What follows is a short list of the books that have stayed with me in heart and mind over my life. It is in no sense a list of the “best” books I’ve ever read, because the term “best” can carry–and should carry–a multitude of meanings. That is, a book can be a “best” book because it’s a fine example of a genre; it can be best because its prose is well-written; it can be best because we treasure its beginning or its ending, or because we are impressed by a character or two.
But some books leave us with an impression of their whole, even if we forget some of the details over time. We may–or may not–return to them now and again for sustenance that is both intellectual and emotional. Even if we haven’t touched them in years, though, the books I’m writing about are part of our mental world, and we are happy to think about them.
5. Paradise Lost–We think of John Milton as an epic poet, a master of the large scale, and he is; but my love for him grew when I discovered him to be a genius of the small scale, as well. Paradise Lost is filled with tiny, subtle moments that reveal Adam and Eve as fully human people. The verse of the poem is packed with linguistic echoes of all the verses that have come before. Those echoes are reminders that we have been here and here in the action, but they also remind us at times that the fall of humanity is as much a psychological calamity as it is a physical one. Take, for instance, Eve’s decision to separate herself from Adam in Book IX, despite the couple’s full knowledge that Satan is out and about, and could attack either one of them. Eve says,
“The willinger I go, nor much expect / A Foe so proud will first the weaker seek; / So bent, the more shall shame him his repulse. / Thus saying, from her Husband’s hand her hand / Soft she withdrew” (ll. 382-385). Everyone observes Eve’s verbal departure from Adam, her statement of doubt that Satan would attack her because he would be too embarrassed to be repulsed by the “weaker” of the couple in the Garden; but notice, also, the poet’s syntax: Milton provides no end punctuation in “from her Husband’s hand her hand.” Until this moment, Adam’s hand has been her hand, too; and the line break occurs when Eve withdraws from Adam to go her own way. They are together; then they are not. Linguistically, when the Fall happens, they become a couple we can all recognize, engaging in the greatest morning-after argument in the history of the world. They still appear to be in the Garden, but in reality, they are somewhere else. Listen to Adam later in Book IX:
“Is this the Love, is this the recompense / Of mine to thee, ingrateful Eve” (ll. 1162-1163). If we’ve been reading the entire poem, we might remember what Satan says as he looks upon the prospect of Hell in Book I, ll. 242-245: “Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime, / . . . this the seat / That we must change for Heav’n?” The rhythm of the two speeches echo each other. Adam in his bitterness even briefly embodies and echoes God his creator, who, in Book III, had called Man an “ingrate,” sufficient to withstand temptation, but unwilling to. Yet, this last echo sounds hollow, because Adam is no longer where God had placed him. He’s not in the Garden; he is in Hell. It was discovering such moments as these, moments and echoes that knit together all that Milton ever learned about the world and the humanity in it that turned me into a lover of his finest poem. Many of us today might reject his work as sexist, but I remind you that it is Eve who steps forward to accept the redemption that God offers. It is she who helps them become a couple worth saving.
4. Sister Carrie–Theodore Dreiser’s turn -of-the-twentieth-century novel about the rise of Caroline Meeber, an actress, and the fall of her seducer, Charles Drouet, still amazes me. Dreiser really can’t write worth a damn. His sentences pile up in a rush; his dialogue is choppy and wooden; his descriptions of place and character are flat. And yet, by the end of the book, we know these characters and their fates in the most intimate way. It’s an astonishing performance. I can’t say that I have discovered the secret of Dreiser’s success, but my guess is that it is in Dreiser’s selection of the details that he piles upon us. Whatever the secret may be, his flaws as a writer did not deter me from admiring his depiction of two lost souls making their way, and losing their way, through an uncaring world.
3. Jane Eyre–One of my professors in college tried to talk me into liking Wuthering Heights instead, but I would have none of it then, and I’ll have none of it now. If you prefer the tormented love of Cathy and Heathcliff, go right ahead, but they always struck me as the typical bickering couple trying to “win the argument” even if it means destroying each other. The fight really worth having is the one Jane has with Rochester. She battles him lovingly for the possession of her heart and mind, not so that she can “win the argument,” but so that she can live with him the only way she can: as his equal. Both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are regarded as feminist works. Jane Eyre actually is one.
