Some Happy Books

It’s International Happiness Day in some quarters of the world.  One could mark the occasion in innumerable ways, with food (a warm croissant with butter for breakfast, a fried oyster salad for lunch, a barbecued ribeye for dinner), with our pets (Rocky, the Yorkshire terrier, just waiting to love and be loved), or with music (John Legend, perhaps, or a Mozart concerto).  Since this is a book blog, however, I feel pleasantly obligated to mention a handful of books, the reading of which made me happy.  Many of them I’ve mentioned before on this site (so let that be a spur to you to read them, if you wish), but one or two might be new to you.

How To Think About God, by Mortimer Adler–An odd choice, perhaps, but Adler opened up his own internal process to us and showed us how he goes about solving an intellectual problem with some quite human consequences.  I grew mentally because of this book.

Caught In The Web of Words, by Elisabeth Murray–Splendid biography of the founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, written by his granddaughter.  What an achievement the OED is, and what a tribute to it Ms. Murray’s book is. It reveals Victorian curiosity and determination in their finest forms.

The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski–No other book I know brings so much knowledge and wisdom and personal warmth together in the study of the development of western civilization as this one.  Reading it and re-reading it, I say to myself, “Wow,” every time.

Kristen Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset–A three-decker novel about a woman in medieval Norway who forsakes the man she is engaged to in favor of the man she loves.  Undset won the 1928 Nobel Prize for Literature.  This is her best work, and one of the finest atmospheric novels ever written.

Love In The Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez–I thought nothing could top One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Garcia-Marquez doesn’t try to “top” it as much as he tries to go “underneath” it, burrowing down as deeply as he can into the layers of time beneath which the most faithful human love may be buried.  If you’ve ever chased a girl, or been the girl who was chased, you will see yourself and smile in this splendid novel about the human condition.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole–The best novel ever written about the absurd little town of New Orleans, Louisiana, written by a fellow who observed it well and told his story through the voice of a fictional character, Ignatius Reilly, who was doing the same thing, scribbling away on his Big Chief tablet and trying to correct all the wrongs of his little world like a knight errant in the time of Cervantes.  My students used to scream, “That’s not us!  That’s not us!” when we read passages from Toole’s book.  But it is them; it is.  I have met several of the characters in the novel.  All I had to do was walk down Canal Street with my eyes open.

Centennial, by James Michener–I cannot now remember why I started to read this long novel.  I remember only that I absolutely loved the expanse of time that opened before me in its pages.  Michener tells us the story of the development of the American West, using the settlement of Colorado as his focal point; but the story gave me my first and deepest impression of how human lives have beginnings, middles, and ends–a far more valuable lesson than any standard tale of cowboys and Indians.  I loved every line of it, every character, and I did not want the book to end.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien–So much has already been written about this book, I shan’t say any more, except to say that, yes, it made me happy.

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr–Doerr’s novel about two young people caught up in Nazi-occupied France is written in exquisite prose and won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  I want to write like this some day.  I want to.  I want to so much.  A beautiful book.

Thomas Murphy, by Roger Rosenblatt–A simple story about how we might find love toward the end of our days.  Writing that sentence suggests to me that Rosenblatt’s novel is like Garcia-Marquez’s, and it is, but the tenor of it is uniquely Irish, rather than Latin American.  The book shares with Garcia-Marquez’s and Tolkien’s yet another trait:  an absolutely perfect ending.


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