I just discovered an historic document! A list of all the books I’d read from 2003 to the beginning of 2011. I began keeping the list because I thought it would pressure me to read more. It wound up just being fun, especially looking back and remembering. I’d rated them, too. I don’t really know why, its just one of those OCD-type things I would insist on being strict about.
Finding it now reminded me of why I found it fun. Reading the titles I rated highest was a trip itself. Those books took me on trips. In Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, she quotes the musician Tom Waits:
As a songwriter, the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of people’s minds.
I love that idea. These books (and plays, comics, essays…) decorated my imagination.
Another way I see them, is as adventure-vacations for my mind. The best brought me on some of my most memorable journeys. As I list them now, I find myself thinking the same thing over and over and over:
My God, THIS book was magical!
In the almost 9 years this list covered, there were two books I loved so much I could only rate them as Perfect:
Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version
Michael Malone’s Handling Sin.
I’ve written about Handling Sin before. Its a beautiful comic epic of music and family. I’ve been reading this book since grade 9. I’ve read it a dozen times or more. Each time, I seem to get something new out of it. (The other book I read every couple years is the The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.)
Strangely, these are possibly the ONLY novels that my father and I both loved. They both can make me laugh out loud and cry in public. Handling Sin is a gentle, third-person, linear, Quixotic adventure; Barney’s Version is a rough, first-person, timeline-jumping settling-of-the-record.
They could very well be the best books I’ve ever read. Apparently I’m not the only one who feels that way: they have 4.4 and 4.5 stars in Amazon ratings (too low!). Just check some of these Amazon reader reviews for Handling Sin.
The [> 9]’s (That’s right, I’m so book geeky I use decimals in my rankings)
If I were to have a novel custom built for me, this is what it would probably look like. Down to the narrator-outer-story gimmick.
Twain is, to my mind, the greatest writer of words. That is, forget stories, characters, whatever. Just the words. Man, I love Twain. I remember this book as part of a set: we were travelling East Africa, and my wife and I each carried a half dozen books and shared them (pre-Kindle), which is how I wound up reading Wuthering Heights (uggh). Other books from that set included Things Fall Apart, Brideshead Revisited, Empires of the Monsoon, Mzungu Days, and Notes From the Underground.
Looking back, I have to wonder if I was right to rate this book so highly. It doesn’t scream Magic in my memory the way the others do. What I do remember is, this is an angry, ugly book, about bad people, but its powerful and compelling, funny and ballsy.
The series that transcended comics, yet could only be told as a comic. Mind-boggingly smart. The most intricately planned plot, constantly building momentum, and the most vivid, deep and original characters. Check it: 4.6 stars on 1,566 Amazon reviews.
(an essay only, but I thought I should include it since it appears 3 times on the list, all with high ratings)
London is my favourite writer. My sadness with London is that I’ve never enjoyed him at book length as I do in his short stories. Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf have great aspects, but page-after-page of monotonous flowery description. Then, I found John Barleycorn. This is London’s memoir as a drinker, an idea brought about in sympathy with the temperance movement. It is the story of London’s life, one of the most exciting lives in literature, told through the lens (or bottom of a beer glass) of his drinking. From his days as a teen sailor through poverty and hard labour, world travel, and fame and fortune, funny, sad and maddening tales, with themes and ideas carried along throughout. Along with the first-class storytelling is some very honest, intelligent and multi-faceted writing on booze.
Hesse is the outstanding writer in a field other writer’s don’t even know exists: writing about something without touching it. In The Glass Bead Game, The Journey to the East, and to a lesser extent Siddhartha, Hesse somehow tells a story which is clearly about SOMETHING, but he never tells you what that SOMETHING is: In The Glass Bead Game, we never learn how the game works, just some characteristics of it. In The Journey to the East, we never learn what the Journey was for, or how it came about.
The Glass Bead Game is Hesse’s magnum opus. It is a story, a meditation, an alternative reality, and an intellectual game. One of those books that looms so large in my heart and mind, I’m scared to read it again and be disappointed (e.g. The Sea Wolf).
Typical Twain. Original, funny, smart, tragic, insightful, unforgettable characters, sentences and paragraphs you wished you could read again for the first time. Come on, Twain. Pick it up a notch.
