Friday, January 31, 2014

My Ideal Bookshelf

I was browsing Amazon recently. In an example of the website all too accurately recommending books I might like based on my browsing history, I came across My Ideal Bookshelf by Thessaly La Force and fell in love with the concept:

Amazon's description:
The books that we choose to keep--let alone read--can say a lot about who we are and how we see ourselves. In MY IDEAL BOOKSHELF, dozens of leading cultural figures share the books that matter to them most; books that define their dreams and ambitions and in many cases helped them find their way in the word. Contributors include Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas Keller, Michael Chabon, Alice Waters, James Patterson, Maira Kalman, Judd Apatow, Chuck Klosterman, Miranda July, Alex Ross, Nancy Pearl, David Chang, Patti Smith, Jennifer Egan, and Dave Eggers, among many others. 

Naturally, the next thing I did was ask myself, "What are mine?!"

I'm a book lover, but I can't spend hours reading anything. I'm very particular. But when I find something I like, I'm all over it like a cheap suit and then some. I research the author, find more titles, consume it to the nth, and then get sad if the author is no longer alive and able to write more.

I read a lot as a kid, but some time around high school, I remember realizing just how incredible books could be. I was lucky to have great English teachers who assigned reading that would--now that I think about it--have lifelong impact. And they didn't choose easy stuff. It was challenging as heck!

Perhaps my proudest moment in 12th grade is when I somehow managed to correctly interpret a poem by A.E Housman in a super tense in-class Blue Book essay assignment, when the rest of the class failed to see the intended irony. The teacher read my essay out loud. I could have died out of sheer delight. Especially since this teacher had once prior ripped my first Shakespeare analysis to shreds. Big fat C. (Several girls cried in the bathroom after getting those papers back.)

But this idea of books or poetry accompanying us through life one way or another: fascinating how incalculably the things we read can influence us in our lives. And also sobering that this isn't an experience everyone gets.

At any rate, I wanted to share some of the books that have stopped me cold or have been just so terribly delightful that I so appreciate that people were put on earth to write them.

Becket by Jean Anouilh
Genre: 20th Century French theater

When I was majoring in French at St. Thomas I took a required French theater class. I thought I was going to hate it because for some reason I can't sit through plays. But it turns out I like reading plays a lot more than watching them. The syllabus for the class led us from the origins of French theater up to the 20th century, and Becket was one of our last assignments.

If there's one thing to know about the history of French theater, it is this: there was no stage direction in the early years. It was all about the words. So there were no little cues like She rolled her eyes.... But by the 20th century, the stage direction mattered just as much, if not more than the words. Becket was an example of how much theater had evolved, as it tells the sad and sometimes humorous story of Thomas a Becket and his tenuous relationship with the king of France...with tons of nuance through the stage direction. I guess I loved it so much because it was the first time reading French stuff where I was like, wow, I would read this again!

L'alouette by Jean Anouilh
Genre: 20th Century French theater

True to form, I tracked down another Anouilh play at the Half Price Books in Highland Park. This play was a tremendously interesting take on the story of Joan of Arc. Let's be honest, history glosses over her story JUST A BIT. This was the gentlest and probably most accurate portrayal of what it would have been like to be Jeanne, hearing voices telling her command the French army. I mean, seriously? And it sadly ends with her execution.

Aside from this being a really well told story, it quite honestly made me appreciate living in a time that despite its faults, doesn't do what happens in this book.

The Official Preppy Handbook by Lisa Birnbaum
Genre: Culture; Satire

Published in 1981, this book is out of print. I found a pristine copy at a used bookstore for $1.99 in 2002. It's a spot-on observation of American preppy culture that somehow manages to be factual and satirical at the same time. I'm fascinated by culture in general, but also subcultures like this one.

Frankly, I don't think this subculture exists the same way today as it once did and it has been quite misunderstood. (Hint: it has nothing to do with Abercrombie & Fitch, and has even more to do with thrift and relative austerity.) Basically if you try to be preppy, you aren't. Growing up where I did, I can think of a lot of firsthand examples of things the book talks about. It's just entertaining!

