Thursday, June 18, 2009

15 books in 15 minutes

Via his co-blogger Carrie Frye, Terry Teachout passes on this quick game. Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Slight revision proposed: instead of the future tense (books that will always stick with you), use the past perfect. Name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.

Here goes:

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet
Philip Roth, American Pastoral
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Jane Austen, Persuasion
Francine Prose, Blue Angel
Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre
J. V. Cunningham, The Collected Essays
—————, Collected Poems and Epigrams
Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes
Emmanuel Levinas, essays including “Ethics As First Philosophy” and “Art and Its Shadow” (both included in Seán Hand’s Levinas Reader)
Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith
Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind
Denis de Rougemont, Love in the Western World

Except perhaps for de Rougemont, not a single work of criticism comes to mind. In college I wrote under the spell of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, but by the time I graduated I preferred the earlier essays in An End to Innocence. (A post title from yesterday alluded to that book.) The earlier Fiedler led me to the New York intellectuals, of whom I have been a distant relation ever since.

Update, I: J. V. Cunningham did not classify his essays as literary criticism but as philology. I accept his self-designation.

Update, II: Patrick Kurp joins in the fun, accepting my stipulation. (May the LORD bless thee and keep thee.) “This makes [the game] more interesting than so pallid a criterion as ‘favorite’ or ‘best,’ ” he says, implicitly cold-shouldering our earlier collaboration in drawing up a list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, which brought us so much opprobrium. At any rate, Kurp’s list is more diverse and wide-ranging than mine, including only two works of fiction—and those by a Russian and an Australian!

“If such a list constitutes a Rorschach test,” he asks, “what have I learned?” This is a question I neglected to ask myself. I believe, though, that I can pinpoint the exact influence of each book on my list. I owe my personal happiness to de Rougemont, for instance, who permanently altered my conception of marriage. Orwell taught me to recognize the true ambition and threat of totalitarian regimes. Not merely do they seek to assume total power, but also to take control of their subjects’ minds. After the “election” of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government moved quickly to disable Twitter and prevent blogging.

Update, III: Over at National Review Online’s Corner, Jonah Goldberg quotes the views on an internet expert about the problem of restoring heavy-volume traffic to Iran. Goldberg also has a striking graph, displaying how internet traffic in that country fell off a cliff on the night of June 13.


R/T said...

Having returned from my "hibernation" but not ready to resume full-time blogging, I am nevertheless intrigued by the implicit challenge presented by both you and Terry Teachout. My idiosyncratic list, decided upon in less than fifteen minutes, includes the following books that have--for all sorts of reasons--"stayed with me" in curiously important ways over the years . For whatever my contribution to the conversation might be worth, here is my list:
A. S. Byatt - Persuasion
Carson McCullers – The Ballad of the Sad Café
Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian
Flannery O’Connor – The Complete Stories
Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood
Frank Norris – McTeague
Franz Kafka – The Metamorphosis
Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
Harold Bloom - Blake's Apocalypse
Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go
Margaret Atwood – Oryx and Crake
Robert Louise Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Samuel Beckett – Waiting for Godot
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty
The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake

D. G. Myers said...

Margaret Atwood?

How are you feeling, R.T.? How did the, er, um, procedure go?

R/T said...

Indeed, without apology, I was intrigued recently by Margaret Atwood's ORYX AND CRAKE, and I found that including the novel in a literature class produced surprising advantages and adventures.

As for myself, all is well. Details? Not relevant. I'm not ducking the question but merely asserting the basic reality: avoiding room temperature is a laudable goal for day to day living.

dan m. said...

In creating this list I'm attempting to leave out the extremely influential genre fiction (Verne, Christie, Orson Scott Card) from my youth and the angry authors (Heller et al) who I devoured in high school and, as much as I still appreciate the work, have attempted to remove from my conception of what the novel must do ever since.

Ranked, of course, in terms of stick-to-me-itiveness, and not merit.

1. Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby, stories
3. Salinger - Nine Stories
4. Murakami - Sputnik Sweetheart
5. Saroyan - The Human Comedy
6. Updike - Pigeon Feathers
7. Bellow - Augie March
8. Cather - My Antonia
9. Carver - Cathedral
10. Flannery O'Connor - Stories
11. Twain - Huck Finn
12. Frederic - The Damnation of Theron Ware
[here I thought: lord, this is difficult.]
13. Austen - Northanger Abbey
14. James - Daisy Miller
15. Foer - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (for better or worse)