Monday, March 26, 2012

Only Six Books

I recently read an excerpt of Jeanette Winterson's new memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? on The Daily Beast. In it, she tells the reader that there were only six books in the house where she grew up. Since I was raised in a house with considerably more books on the shelves (and a constant stream coming in from libraries and bookstores), it's hard for me to fathom such an upbringing. 

What I CAN imagine, however, is what would happen if my books were taken away. 

Maybe it's a symptom of having read Fahrenheit one too many times. Or it could be a consequence of living in a near-constant state of uncertainty about my future. More likely it's because I'm separated from the majority of my books (most of which live at my parents' house) by a margin of over 700 miles, and I sometimes can't find the one I'm looking for as a result. 

So what if I only had room for six books on my shelf? Surprisingly, that's an easy question for me to answer.

1) Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
I love it so much that I covered it in my first month as a blogger. (This was back when I wrote about books on a regular basis.) I love it so much that I've written three separate academic papers about it. I love it so much that I did an art project on it in high school. I love it so much that I give it to people I really like so that they might understand me better. (Quick survey of those few blessed: do you understand me better, or do you still think I'm cray cray?)

2) Leaves of Grass: First and Death-Bed Editions, Walt Whitman
Like so many before me, I have a big o' crush on the Big Gay Poet. No shame. Nor should there be any. Seriously, guys, read "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." It will change your life.

3) Collected Poems, Sylvia Plath
Look, I'm not one of THOSE Plath girls, okay? I just appreciate an honest, well-crafted poem when I see one. And while the first half of this collection is heavy on the well-crafted and short on the brutal truth, the collection as a whole serves as a record of the evolution of a truly powerful poet, particularly when you reach the last third or so. Plath's work will take your breath away, and if it doesn't, maybe you're just a Ted Hughes fan at heart.

4) Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides' second novel is, among other things, a sweeping epic, a love song for Detroit, and a powerful study in voice. Some find it overwrought; I think it's perfect, and I'm happy to revisit it time and again.

5) Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
If ever there was a writer at whose feet I'd like to study, it just might be Vonnegut. His honesty and wild imagination here inspire me, and he's one of the writers who makes me want to be better--not just in my writerly pursuits, but in my life, as well. (Aside: one of my literary crushes, Steve Almond, wrote a fabulous essay about his Vonnegut fixation in (Not that You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions.)

6) Open slot for free agents
Because I have to have something new to read every once in awhile, right? And also time to revisit other favorites, such as Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, Peter Shaffer's Equus, Chris Hedges' War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Robert Coover's Briar Rose, and Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, among many others.

What are your six books? Could you live with so few?


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