Of late, there seems to be a trend among my friends on Facebook to compose a list of their Top Ten Books and then to tag others to subsequently join the game. I’ve been following the threads with a mixture of joy and dread. Joy because it is always fun to see what books have had a lasting influence on people, to reminisce about a shared experience of finishing an amazing book. Dread because I can’t possibly compose my own list. Thankfully, I’m only lurking on the edge of this game and don’t really have to fear being called out by one of my friends. Nevertheless, looking in from the outside, this nerdy version of the ice bucket challenge has led me to think about my reading history, about the books that have changed my life, about the ones I could have done without.
When you have a PhD in literature there is a certain pressure to always have a compelling book in tow and to always have a recommendation at hand. “You haven’t read Banville’s The Sea?—it’s a must read.” So I’ve been mentally preparing my list and inevitably comparing it to the others I’ve seen. Sadly, mine isn’t always as compelling as it should be. Reading these lists, it seems that the only books worthy of being remembered are classics of some sort or another—Jane Eyre, Light in August, etc. I’m pretty well-read and some of these books changed my life, but somehow my list is always littered with less illustrious titles.
When I was a kid, I didn’t read much. I spent a lot more time learning to hit left-handed than in the library. In 4th grade, I read a biography of Mickey Mantle, which was my first real book—400 pages of off-color humor about life in “the bigs” in the 1950’s and 60’s. Now this book wasn’t a classic; it probably wasn’t even well-written, but for a non-reader, it was an accomplishment. Until then, the only thing I’d read was encyclopedia entries.
Later, in high school, I read Michael Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom. It’s a blend of new-age mysticism mixed with golf philosophy and features a character named Shivas Irons—really, that’s his name. It’s almost embarrassing to say so, but that book is still on my shelf, sharing space with more “worthy” tomes like Notes from Underground and Ulysses.
Our reading histories are very personal; they track our development as readers and individuals. My bookshelves are a pretty good reflection of my life over the course of the last twenty years. Of course, my tastes changed as I got older and my shelves started to look more like an Allan Bloom essay than a sports self-help compendium, but I’ve never forgotten or abandoned them. I might have traded in Mantle and Murphy for Kafka and Borges somewhere along the way, but those books still mean something to me and would probably still make my list.