Read It Again

I'VE TRIED BUT I JUST CAN'T DO IT; NOT YET ANYWAY. I have a friend who challenged me to choose six books. Here’s how the challenge went down: If you had to choose six books to be the only books you would have on your shelf to read from now on, what would they be?

Comme l’on serait savant si l’on connaissait bien seulement cinq ou sìx livres.
— Flaubert

Translated: “What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half a dozen books.”

Obviously the Bible would be first. Not because I’m holy or anything, but because it has everything in one book: mystery, intrigue, poetry, philosophy, love story, history, science, etc.

“You can’t choose the Bible. In fact, let’s narrow it down to novels, literary fiction.”

Even as a kid I loved to read and be read to. When I think about this challenge of picking just six books, I think, “Why?” But kids prove that stories can be read again and again and again and again. In fact, I can hear my Grand-Girls now: “Read it again, Pops.” 

karlee and pops

karlee and pops

Growing up, once I began reading beyond picture books, my list-of-six would have included: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Call of the Wild, Treasure Island and City High Five.

But then, the Call of the Cool came in early adolescence. And you couldn’t be caught reading or admitting you really liked reading. You would be pummelled with your copy of Red Badge Of Courage. And then there were those books that teachers insisted we read…

Nothing ruins a book faster than a teacher who insists it is important.
— Alex Miller Jr.

Some teachers I trusted. Some teachers would make you read a certain book (by assignment and threat). Some teachers would make you want to read a certain book (by there obvious love for the story).

Why is it important to have six books (or whatever number) that you could and will read again and again? Because one of the things that makes a great story a great story is that you can hear it over again, and it is fresh and compelling each time. And then there’s this, from The New York Review of Books:

The ideal here, it seems, is total knowledge of the book, total and simultaneous awareness of all its contents, total recall. Knowledge, wisdom even, lies in depth, not extension. The book, at once complex and endlessly available for revisits, allows the mind to achieve an act of prodigious control. Rather than submitting ourselves to a stream of information, in thrall to each precarious moment of a single reading, we can gradually come to possess, indeed to memorize, the work outside time.

As I said at the start, I can’t quite whittle the list to six; yet. But I do have it to eight. Oh, as you read my list, don’t judge me. I’m not in seventh grade anymore, your judgement doesn’t matter to me, but I would love to hear your opinions and your list. I’ve shared my emerging list with a few people. Some of have questioned whether some of these qualify as “classics”. That’s not one of the criteria. Remember, this is about books you could read again and again.

Specifically, I’ve been critized for having Catcher in the Rye on my list. It is, in fact, a book I read about once a year, and have for years. One said: “Jane Eyre! Isn’t that a chick book?” I hit him over the head with my copy. And if you’re familiar with Jane Eyre you know it (the book, not Jane herself) is large and packs a wallop.

So, [drum roll] here’s the list, not necessarily in any order:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
  • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

What's on your list?