An Enduring Dozen

Recently I came across a former peer of mine who’d written on books that mean a great deal to him, so I thought I’d share a glimpse at 12 books that mean a great deal to me and speculate at perhaps why each has a hold on me.

These books and/or collections I return to. I’ve bought multiple copies over the years. They’re marked up, the way, say, one’s Bibles might be worn from writing and years of reading from them.

If you have books that continue to move you, would you let me know what they are? They may deserve a similar place in my literary affections.

Here’s an enduring dozen for me:

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. By far the most violent book I’ve ever read, it explores McCarthy’s enduring themes about God, evil, judgment, and man’s capacity for both unspeakable evil and goodness.

The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor. I have read O’Connor so much that it is difficult say anything about her that has not already been well said. But for any unfamiliar with her genius, she excelled in making sin so blatant, so egregious, so horrific, that the reader has to deal with it. Why? As she wrote and said many times, because we as a species are deaf and blind, and so only the grotesque is sufficient to jar us from our spiritual and intellectual stupor.

The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. War, men and women, shell shock/PTSD/numbness, God, endurance, cruelty, booze, friendship, honor vs. dishonor, courage, etc. Hemingway touched on it all. Though often a monster in his personal life, his stories are unbeatable in terms of the pathos they call us into.

Melville’s Moby-Dick. Melville’s mind, like his themes, was a Pacific. It’s all here: God, theodicy, friendship, monomania, violence, love, meaning, strife vs. repose, and countless more. A lifetime of learning.

McCarthy’s The Road. Each time I read this novel, I know that I will weep. That is not, of course, why I return. But this book has among the most beautiful and heart-rending language, scenes, understatement, and pathos I’ve ever found in the world’s best literature. McCarthy’s recurring themes are here, too, but the love between the father and the son, and what McCarthy is driving at, is unparalleled.

Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. When I read it as an English major for the first time several decades ago, I was simply overwhelmed. But if you return again and again, you’ll begin to see what he was up to. A-chronological time; interior monologues; Bergsonian plays upon time and consciousness; multiple narrative points of view; stream of consciousness, and more. Faulkner broke the mold over and over again, and we are indebted to him for his courage and artistry.

McCarthy’s The Crossing. Part II of The Border Trilogy, The Crossing is definitely a novel of ideas, but–again–it’s McCarthy’s gift of language, of landscape writing, and the cogitations of his characters that enrapture. Not a fast read but a deep read.

Eudora Welty’s Complete Stories. Welty is a master of the short story, and especially of irony, dialogue, and understatement. She exhibits the mind of a scholar and the finesse of a linguisitic savante. No detail escapes her attention.

The Collected Complete Works of Hawthorne. King of the Dark Romantics, Hawthorne’s characters don’t leave you. Hester Prynne, Chillingsworth, Dr. Heidegger, Young Goodman Brown, and on and on.

Faulkner again. Absalom, Absalom! Not for the tepid, but here is Faulkner at his zenith. With the longest sentence in a novel (I don’t think it’s been beaten, but I may be mistaken), with Quentin Compson, and Thomas Sutpen, and the cast of Yoknapatawpha County legends, this is Faulkner’s literary genius on display. With biblical allusions and Greek references sufficient for countless theses and dissertations, it’s all here. (Bring your dictionary.)

Porter’s stories. Specifically, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. A troubled but beautiful soul and linguistic magician, Porter will make you continually ask, “What’s really real?”

And this’ll be no surprise to folks who know me well, but it’s Dickens. Great Expectations holds a place in my heart unlike almost any other piece of literary fiction. I love his other tops like David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House, etc. but GE still grips me like no other.

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