motivating their scenes. They completely got it. As a teacher, that almost never happens so easily. It felt magical.
As I flipped through the novel just now, I turned to this passage.
"I want a very large steak," she said to Les Goodwin in a restaurant on Melrose at eight o'clock that night. "And before the very large steak I want three drinks. And after the steak I want to go somewhere with very loud music."
"I don't know where. You ought to know where. You know a lot of places with loud music."
"What's the matter with you?"
"I am just very very very tired of listening to you all."
(Play it as it Lays, page 85)
6. Iceberg Slim, Pimp: The Story of My Life
There was this literature professor on campus that was a legend. His classes were always full, his booklists amazing, his style enviable and there were no limits to his charm. He was known to be surly with graduate students, however, and most of us stayed away, fearing his brilliance and the rumors of his unapologetic draconian ways. When I first approached him to work with me as a member of my dissertation committee, he gave me a list of ten or so books and told me not to come see him until I’d read them all. This book was at the top of his list.
Iceberg Slim's first novel/autobiography reads like a ghetto bildungsroman and is known to many in the "game" as the ultimate "style manual." While Slim's intentions for writing was to prevent young men like him from being seduced by the profession of pimping, the result was quite the opposite. Slim is widely considered to be the father of street literature as his work has had an immense influence on real life pimps and writers like Donald Goines, not to mention his impact on hip hop and popular culture (Ice-T, Jay-Z, and Dave Chappelle have all given huge props to Iceberg Slim). Oh and one of the best things about this book is the glossary in the back - yes, THE original urban dictionary.
Because of Slim, I will continue to use the phrase "the square world" with a certain hesitation, ambivalence, respect, and awareness. To always remind myself that in some way, we are all trying to solve its riddles and figure out on which side of the line we stand – for better and for worse.
The professor ended up being my mentor for years and has now become a very dear family friend. This book was the subject of my first published essay.