Of her website and small business, My Ideal Bookshelf, painter Jane Mount says “I paint portraits of people through the spines of their favorite books: the ones that changed your life, that defined who you are, that you read again and again.” It’s a very cool concept that started (and still functions) as a commission based on-line project wherein Mount solicits commissions in the form of book lists (and pictures of your favorite versions) and for a (somewhat reasonable) fee will portraitize you or your loved one through the spines of your favorite books. The endeavor has been so popular that Mount, along with writer/editor Thessaly La Force (who writes small narratives for each book list based on interviews with the contributors), is about to publish a book length version of My Ideal Bookshelf which highlights the book lists of an insanely cool list of contributors ranging from David Chang to Dave Eggers, from Tony Hawk to Chuck Klosterman. I friggin love this idea–am half thinking of shelling out the three hundred bucks it would cost for a basic Mount commission–and of course, it gets my mind churning about my own Ideal Bookshelf. If I had to pare it down to the spines of a few old favorites, what would they be?
What would yours be? Please share.
Here’s a rough crack at titles I’d include. It’s fickle and blowing in the wind, of course, but this is pretty close. Forgive the length of this list. I tried for a top ten, I really did. Had to settle for twenty and even that was painful.
In no particular order.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace–Completely re-invented the English language for me, as well as broadened, and clarified, the full possibilities of what non-fiction could be.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov–This book sent me reeling. Embarrassed me. Thrilled me. Made me want to write. What a horrible, beautiful work of art. Its stylistic achievements have to be some of the finest in all of world literature.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger–A book not so much for teens, but for adults who remember being a teen, and I’m fine with that. I fell in love with this book when I started teaching it and I continue to do annual battle with a fresh batch of 11th graders who think it’s basically a book length excuse to whine.
Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon–With the exception of the overly long Sabbath scene, one of the most hilarious, joyful, and memorable books ever written. Its characters have become old friends of mine. Pure reading bliss.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, by Langston Hughes–Lovely, lovely Langston. His poetry pulses with palpable, unapologetic emotion. It’s musical. It’s elegiac. It’s of a time and place, yet somehow timeless. I’m convinced we’ll be reading Hughes on Mars.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald–Contains the most beautiful sentences ever written. Sentences so ravishing that you often forget what the hell is happening, sometimes you even stop caring. I had to read Gatsby five or six times just to keep myself from getting too distracted by the beauty.
The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss–Fell for this book reading it over and over again to my son Felix. I later started using it in lessons on Allegory with my high school students. A sad, beautiful, and almost too true book. I ache each time I read it.
A Catskill Eagle, by Robert B. Parker–Parker, for me, was the grand wizard of the hard boiled detective. I grew up devouring Spenser books and his use of dialogue is on par with the all time greats. In my view, a way under appreciated stylist.
Jazz in the Bittersweet Blues of Life, by Wynton Marsalis and Carl Vigeland–A great, and largely unknown, on the road book that follows Marsalis and his great septet around the country in the late nineties. A portrait of a working jazz band, told by both Marsalis and Vigeland in tandem narratives. What it’s like to live jazz.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn–The greatest 2/3 of a novel ever written by an American. But the ending? Jeez. I read this in high school like everyone else. It was then assigned no less than three times in college. Now I teach it and re-read it every year and it changes every time. Growing more potent, more flawed, more urgent with each fresh pass.
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein–A book I grew up reading. I used to think it was about one thing and, like a lot of books you go back to throughout your life, it turned out to be about something else. It broke my heart and I loved it. It’s a shared favorite of my wife’s as well, and a copy of it was the first present she ever bought me. Sigh.
The Green Mile, by Stephen King–The culmination of all King’s gifts rolled into one perfect, magical package. If you only know the film version, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Forgive him the obvious Jesus allegory; he does it on purpose. If you’ve ever wondered why the world adores King so much, look no further.
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison–One of the greatest of all American novels and a long time personal favorite. I discovered this book while minoring in Afro-American literature in college. It lifted my brain out of my body, rearranged the parts, and put it back in. I’ve read it more times than just about any book I own.
Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose–I stumbled upon this book by accident and it totally blew my mind. It’s my favorite book about writing. I’ve bought three separate copies and lovingly annotated each. It urged me to slow down while I read, reminded me that everything I need to know about writing is right there in the books and writers I love.
The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien–An absolutely mind-blowing reading experience. Illustrates more clealry than any other book why we tell stories. Made me rethink what books could and should be.
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway–I studied abroad in Paris in college, right around the same time I was becoming obsessed with Hemingway. This book found me right when I needed it to. Unforgettable reflections written towards the end of Papa’s life, published posthumously.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker–Such an elegant and powerful book, told in a bold epistolary style that, as a writer, I’m in awe of. It contains some of the fiercest and most fully realized female characters ever set to paper. Celie, Shug, Sofia. My my.
Sailing Around the Room Alone, by Billy Collins–A few years ago, Billy Collins’s poetry really turned a light on for me. I can’t quite explain it, but I can’t get enough of his work. Funny. Sad. Insightful. Compulsively readable (now when’s the last time you heard poetry described like that?)
The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster–Weird, beautiful, creepy. This book starts wonderfully and kind of devolves into chaos and nothingness, but it’s a thrilling ride unlike anything you’ve ever read. A nice Auster primer, too, and if you read it, I guarantee you’ll be hooked.
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri–Another book I discovered for the purpose of teaching it and have slowly fallen in love with and consider an indispensable work. It’s an American story, about an immigrant family from India. What’s more American than that? Lahiri is a treasure.