I’ve read a lot of books. I won’t try to put a number on it. In junior high school and high school it was mostly science fiction and fantasy, and I treated those books as objects of art, handling them delicately and never cracking the spine or creasing the cover. This was the mid-’70s through the early ’80s. At some point after college, I let my parents unload them all at a yard sale. I had moved on to other things. From the story they told me later, Comic Book Guy from the Simpson’s came by that Sunday morning and just about had a joyful heart attack as he bought the entire collection at some insanely low price.
In college (the first time around) I majored in English. That’s where we all ended up when physics or architecture or whatever couldn’t hold our attention. We just wanted to read. It was mostly Western canon stuff then, which I didn’t mind. If I wanted to read something else, I did. I had the time. It was not a difficult major.
I saved every book I read. I’d add it to my shelf in the proper place, and when I moved at the end of the year I’d box it up and bring it right back out in my new apartment. But after a while that gets old. How many times have I moved over the last twenty years? How many pounds of books have I lugged up and down stairs? I’m amazed that I don’t have back problems. I’ve learned to love my Kindle.
So a few years ago I boxed up most of my library and put it into storage. I kept enough to fill a single IKEA Billy bookcase. There’s no sadder reminder of life’s regrets than a room full of IKEA furniture.
The books that I still have with me are favorites, or books that I need to refer to for one reason or another, or books that have landed in my life more recently. I thought I’d run through them in no particular order other than the order in which they were thoughtlessly arranged after the last unpacking:
Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres. I don’t remember much from this book apart from the beginning, where the doctor removes the ancient pea from the old man’s ear, which forces him to listen to his wife for the first time ever. I liked that.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I often have a hard time getting through Ishiguro’s books, and this was no exception. I find myself putting him aside for six month before going back and trying again. But it’s always worth it in the end. This book was incredibly sad and moving. And this is one of those rare instances where I loved the movie just as much. But that’s not easy to watch either.
Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison. My favorite from him. There are three novellas in this volume, and they’ve made so-so movies out of the first and last. But it’s the middle story, “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” that’s a strong contender for Best Thing Ever.
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. Back in the 1980s, when I was an official student of English literature, this is what passed for a “modern novel.” Copyright date? 1927. Still, it was good enough to keep.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Maybe they were teaching Garcia Marquez somewhere in my school, but I never ran across him there. Instead, my introduction came from my membership in the Book of the Month Club when they sent me his then-new Love in the Time of Cholera (my favorite of his). I wonder what happened to my copy of that?
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Confession: I liked the movie better than the book.
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. How many times did they try to make me read Madame Bovary? Too many. I hated it. I had no interest. And then on a lark (maybe a conure?) I picked this up in a London bookshop in 1987. All I wanted to do after reading it was go back to Bovary again and again.
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. I’ve read most everything of Ondaatje’s and will continue to do so. But this, paired with The English Patient, are by far my favorites. Oh, Hana …
Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis. This was the bullseye to my generation. Growing up in Southern California, I wasn’t one of these people, but I knew them … and the seeming ease with which Ellis shot to the top for this left us all envious and sometimes even angry. We got over it.
Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane. My favorite McGuane. When Joe Starling discovers the truth behind the inspiration for his most famous painting, his only real accomplishment? Priceless. Just read it. Hell, I’m going to go read it again myself right now. It’s been too long.
The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane. After six years of college I had never heard of Tom McGuane; I had to travel all the way to Europe to discover this most American of authors. The Bushwhacked Piano was my gateway drug. I don’t know why people read Tom Robbins when they could be reading this instead.
Nobody’s Angel by Thomas McGuane.
The Sporting Club by Thomas McGuane.
The Public World of Parable Jones by Dominic Behan. An absolutely hilarious novel of Irish literary and political life from the brother of Brendan Behan. Stumbled across this one in Dublin in 1990. Buy it if you can find it.
The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman. It’s been years since I read this, but thinking back now I see some superficial parallels to my own novel—at least in the Chinese magic and the movement of the story from China to California. A lighthearted, enjoyable fantasy.
The Sea Runners by Ivan Doig. Edge-of-your seat historical fiction (based on a true story) about a mid-19th century escape from Alaska to Oregon by canoe. Intense.
Bliss by Peter Carey. From comic debauchery to tragedy to apocalyptic redemption. My favorite Carey, and one of my favorite books.
All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I can’t think of McCarthy without thinking of Blood Meridian, but this is also very good.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. If I had read this when I first heard of it in the 1980s, I would have devoured it. Instead, I first picked it up a couple years ago and lost interest. Oh well.
Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney. I discovered Seamus Heaney when one of his poems was featured as part of London’s “Poems on the Underground” series many years ago. I don’t read much poetry, but he was fantastic.
Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane.
Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami. Would I sound like too much of a hipster if I bragged that I’ve been into Murakami way longer than you?
An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane. A book of non-fiction essays. Worth it for “The Life and Hard Times of Chink’s Benjibaby” alone. That story is the inspiration for a chapter in a novel that I’ve been working on for years, and will be working on for years to come.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. Another of the “modern novels” from my old modern novel class.
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. When I got rid of all my old science fiction and fantasy, I kept only four or five books. Three of them were by Ray Bradbury. Do I even need to explain?
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré. This is the best. I bought my copy from a newsstand in the south of France in 1987.
Fools of Fortune by William Trevor.
The Bass Saxophone by Josef Skvorecky. I read this over and over in the ’80s as part of my Czech obsession. We all had a Czech obsession back then. I still don’t know how I didn’t make it to Prague when all the dominos started falling. I wasn’t much more than a train ride away.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. A few years ago I bought one of the lesser, later Rushdies at Barnes & Noble. The checker had never heard of him. I thought she was kidding. I was kind of a dick about it, but I didn’t mean to be. Sorry.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. Ditto the Skvorecky above.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness. I think I discovered this through a Jim Harrison review. This is an amazing (but depressing) piece of literature. Read it if amazing (but depressing) is your thing.
To the White Sea by James Dickey. From the author of Deliverance. A harrowing story of an American airman shot down over Japan during the closing days of WWII. I’m holding on to this because I have a novel of my own (still to be written) with a sequence set under similar circumstances.
The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson. Viking adventure!
The Long Way by Michael Corbin Ray & Therese Vannier. Oh, look, it’s an ARC and a final proof copy of my own novel. Wow!
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. My favorite Murakami.
To be continued …