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Genre: Fiction

My first legit boyfriend lent me this book the summer after my junior year of high school, after he finished reading it in the break room of the Richfield pool where he was a lifeguard. I started reading it and was like, "OMG, where has this book been all my life? It's the story of Henderson, a crotchety and hulking middle-aged guy who is a bull in a china shop wherever he goes. He heads to Africa to try to quiet the voice inside him that always says "I want, I want, I want."

While I don't readily identify with him physically or even temperamentally, I responded so strongly to his desire for something that he couldn't identify, as a high schooler feeling like there was so much more in life...which thankfully has turned out to be true. And he may be one of the most comical fictional characters ever conceived.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Genre: Fiction

This book is so well-written. And gave me the creeps! The characters in this book--one in particular--are unreal.  So much character development, so much to think about. But yeah, if you are easily scared, don't read this one home alone at night. I just love that such great novel writing was around before Smartphones. Something about that.

BCBG by Thierry Mantoux
Genre: Culture; Satire

More or less France's version of The Official Preppy Handbook. Which is funny because the concepts are only sometimes parallel. I loved this book because while you can study French culture in the typical ways, this book documents a whole other level of understanding of what is Bon Chic, Bon Genre, which if you didn't notice, is what BCBG stands for.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
Genre: Autobiography

My brother gave me this book a few years ago after he got it through a book club, though I don't think he read it. One of the most beautiful voices in writing today, I feel. The author tells her story of growing up white in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and surrounding countries. It's hilarious. It's unimaginably heartbreaking. She has an unbelievable memory for detail. I think I've read it three times.

Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity by Hugh MacLeod
Genre: Self-Help, I guess

I pulled this off the shelf at my in-law's cabin. Super funny, but ultimately so inspiring around the thought that the best creativity often comes from holing up and shutting out outside distractions and finding inspiration within yourself.

Sometimes I notice that after I read a book where the author has a distinctive writing style, I hear myself walking around for a day or two afterwards thinking in their cadence, and I don't like how derivative that feels. If I'm writing or making jewelry or whatever, I'll make a point of staying away from outside influence like Pinterest so I'm not doing the creative equivalent of copy & paste. I feel like it's getting harder and harder to be original since we're surrounded by--rather, bombarded--with media.

The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille
Genre: Culture

Blew my mind. A psychologist/marketer boils down the cultural significance of various things within different cultures into single words. Example: Cheese in France = Alive; Cheese in US = Dead. And this is all you need to know about how both of those cultures treat cheese. The French leave it out on the counter. Americans refrigerate the heck out of it.

Rapaille repeats this concept in all sorts of contexts. How we really feel about Love, Cars, Money. I read this in one sitting because I couldn't put it down. There are parts that feel heavily edited, like he only got a certain number of lines to get an idea across, but I've never seen someone else so clearly explain the fundamentally different viewpoints of different cultures, i.e. emotional imprinting. It makes it abundantly clear why Americans love peanut butter so much.

Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu, translated by Stanley Lombardo
Genre: Chinese philosophy

If you're feeling crazy, read this. This translation in particular. There are countless translations but this one apparently retains the most of the true sprit of the text, written VERY long ago. It's a strangely calming and relevant antidote to the frustrations of modern life.

One of my favorite passages:

Live in a good place.
Keep your mind deep. 
Treat others well. 
Stand by your word. 
Keep good order. 
Do the right thing. 
Work when it's time.

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
Genre: Fiction; short story

I am not what you'd call a short story fan, but for these I make an exception. Not all of the nine stories are equally powerful, but "Teddy" is so good. It's not what you're expecting at all.

I watched the Salinger documentary that came out recently and I think it's sometime this year that new material of his is getting posthumously published for the first time, by his design. Up until now, the world has had little from Salinger beyond Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, many of which follow characters in the fictional Glass family. If you're a sucker for a mysterious, unconventional, slightly dark concept, you will love them. The new material is supposed to in part complete their stories.

I ended up writing a lot more than I meant to. But once in a while it feels incredible to write something whole and complete. Maybe you'll like a few of these books like I have! 

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