A “meme” has been drifting through the blogosphere, seeking readers to match the books in their lives to nine categories. Gimmicks normally irritate, and I tried to ignore this one but it proved as tenacious as a deer tick. Some titles were self-evident. Others stumped me, so some answers are tentative. I found pleasure in both. Ask me again tomorrow:
One book that changed your life: The Geography of the Imagination, by Guy Davenport. A teacher in everything he did, he taught me the Borgesian lesson that everything is connected, nothing is alien. Just enter the labyrinth and follow the thread. His voice is charming and authoritative, a scholar sharing his loves. How could I do less than follow his suggestions? He led me to Ruskin, Zukofsky, Agassiz and Paul Metcalf, and back to others I already knew: Pound, Whitman, Joyce, Mandelstam, Welty…
One book that you’ve read more than once: Ulysses, by James Joyce. The first time, in junior high school, I understood only the seductive music of Joyce’s language – enough to keep me going. After subsequent readings – four? five? – the novel remains funny, cosmically happy, and heartbreaking: "Something to hand on. If little Rudy had lived. See him grow up. Hear his voice in the house. Walking beside Molly in an Eton suit. My son. Me in his eyes. Strange feeling that would be. From me."
One book you’d want on a desert island: Complete Works, by William Shakespeare. The toughest category. I was tempted, like Terry Teachout, to pack Montaigne’s Essays in my duffel. Language tipped the scale. Without French, I rely on translation. With Shakespeare, I pack the world, and in glorious English: “a rhapsody of words,” Hamlet says. Shakespeare spells the end of solitude.
One book that made you laugh: The Dick Gibson Show, by Stanley Elkin. The field is broad – Wodehouse, Waugh, Roth – but for consistent, helpless laughter, you can’t beat Elkin. This title is a sentimental favorite, my first Elkin, read in 1971. Dick Gibson is an itinerant, shape-shifting radio announcer, all voice, giving Elkin a perfect platform for his shtick: words, words, “a rhapsody of words.”
One book that made you cry: Washington Square, by Henry James. The saddest book I know. Catherine Sloper’s goodness is abused by Morris Townsend, the charming fortune hunter, but even more painfully by her father, Dr. Sloper. Loyalties torn, innocence betrayed, a life unlived. The final sentence is devastating: “Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again – for life, as it were.” (My only rival for this category: Interstate, by Stephen Dixon.)
One book you wish had been written: The collection of stories Isaac Babel was working on when Stalin’s goons took him away, on May 15, 1939. Before they could destroy his manuscripts, Babel pleaded, “Let me finish my work.” The following year, on Jan. 27, he was executed by firing squad in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, proclaiming his innocence to the end.
One book you wish had never been written: Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Any of her titles would do, I suppose, but this one is credited with earning her the Nobel Prize for Literature, the award denied Tolstoy, James, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Nabokov and Borges. Morrison has parlayed a modest lyrical gift and a prodigious gift for whining and propaganda into a lucrative career.
One book you’re currently reading: David Hume, by J.Y.T Greig. I’m also reading a book for review, but Greig’s 1931 volume is the ginger between courses, a palate-cleanser, a life as robust and common-sensical as its subject: “David Hume died, in perfect composure of spirit, about four o’clock on the afternoon of Sunday, August 25th, 1776.” Beautiful.
One book you’ve been meaning to read: My Past and Thoughts, by Alexander Herzen. Thirty years ago I read the one-volume abridgement edited by Dwight Macdonald, and I’ve always meant to read the complete work in four volumes. Herzen was born in 1812 in Moscow, shortly before the French captured the city. His reconstruction of those events, a melding of personal and world history, rivals Tolstoy’s. A socialist and muckraking journalist, Herzen wrote: "Art, and the summer lightning of individual happiness: these are the only real goods we have."