Friday, April 23, 2010

Books everyone should read

Blogger Amy Riley, a.k.a. My Friend Amy (whom I can't actually claim as a friend) posted a survey on 18 April, asking her readers to say what one book they think everyone should read, and why. Interesting idea.


One book? Just one? I hate that question!

Still, interesting idea.

I huffed and I puffed but I managed to answer the survey, and I'm curious to see what Amy does with the results. Hopefully this won't be one of those silly surveys that tries to tell me which publisher I am based on the books I think everybody should read.

My pick: Back on the Fire, a book of essays by Pulitzer-prizewinning poet and essayist Gary Snyder. It's the best $15 you'll ever spend on bound tree flakes. To the question "why?" I responded to Amy's survey: These essays distill a deep thinker's lifelong meditation on how human culture fits (and doesn't) the deep streams of life on our planet, and opens vast new worlds of perspective and perception for anyone who hopes to see beyond the immediate. Snyder is an essential read for writers, teachers, activists, parents, and citizens. His anecdotes are sharply drawn, beautifully written, funny, and wise. (Thanks to Oso for his photo of Snyder reading from Back on the Fire at Diesel Books in Oakland, California. You can't see me in this photo, but I'm somewhere further back in the crowd and to the poet's left, standing. If memory serves, the full head of grey hair directly in front of Snyder is Michael McClure's.)

Okay, I shouldn't have repeated "deep" twice in the same sentence up there in the italics, but hey, it was a survey, I wasn't being careful. Seminal. These essays distill a seminal thinker's lifelong meditation..., etc., etc. Ah, well. Maybe next time.

I also gave a few answers to the optional questions about which book in particular categories people should read. I suggested Foundation by Issac Asimov in the Science Fiction category; and Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald in the Literary Fiction category. The first is a classic (seminal, even) sci fi trilogy about a galactic empire on the brink of falling into a centuries-long period of barbarous decay; and the second is about a man seeking his origins after suddenly recalling his evacuation as a young child from the chaos of Prague during the second world war.

Hmmmm... What pattern is suggested by these picks? I suppose the assertion in my Retreat to happiness post, that I'm not so keen on happy books, is confirmed. It also seems to suggest that I am drawn to books that examine the intersection of individuals and the trajectories of history (past, present, and speculative).

Do you have an opinion about books everyone should read? Leave a comment here, and if Amy's survey is still open you might consider adding to her (undoubtedly larger) store of opinions too.


  1. yes small book about politics, by Doris lessing called"Prisons That We Choose To Live Inside Of", about how the left(in Thatcherite England but still applies right now)never are willing to use the propaganda techniques of the right, even though they are available to them, is one that I can never let go of.
    Last week , I thought of Greil Marcus's "Lipstick Traces" about how the situationists and dada images and ideas from the 1920s showed up on top 40 album covers by the Sex Pistols 1976 by way of Malcolm McClaren ,is pretty great. Just kids by Patti Smith is also very moving and an inspiring read for artists , about the way we all begin, I thought very poetic and very true.(about her relationship w Robert Mapplethorpe and her own art)
    Novels are impossible to narrow down but last year "Ten Days in the Valley" by Jane Smiley was my fav novel to read.It was written in a completely diff style as usual, taking an extended weekend visit of an extended family of a film director in L A, with the beg of the Iraq war in the background and woven through the novel with the director's own impotence juxtaposed pretty graphically with everyone's feelings about the war ....
    Ann Patchett "Bel Canto" and Bruce Chatwin," The Songlines" ,Zadie Smith "White Teeth "and Dave Eggers ,"A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius" , Paul Auster "The Book of Illusions", and Primo Levi ,"The Periodic Table", all favs of mine.Philip Roth its harder to pin down bec I read all.He wrote a pretty devastating novel about aging and sexuality last yr that was also perfect but not giftable, it was so true...I think its called "Everyman"

  2. Thanks, Karen, I'll put Lessing's book on my list. Looks to me like you've got plenty of material to become a book blogger....

  3. no just a big big I said a t a residency to the writers, someone has to be a reader, right?