So my wife bought this book: My Ideal Bookshelf, in which famous (and not so famous) people, many of them writers and artists, describe the 10 \( \pm \) books that influenced them and that would be essential on their shelves. You know, kind of a what would you take to a desert island exercise.
Which got me thinking: what would my books be? Here's what I came up with.
Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Well, duh. When I was 15 or so someone in my high school class (Chris Hurst, maybe?) was reading this in class one day. "What's that?" I asked. I've read it several times since then, even teaching a course about it last semester. Of all Vonnegut's books, this is the one that holds up best, with Cat's Cradle a close second, and as I've aged I've come to understand and appreciate it on a much deeper level. As a teenager I saw it as an entertaining science-fiction story, but now I know that it's a rather disturbing, semi-autobiographical tale of post-traumatic stress disorder and the lengths that former soldiers sometimes go to in dealing with the horrors of war. It really should be required reading now as we welcome home soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq; instead it's still getting removed from high school library shelves. Go figure.
The Once and Future King, by T.H. White OK, I'll admit it. One of my favorite movies is Excalibur. It's really pretty bad, but I can't help it. I suspect this derives from my love of White's classic retelling of the legend of King Arthur. I'm really not much of a fantasy nerd, but there's something about Camelot that sucks me in. I was never really a fan of Book I: The Sword in the Stone, which was made into an animated film by Disney and consists of fanciful stories of Merlin turning Arthur and Kay into various animals to teach them life lessons. Once Arthur pulls Excalibur from the stone, though, it really gets interesting. I haven't read this in about 25 years, but it's still one of my favorite books.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace I'm not a fan of Wallace's fiction. I tried reading Infinite Jest back in the 90s; I got through about 200 pages and gave up (I'm afraid that might happen with my current book, War and Peace, but the jury's still out). Wallace's true talent was as an essayist, and while there are pieces in Consider the Lobster that are as brilliant as anything in A Supposedly Fun Thing... (especially the lead essay about the adult film awards), I will always think of this book as the quintessential collection of his best work. Read and stand in awe. Or get annoyed by all the footnotes. It's pretty much a bimodal distribution.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell I haven't seen the movie yet, but I've read this book twice. The first time was on the Kindle app on my iPad and I had two thoughts: (1) that it is among the most brilliant pieces of fiction I've ever read, and (2) one shouldn't read it on a Kindle. The structure of the book doesn't lend itself to the format, so I bought a copy of the old-fashioned codex version and re-read it. Much better. I like all the stories, but my favorite is An Orison of Sonmi-451, a disturbingly plausible dystopian story of the not-too-distant future.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov Let's be clear: Humbert Humbert is a disgusting human being. But Nabokov writes such perfect sentences that you can't stop reading this story of pedophilia and self-delusion. You know the story, so I won't say more.
Cohomology of Groups, by Kenneth S. Brown This one will appeal only to me, but that's ok. I spent a lot of time studying this book, the foundational text in the discipline. I was introduced to spectral sequences in Rational Homotopy Theory and Differential Forms, by Griffiths and Morgan, but Brown's book really cleared up a lot of things for me. My 20-year-old copy is banged up but still holds a central place on my professional bookshelf.
Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell This is that rare book that makes me laugh out loud while teaching me something. Vowell tells the stories of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, and does it via her adventures to various sites associated with each of them and their killers. Her nephew, Owen, makes a lot of appearances, too. Vowell loves America and isn't ready to give up on its promise just yet, while recognizing that we're pretty f*cked up in a lot of ways. This is my favorite among her books and she is among my favorite writers. She'd have to be on the shelf, right?
The Times Atlas of the World This is the Times of London, and it's the heavy atlas on our bookshelf at home. I love maps and this atlas is beautiful. That's it, really. Nothing deep.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury This book is a little too real. The firemen burn books because the people asked for them to be taken away. Everyone has wall-sized television screens on at least two walls through which they "engage" in interactive shows. Guy Montag's wife wants all four walls to be interactive. State power always wins (beware the mechanical hound). Bradbury was a master of his craft, a towering figure in American letters. If you ever saw him on the old Politically Incorrect, you also know he could be a jackass. But I suppose that's true of many great artists (see also: Picasso, Pablo), and it's important to separate the person from the product sometimes.
I only have nine. I'm sure I could think of others, but this is a pretty good list so I'll stop. What are your essential books?