Also, a friend and I were discussing how difficult it is to look back and know the books that were the most influential when you were younger - I told him I was just going through the list of the books I have slept with. YES. When I love a book, when I fall head over heels for a book, I will carry it around everywhere, I will sleep with it in my bed, I will want it's beauty close to me at all times. I won't go anywhere without it - I develop a physical bond with the stories and images and meanings between the covers. I'll generally sleep with the book next to me in bed for at least a couple nights even after I am done, until I am ready for it to go onto the bookshelf. Hence the title.
So, Readers, here we go!
1. White Noise, Don DeLillo - This book taught me about what a person can create with the English language - and goddamn can DeLillo write the fuck out of an English sentence. It is still one of the most relentlessly smart things I have ever read. Underworld I equally love, but White Noise changed everything for me - like holy shit, this is what a novel can DO. It also set a very high bar for other books, as far as the beauty of language and the aesthetics of prose and the perfect pitch of tone. This book just captured something perfectly, and when you write, you know how fucking hard that is.
2. The Once and Future King, T.H. White - I read TOaFK the summer before Honors English my sophomore year in high school, and I absolutely fell in love with it. It peopled the Arthurian myth with messy, flawed, funny, human characters, and it was clear the author loved his characters; you ended up loving them, too. The book was also a lesson - T.H. White was a teacher, and he told you to read. He told you to question. He told you there were no easy answers, but you should always be as humane as possible. I have taken all those lessons to heart, and it's amazing how his diatribe against the dangers of rabid nationalism has rung ever more true with me as history marches on.
3. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf -- The stream of consciousness, that "female syntax" of Woolf, that part where she writes about not just seeing the light, but being the light . . . reading To the Lighthouse for me was like someone had ripped me open and perfectly described what they saw. I saw myself all over that book, spread amongst the pages, and it made me feel seen, and known. And that is no small thing.
4. Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie - Satanic Verses is the struggle to understand religious faith as a secular person, and to explain the faith of those who don't actually ascribe to a religion but yet believe strongly. It's renderings of faith, surrender, love, and miracles are still some of the most moving passages I have ever read.
5. Paradise Lost, Milton - Just: LOVE. I love Paradise Lost. When I read it, it felt like a dangerous, daring, adventurous re-telling of that old story; who could read it and not adore Lucifer? Which makes sense, because we are certainly not like the angels, and thank goodness, as Lucifer has always had the more interesting story to tell.
6. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston - A story told in the language it needed to be told in. I also think of it as an incredibly "tight" book - there is not a word in here that is wasted. When I read it amongst Invisible Man and Native Son, it was unapologetic in the strength and centrism of the female character. It also never felt like it was written TO white people (the other two books felt like that throughout, whether to testify or rebuke), but instead relied on the simple belief that the story of a black woman was important enough to be told because she had a story to tell. And that was that.
7. Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut - "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be."
8. God of Small Things, Arundati Roy - This book has stayed with me. And I do think that it is wonderfully female-and-child-centric and beautifully tragic and soft and gentle, although every once in a while I have met someone who just despised it, so I guess it does dredge up some serious negative reactions in people, even if I cannot quite figure out why. My love is partly because of the brilliant way it works with language, in colonialism, in co-option, in reclamation. And partly it is for a few paragraphs of the book. A white woman has said something racist, something her Oxford-educated Indian husband accepts, in his internalized hatred for his race and country. But the husband's Indian sister, never highly educated, never having left India, fights back against the racism against her,
. . . leaving everybody to wonder where she had learned her effrontery from.9. Beloved, Toni Morrison, and Dubliners, James Joyce - These two books made me understand that, in brilliant literature, the more you gave, the more you got back. They were the first I read CLOSE - and they yielded infinite gifts, unlocking all these secrets of breathless beauty and truth if you only took the time, and if you knew how to look hard.
And truth be told, it was no small wondering matter.
Because Ammu had not had the kind of education, nor read the sorts of book, nor met the sorts of people, that might have influnced her to think the way she did.
She was just that sort of animal.
10. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace - Yup, I read the whole thing, every page, every footnote. I laughed out loud. I cried. I nodded and understood. This book taught me about empathy. This book taught me about addiction - and it helped me understand my rapist, and I stopped believing that I could have ever beaten the drugs and feeling like I had failed for losing that fight. This book helped me survive sexual harassment and an attempted assault last summer. This book made me a better, more humane person. This book taught me about myself. I cannot think of a book that has ever been so dear to my heart as this one.