Forty-eight books that have stayed with me over the years, and what they (maybe?) tell me about my own preferences

9780374280291_custom-919047714b01f31f637f29a6260a960188cfabf1-s6-c30Was reading Edward St. Aubyn’s satirical novel Lost For Words, which is about the judging of a literary prize that closely resembles the Booker, when I came across (and highlighted) the following musing, which in the mind of one of the judges right after she has had a negative interaction with her daughter and then, suddenly, thinks about King Lear:

And then she found herself wondering why any book should win this fucking prize she had become involved with unless it had a chance of doing what had just happened: coming back to a person when she wanted to cry but couldn’t, or wanted to think but couldn’t think clearly, or wanted to laugh but saw no reason to.

And I thought, hmm, it’s never been so baldly stated: what novels have stayed with me the longest and had the biggest emotional impact on me.

This is a matter of some concern to me, since I’ve recently been thinking about aesthetics. Basically, I’ve been wondering why I write and what my aim is. It’s all well and good to say that it flows from some unconscious place, but I think we all know that our instinct can just as easily lead us to bad places as good ones. Our instinct is lazy and prone to reproducing what we’ve seen, just because it’s easy.

But, on the other hand, it’s hard to get a rational grasp on aesthetics. There is really very little rational reason why one book is better than another, especially when we’re at the aim of the highest art. The solution has to lie somewhere in the middle. A person needs to subject their emotional responses to an intense scrutiny.

So I decided to go back through the list of books that I’ve read in the last five years and give each one a star if it had stuck with and resonated with me. And I thought that I’d been rrrrrreally sparing with stars, but after my first pass, I ended up with a list of 182 books! So I made another pass and added a second star to the books that, well, deserved another star. And then I still had 90+ books! So I made yet a third pass and ended up with the following completely unscientific list of books that I’ve read in the past five years which have, for whatever reason, really stuck with me. Actually, these are the books that’ve done more than stick with me. These are the books that have given me hope in hopeless times. And when I write a book, that’s really what I want it to do. I want people to read my book and to feel hope in a way that they haven’t felt before.

Title Author Genre
Gone Girl Flynn, Gillian Crime
A Simple Plan Smith, Scott Crime
Scott Pilgrim: Vols 1-6 O’Malley, Bryan Lee Graphic Novel
Summer Blonde Tomine, Adrian Graphic Novel
Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother Chua, Amy Memoir
Bringing up Bébé Druckerman, Pamela Memoir
A Confession Tolstoy, Leo Memoir
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter Bissell, Tom Nonfiction
The Closing Of The American Mind Bloom, Allan Nonfiction
How To Win Friends And Influence People Carnegie, Dale Nonfiction
Influence Cialdini, Robert Nonfiction
The Feminist Mystique Friedan, Betty Nonfiction
Second Shift Hochschild, Arlie Russell Nonfiction
Varieties of Religious Experience James, William Nonfiction
The Black Swan Taleb, Nassim Nicholas Nonfiction
What is Art? Tolstoy, Leo Nonfiction
Things Fall Apart Achebe, Chinua Novel
Pride and Prejudice Austen, Jane Novel
A Lost Lady Cather, Willa Novel
The Privileges Dee, Jonathan Novel
A Journal of the Plague Year Defoe, Daniel Novel
David Copperfield Dickens, Charles Novel
Middlemarch Eliot, George Novel
Every Man Dies Alone Fallada, Hans Novel
The Magicians Grossman, Lev Novel
The Blithedale Romance Hawthorne, Nathaniel Novel
The Haunting Of Hill House Jackson, Shirley Novel
Main Street Lewis, Sinclair Novel
Buddenbrooks Mann, Thomas Novel
Pursuit of Love Mitford, Nancy Novel
The Bell Jar Plath, Sylvia Novel
The Jungle Sinclair, Upton Novel
The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck, John Novel
Anna Karenina Tolstoy, Leo Novel
War and Peace Tolstoy, Leo Novel
The Warden Trollope, Anthony Novel
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P Waldman, Adelle Novel
Vile Bodies Waugh, Evelyn Novel
Custom Of The Country Wharton, Edith Novel
Age of Innocence Wharton, Edith Novel
House of Mirth Wharton, Edith Novel
Stoner Williams, John Novel
Mrs. Dalloway Woolf, Virginia Novel
Revolutionary Road Yates, Richard Novel
L’Assommoir Zola, Emile Novel
The Trojan Women Euripides Play
Collected Poems Larkin, Phillip Poetry
After The Apocalypse: Stories McHugh, Maureen Stories

As I write this blog post, I’m realizing that it’s probably not nearly as useful for you as it is for me, because I’m the only one who knows the identities of the 900+ books that aren’t on this list. Like Jane Eyre. I left Jane Eyre off. And Wuthering Heights. And everything by Nabokov (I’ve read nine books by Nabokov in the last five years). And those absences are much more revelatory than the specific volumes I’ve included.

Looking at this list, I can see several things. For instance, I’m not joking when I say that I like Edith Wharton. She really is the best. Except for Ethan Frome. Can’t stand Ethan Frome.

Also, while some of these books are by authors who’re renowned for the beauty of their prose (Virginia Woolf; Richard Yates; ), there are a number who’re more known for the opposite. Although I’m not sure this is entirely deserved, Anthony Trollope, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis are nowadays known for a certain clunkiness in their prose style. Additionally, others of these books (Zola, Euripides, Mann) were read in translation and, as far as I can remember, didn’t have particularly notable writing.

There are certainly some thematic commonalities here, too. With a few exceptions (The Bell Jar, Gone Girl, The Magicians, Stoner) these are sprawling social novels. They’re usually more about a milieu than a given story. Many were written with a fairly explicit political or moral aim: they not only aimed to depict a time and a place–they also attempted to comment upon it. And, aside from The Magicians, there’s a notable absence of fantastic elements. Almost all of the books (even the comedies) end tragically, but at this point that’s hardly noteworthy, since it seems like most books tend to end tragically.

When I look at the hundreds of novels that I left out of this list, I see a lot of tidy, quiet little stories. There’s room for those in the world, but maybe they’re not my thing. I prefer a little more rage. Even the smallest-scale of these stories, The Bell Jar and Revolutionary Road, have plenty of melodrama: some attempt to transcend their environment and achieve the sublime. At the same time, I don’t seem to go in for big, epic stories. For instance, I’ve read a lot of spy novels and a lot of war stories in the last five years, but I left all of those out.

Anyways, I think I still need to spend some more time staring at this list, though, and trying to parse exactly what I value about these books.

2 thoughts on “Forty-eight books that have stayed with me over the years, and what they (maybe?) tell me about my own preferences

  1. fonssagrives (@fonssagrives)

    I’m surprised to see that you not only liked Adelle Waldman’s book but kept it on your list after multiple rounds of chops. I tried it twice and gave up 2/3 of the way through. Every character is like someone you’ve met a cocktail party and forgotten.

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