2. The Godfather–Francis Ford Coppola’s superb adaptations of Mario Puzo’s novel make us forget just how much of Puzo’s work the two of them left on the cutting room floor. Gone are the inset stories of Lucy Mancini, the bridesmaid that Sonny Corleone took as his lover at Connie’s wedding; and of Luca Brasi, who is not a slow-witted assassin but a man passionately in love with an Irish woman; and of Al Neri, who does not, in the book, merely appear as Michael Corleone’s bodyguard, but is recruited by and welcomed into the Family after being drummed out of the police for using excessive force on a suspect. Tightening the story that way keeps our focus on Vito and Michael Corleone, but we lose some of the depth that makes the book so interesting. The Godfather is the most vivid novel I’ve ever read. I’ve read it only once, in 1975, as I recall, and I may never have to read it again. It has done its work. I see Vito Corleone in his study, a deeper and more subtle thinker than Brando’s character; I see Michael and Apollonia together, and wish that their love could have survived; I see Michael standing in his father’s study, his transformation complete, as the heads of the capo regimes gather around him, and the door closes, leaving Kay with only the choice to pray in church for his soul. The Godfather succeeds in part because Puzo closes off the outside world the same way he closes that door. We never see the honest cops doing battle with the Mafia. We never see the hundreds and thousands of lives ruined by the gambling, prostitution, and drugs the Mafia offers us. What we are given instead is a world unto itself, “a little world, made cunningly,” in Donne’s phrase. It is a world repellent, but one that has its own code, its own morality. We can’t help looking at it because it’s a world in which every detail is clear. It’s a world we can see more clearly than this one.
1. The Lord of the Rings–When I was in high school, my friends came into history class every day talking about “Frodo and Sam.” I had no idea who Frodo and Sam were. Even when I pulled a copy of The Lord of the Rings from the shelf of my church’s library, I still despaired of finding out; the opening pages were just too slow. Finally, a couple of months later, on a summer day, I made a third attempt. This time, the chapter, “A Short Cut To Mushrooms” drew me in, and I began to read. As with The Godfather, Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations are superb. But like The Godfather, the movies can lead us away from the deeper, better source material of the original book. Middle-Earth is our Earth. Tolkien began to reimagine it during and after World War I by drawing upon the fairy stories not only of England but of Europe, as well. His genius was not only linguistic. It was also emotional and structural. He had seen and felt the destruction of the world first hand, and the violence of those Nordic and Germanic tales, but he was paralyzed by neither. He also realized that the world of the tales he was writing in 1914 and the world of the hobbits was the same world, a world of long ago, a world that was fading. The result of Tolkien’s recognition of what he is doing is sheer brilliance. Even so sharp a mind as Edmund Wilson’s couldn’t grasp it in his 1956 review, “Ooh, Those Awful Orcs.” But the critical tide turned by 1970, and we are the better for it.
Not until after I had read the books the first time did I realize how akin Tolkien’s novel is to Paradise Lost. Tolkien’s work is, like Milton’s, “the story of all things.” Tolkien’s tale, like Milton’s, is ultimately about the dominance of humanity in the world, and the elves, dwarves, and hobbits leaving their earthly existence behind. Unless you read The Lord of the Rings, you won’t necessarily know this. Yes, Legolas is a warrior in the movies; but Tolkien also makes him a poet of a fading, glorious past. Galadriel is more than just a beautiful queen: she has slowed down time in order to perpetuate Lothlorien’s existence. She knows her efforts won’t be enough. In that brilliant scene wherein she resists the temptation to take the Ring from Frodo even as he asks her to take it, she does what the men around her cannot do. But she knows that even if she and Elvenkind survive the onslaught of Sauron’s armies, the kingdom they have built will not last; it will be changed beyond recognition. That is what war does. It changes us and it changes the places where we live. In fighting, we give up our future, as Frodo and the Elves do, so that others who come after us might have a future of their own. The world in which those others will live is not quite the beautiful world we’ve fought for and lost, but those for whom we saved a future, like Sam Gamgee, Aragorn, Merry, and Pippin, will live in it lovingly with their wives and children, sadder but wiser than they were.