Last week was the Old Dominion University Literature Festival. I spent some time discussing with my writing students how what they read when they were younger informs who they are now.
Then I gave them my list:
Tim O’Brien The Things They Carried.
Tim Seibles One Turn Around the Sun
Ernest Hemingway Old Man and the Sea
Bohumil Hrabal Too Loud a Solitude
Carlos Fuentes Old Gringo
Ernie Pyle Brave Men
Roberto Bolano A Little Lumpen Novelita
E.B. White Here is New York
Frederick Douglass Narrative
Lieve Joris Mali Blues
When I was in college a professor asked us to list ten books we loved so he could explain what he figured out about us from the list. Except for the minor detail that I wasn’t sure I had even read ten books, I thought it an interesting assignment.
The above list is from my perspective as an adult. But looking back my book list in college included Stephen King, Woody Guthrie, Robin Lee Graham, Woodward and Bernstein, and most likely Mark Twain’s personal narratives. I don’t remember much of the professor’s analysis except what was clear to anyone, I liked adventure and bent toward non-fiction.
When I decided to use this assignment with my students, I knew that I needed to make my own list. Thus, the ten books above are what I consider the most influential or memorable or re-readable books I can recall. I didn’t head to my bookshelves to come up with them; I simply put my head back and thought about books.
I ask my students to list “observations” of their compilation. Some observations of my own list:
- I still like adventure and have a bend toward non-fiction.
- Five of the books are non-fiction though O’Brien is thinly disguised fiction (Read If I Die in a Combat Zone for reference)
- Seven of the books are pretty short
- Only one was written by a woman despite some heavy influence from women in my writing including Alice Walker, Frances Harper, and Virginia Woolf.
- Three were not written in English.
- Seven do not take place in the United States, though The Things They Carriedis debatable since much of it does but much of it doesn’t. So six and a half.
- Five of the authors are also known as essay writers.
- Seven somehow wrapped themselves into the narrative.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is simply one of the greatest books of the 20th century, and while it takes place in Vietnam, it is not about Vietnam anymore than Tim Seible’s One Turn Around the Sun is about astronomy. In O’Brien’s book, along with Hemingway, Hrabal, White, Douglass, Pyle, and to a lesser degree Joris, the author either writes directly to the reader or involves the reader in some way.
Seibles’ book is about his parents and age. In fact, the passing of time is a common theme for Hrabal, O’Brien, Guthrie, and Pyle. I heard Tim Seibles read from the book long before it was published, have talked to him many hours over lunch about our parents and time and age, and admire his diction and phrasing perhaps more than that of any writer I know. He is a giant in the poetry world and this book is his best. Read it from start to finish; don’t jump around. Too many people think that because poems or essays are short and seemingly unrelated, they can flip around for pieces to read. Well, that’s true—but don’t. Please read the stuff in order. There is, in fact, order.
I love how Old Man and the Sea is about an old man at sea whose pride is simply too strong to let the damn marlin go and focus on the smaller fish around him. And then when I read it again it was really about pride in general and who we are and what we learn as we mature. And then when I read it a third time I realized the entire story is the Passion of the Christ. I like how Hemingway never lost his journalistic tightness and how he uses repetition as an art form. Also, the book is really short and I generally run out of steam at about 100 pages. When he wrote, “It was an hour before the first shark showed up” just a dozen pages from the end, I was already hoping the boat would sink.
Susan Sontag once said Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal is one of the finest writers she has ever read and Too Loud a Solitude is one of the finest books. I’m with her on that. It took me several reads to understand how this crazy-ass little book is a compact version of all the greatest philosophies in history, and the “compact”ness of it is a metaphoric spin from the lead character who compacts trash. It is funny as hell and poignant. To top it all off it happens to be parallel in so many ways to The Things They Carried that I could teach a seminar in those two books. As an aside I should say that Tim told me once he focused on Czech language and literature for awhile, years before he wrote The Things They Carried. Go figure.
