1. The Little Prince By Antoine St.-Expury
Not perhaps the most original answer, but this book had a profound effect on me from the instant I read it, and has continued to be there for me at crucial moments. At a loss, I read from it at the memorial service of a dear friend. On some deep level, deeper than mere fact, I believe that St.-Expury’s story is true.
2. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
I should say “Song of Myself,” the opening poem. Reading it changed my DNA. It presented a mystical but very earthy vision of self-affirmation and love of life that I desperately needed to hear. I love the deeply personal yet totally cosmic – and somehow, paradoxically, very American – tone of Whitman’s poem. The “What is the grass?” section haunts me – an unparalled moment in both poetry and wisdom literature. I sent that passage to someone I knew who was about to die. I could think of nothing better to give them than Whitman’s words. What more can I say about how highly I think of this poem?
I think his work, taken in its totality, gets monotonous in its endless affirmations, but this poem will always stand as a towering and enlightened achievement. It could only have been written in America, too – so I turn to it at times when my country seems to have gone completely mad, as proof that we have something good in our national soul.
SIDENOTE: I was introduced randomly to both “The Little Prince” and “Leaves of Grass” on the same day, at my brother’s wife’s mother’s house – got that? – many years ago.
3. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
Dark and chiseled like obsidian arrowheads, these stories are perhaps the supreme achievement in American short fiction. Carver had the most piercing, uncompromising, yet compassionate insight into the human heart, and the deepest understanding of “ordinary people,” and how unordinary they truly are, of any writer I can name. Also, coming from a working-class background in a Pacific Northwestern mill town, Carver wrote about a world I know well. I read a book about him that described how certain critics were repelled by his stories because they just couldn’t believe there were actually people and situations like that in America. Ha! Carver forced the literari and the academics to acknowledge the value of American working-class lives. He himself came from those people, but was given that rare, magical ability to transmute the ugly monotony of poverty and addiction into beautiful, devastating art.
4. The Bible
Right-wing-fundamentalists don’t have a monopoly on the Bible, which, far from being a book, is a small library of books, stretching out over a long period of time and expressing a wide range of views. Of these books, some I find simply boring – page after page of the outdated legal codes of ancient desert tribes – but others have moved and infuenced me tremendously, beyond my power to describe. Of these are Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and the Four Gospels. There is a sad and ignorant trend among the secular left to assume the Bible has no value because a highly vocal and visible group of fundamentalists insist on reading it as a science book. This trend allows idiots to control the narrative. Words belong to everyone. Don’t buy the jive.
5. Look Homeward, Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe
Wolfe defined a very formative and pivotal time of my life. Of all the major Lost Generation writers, he is the only one to suffer such a steep decline in critical repute. This is unjustified. His work may have its excesses – certainly it does – and his only subject was his own life, but the sheer power and force of expression he had at his command was breathtaking, world-shattering. If he couldn’t control that kind of tsunami of creative power with careful precision, it is because no one could, and it was the nature of his genius that it be somewhat uncontrolled. The harsher critics of Thomas Wolfe are vile pedantic insects raging at the very heavens – ignore them, and read his work.
6. Culture and Value by Ludwig Wittgenstein
I am not nearly smart enough to understand this man’s thinking, and it is only due to a class taken on a whim during my brief foray into higher learning that I discovered him at all – yet he changed me, without a doubt. While his work in logic remains, to me, opaque – logic being altogether too close to math for me to process – the sheer, vital originality not of his ideas but of his style of thinking really effected me. Reading him, I may understand very little, but the effort of trying to understand is like the mental equivalent of a vigorous work-out. His language is a model of crystalline clarity, but the ideas are often so foreign to common modes of thinking that a simple sentence can drop you in your tracks, puzzled, astounded, changed.
7. Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
A tour de force of savage wit and misanthropy, there is also a core of compassion deep in the heart of this book. Nevertheless, it is the stunning barrage of perfectly worded, hilariously cynical observations on every facet of human life that hit you like a slap in the face on every page. If you tend to have a dark view of human nature and world history, this book will not cure you of that, but it will put you in some very good company. Celine was a ghetto doctor who gave free medical service to nearly anyone who needed it, regardless of race or creed – and then got into trouble for supposedly being a Nazi sympathizer. People are complicated.
8. The Earthsea Books by Ursula K. Leguin
Fantasy literature was my mainstay during my younger years. I read a lot of trash, but also some truly astounding and eternal works. You really can’t go wrong with Leguin, but the Earthsea books will always be nearest and dearest to my heart. Set in a fantasy world made up of countless islands and archipelagos, the protagonist, Sparrowhawk, is a young mage whose hubris and arrogance unleashes a terrible evil into the world. These books are perfectly written and riven with the kind of truth one finds in only the greatest myths. Leguin wrote the original trilogy as a younger woman, then returned to them older, wiser, and more anarcho-feminist, and the later books add layers to the world of Earthsea that only add to its mystery, complexity and depth.
9. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
When I encounter a true prose stylist with an unforgettable lead character, a matchless ability to write a sentence of perfect grace, a caustic and original wit, and a sad, wounded heart, I am a happy reader. Raymond Chandler, the poet laureate of detective fiction, deserves to be ranked among the greatest of American authors, and his hero, Philip Marlowe, is one of those literary characters who seem to have a reality greater than the reality of many living, breathing people I know. Reading Raymond Chandler, one stops several times on every page to simply admire a line of power, beauty, wit – or all three. Have a highlighter handy.
10. Little, Big by John Crowley
Like the Leguin books, this is another work of fantasy that doesn’t often get discussed as a great work of literature, sheerly because of genre snobbery. But what else can I say about Little, Big? It is a modern fairy story with all the strange, uncanny power of the ancient tales. It is an esoteric parable. It is a love story. It is about the fall of the world, and growing up. It is about the nature of reality and it is about architecture and television and occult societies and it is better-written than your previous favorite book. It is big, it is weird, and it changes everything about the way you see the world. You should go out and read it now.