I think this is the only one where I watched the movie first. One of my favourite films: Sean Connery and Michael Caine at their peaks, with Christopher Plummer as a fantastic Kipling-outer-tale-narrator.
What a special novel. One of my favourite modern books. Its funny as hell, brilliantly weird, with an absolute world-lit-all-star roster of characters.
Birth of Tragedy (Out of the Spirit of Music), Friedrich Nietzsche (non-fiction)
There ain’t no one like Nietzsche. Reading Nietzsche is like being locked in the car with a madman at the wheel. You have no idea where he’s going; you’re forever anticipating a fiery crash; the scenery rolling by seems somehow more meaningful than ever before; and he’s riffing off every song as he flips through radio stations, and you begin to think maybe he understands something you don’t, and that its the Most Important Thing in the Universe. I’ve written about this book here and here. Here, Nietzsche tells the tale (or his version of it) of the relationship of Mankind’s Greatest Generation (Golden Age Greece) with their art, specifically, their highest art: tragedy. Nietzsche demonstrates the synthesis of Tragedy from the ying and yang of the human experience, explains how this synthesis within the soul was responsible for the birth of these Highest of All Men, how Western Man degenerated alongside the loss of Tragic art. While he’s doing this, insights into art, life, modernity, and science whiz by. They should sell this pre-highlighted, because if you want to mark down some of the most unique or startling bits, you’re going to need a lot of highlighter.
I can’t say why these particular three London books stood out at the time. They are brilliant, but I could name so many other London stories to love. I guess I’ll just have to blame it on the aughts. Koolau the Leper is a South Sea story. Race was an important theme in London’s writing. Whereas, in his earlier (Yukon) stories, the Indian was sympathetic, but the white man seemed somehow the destined winner and appropriately so. By the time of Koolau the Leper, London has really changed his view. Now, the white man is a curse, individually noble or evil men, blundering about, remaking the world with no comprehension of what they were destroying. Batard is a Yukon tale. This is a dog story, like White Fang or Call of the Wild. But there’s an edge to Batard, it seems more mature, rougher, and somehow deeper than those novels. The Seed of McKoy: well, sometimes a story’s great because its just a great story. Here is a ship of white men, out of their minds with fear, on a boat they all know can explode at any minute – and a local pilot from the Pacific islands who shares their fate (though he alone is deciding it), and experiences it from a wholly different state of mind.
A tremendous (and hugely influential) primer on Greek culture and manner of thinking during their Golden Age.
Faust is one of our most archetypal myths: the soul sold to the devil for great, but unholy, power here on Earth. The sequel sucked, though.
(This is another one that I can’t really recall what I loved about it so much – again, doesn’t evoke any lingering magic).
The Devil and his entourage make a pranking visit to Moscow during the athiest-communist-brutally faceless-Stalinist era. Like Faust, it includes an orgiastic witches ball.
Oh yeah. Magic. I wish I didn’t like other books better, so I could say this is my favourite book. Because I love this book so much.
I read this book, about the history of the Swahili coast while travelling the Swahili coast. The book tells an epic tale of the Arabian sea as a long-standing ‘neighbourhood’ of interacting cultures: Arab, African, Persian, Indian, and occasionally, Chinese.
Steinbeck wrote this with a new form of literature in mind, bare bones and intimate, like a stage play. He wanted to write in a simpler, briefer style that could be more widely palatable, because he was presenting philosophic and political ideas that he felt were of interest to an audience that was less educated.
Here is a famous, though controversial, adaptation for screen:
Night, by Elie Wiesel (non-fiction)
This is an artistic and human triumph. Wiesel turns his most torturous personal events of the Holocaust into a meaningful, coherent, illuminating story. This book is a look into Nietzsche’s abyss.
I’ll stop here before I get to the 8’s. I think that is where I would say we go from Magic to just great books. There is more Steinbeck, Shakespeare, and London, as well as Hemmingway, Orwell, Stephen King and Hunter S Thompson.
Update: It just occurred to me that I stopped keeping this list shortly after my second child was born. One more thing to hold against her!