When I was at Penn State I spent a lot of time reading all of Fuentes’ work. He seems so much like Hemingway and uses a classic narrative structure. I read his work more because of his locales than the story, and also I was trying to fine tune my Spanish, but Old Gringo is my favorite. If anyone likes Hemingway, he or she will like Fuentes.
Ernie Pyle’s work was introduced to me by Professor Pete Barrecchia at St. Bonaventure. Since then I have not met a journalist who was not at least somewhat influenced by Pyle. He is, to be certain, above all other war journalists before or since and Hemingway once said if Pyle had not been killed at the end of World War Two, it is unlikely anyone would know of what Hemingway wrote after that. Google “Ernie Pyle Normandy” and read his piece about walking the beach at Normandy. It is easy to see how Hem and O’Brien both took much away from this great journalist, particularly O’Brien.
Last year, Tim Seibles gave me a copy of Bolano’s book and I read it start to finish without stopping; a nearly impossible feat for me except it isn’t that long. I had given him a copy of Too Loud a Solitude and he said that crazy-ass book reminded him of this one and when I was through we laughed about how neither of us could explain to anyone what the hell it is about, but it simply keeps you from start to finish. It sent me to the rest of Bolano’s work. I still can’t explain what happens but I love how it happens.
I was already familiar with EB White’s excellent essay work outside of his famous grammar book when I tuned into “Selected Shorts” and heard someone reading “Here is New York.” It stands alone for work that is less “about” New York than it is about the state of “being” in New York. If I were born earlier, I think I’d like to have been EB White.
I love Douglass’ writing style—very journalistic in approach—and his description is honest and raw, made more revealing by his first person experience. But there is something else that makes this one of my favorite all time books and Douglass my greatest American hero—his Character. Frederick Douglass is an inspiration not only for his accomplishments against the greatest odds in an evil system, but for his mostly firm moral compass through it all. He is simply a tremendous example. The Narrative of Frederick Douglass should be required reading in every single school.
Joris’ Mali Blues about a musician in Mali and his life not only in his village but as an international celebrity is captivating from the start and she walks a new line between personal experience and reporting. This is also a work of journalism. I am pleased that after majoring in J and never pursuing it as a career, my favorite writers were either journalists or at the very least have adopted that style of writing.
These are not the most influential writers for me as a writer—that is a different list, though there is some crossover. To the point—O’Brien, Hemingway, Pyle, and Hrabel make both lists, but the rest do not. These four for one reason or another “inform” how I write—sometimes by outright theft. The other two writers who influenced me as a writer are first Aaron Sorkin, who I think is simply one of the finest writers working today, though he is wholly a screenwriter and playwright, but that makes him a master of dialogue. And finally Jackson Browne. His early emotionally-driven work sets tone for me better than any writer I know. Obviously part of it is hearing a minor key come in for something like “Sky Blue and Black” or the musical phrasing of “For a Dancer.” As I get older, poetry for its diction has become more important, and I’m still trying to find the patience to be meticulous in that regard. But for tone, the music of Browne or Van Morrison or just the right rendition of Canon in D can light fire under my work way faster than the classic writers. Often even faster than caffeine.
I have read many books beyond this list, including a stack my son keeps adding to saying “this seemed like a book you’d like.” He has already read more books than I have in my life. I am not sure why I have an aversion to reading; I think it is because I try to spend as little time as possible reading about what other people have done and spend that time doing something. It could also have something to do with the tens of thousands of student essays I’ve read in the past thirty years. When my colleagues in the writing world get together and talk about our peers work and what they’re doing, I generally slide out of the conversation and find someone who wants to talk about something more relevant to me, say like goats or the beach. Part of it is I hate talking about writing; but the larger issue is simply I do not read that much. I write or I do things. So when I do come across a book that takes me in and takes over my mind for a while, I want everyone to read it.
After they finish reading all my books, of course, which shouldn’t take long; they’re short (the books, not the readers, I think).
What about you? What makes your list?