Facebook
Reading: Most Memorable Books
About my reading as an adult ...
I've always found “best books” lists disconcerting. The millennium brought out a rash of them—best books of the century, etc.—and I was never quite sure what was meant by “best.” Most influential artistically? Best-written? Greatest social impact?

Then again, I'm a list lover. In thinking about this topic since—well, since a year or so before the millennium, when those lists first started surfacing, I decided that 'memorableness' (which is probably not even a word) had to figure into my personal definition of 'best.' Which books haunt me? Which startle me by coming to mind at odd moments the most often? Which books are most likely to flash before my eyes in the moments before I die?

It's a definition that works for me, because it was surprisingly easy to come up with a short list. For my purposes, I eliminated any titles read within the last six months because I felt they hadn't yet met the test of time. (Linda Sue Park, 2001)
Light in August, by William Faulkner. I first read this for a college literature course and have since thanked the stars that it was not foisted on me any earlier. I can still remember my visceral reaction on reading the first page: I had trouble breathing. I am a 'story' person, whether reading or writing, and it is tribute to the strength of this book that the story was not as important to me as the language. Faulkner did things with words I had never imagined could be done. For many years the first sentence was committed to memory; just writing this makes me want to re-read the book again.
Ulysses, by James Joyce. A pretentious choice? Maybe, but I was privileged to study in Dublin with David Norris, a Joycean scholar of great insight and wit. We spent the entire year on Dubliners and Portrait; he promised us that the key to Ulysses lay in these two earlier works. It was something like a miracle: Norris's lectures, the walks through Dublin, listening to the everyday speech of the place—that year transformed Ulysses from impenetrable to transparent (well, almost), a life lesson in literature as community.
Faulkner and Joyce might seem obvious picks to some; my remaining titles are more obscure:
biografi, by Lloyd Jones. I wanted to be a travel writer. At 23, I thought I was off to a pretty good start: I left the U.S. and went to Ireland to study. Alas, it was not to be: The very next year I was a stay-home mom with a beautiful infant son and I had to reknit my dream considerably.

I became, instead, a food writer. That way, I could at least attempt reasonable facsimiles of what they might be eating in all the places I couldn't travel to. This underlying motivation proved to be a problem—I loved exploring the anthropology of food and its relation to place and culture, while my editors were first puzzled, then frustrated: "Recipes, Linda Sue—our readers want recipes." (I complied, albeit reluctantly; to this day recipes top my list of Most Boring Things to Write.)

All this is a roundabout way of explaining why travel books have always made up the bulk of my (non-children's) reading material. So I was primed when I stumbled across biografi. It is shelved as "Fiction" rather than travel writing, because conjecture plays as large a role as fact. Set in Albania, it is the story of the man who was forced to serve as Hoxha's double. If you feel as I do that odd little pockets in space and time can illuminate our lives today, you might like this—a book I wish ardently I could have written.

N.B. I have come to believe that the above is indeed a quirky choice, because no one else to whom I've recommended it has had a similar reaction. (In fact, my sister hated it, and has been wary of my recommendations ever since...) Which, I suppose, goes to show how subjective and ultimately unreliable these lists are.
Roosevelt Grady, by Louisa Shotwell. A title for children and anyone who once was a child. The story of a family of migrant workers in the American South. I read it when I was about ten and have read it at least once yearly ever since. I loved it then because I loved Roosevelt; I love it now because I consider it a perfect novel.
A Reader's Delight, by Noel Perrin. Number One on the list of Best List Books Ever. A collection of essays in which Perrin chooses his personal favorite books. He set himself a few rules—no classics, nothing published within the last fifteen years—and within those boundaries creates a list that truly lives up to the title. Originally written as columns for the Washington Post, his reviews make you want to rush out to buy the books immediately.
There are other books whose words or images often rattle and bump around in my head—novels by Robertson Davies; Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem; The Gastronomical Me, by M.F.K. Fisher; Longitude, by Dava Sobel; Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond; a great many poems (by Blake and Yeats, Milne, Heaney, Muldoon, Strand, Gluck ... ); and of course all the children's books already listed on my favorites pages. But five seems a good number for a list like this one.
In that spirit, I surveyed my nearest and dearest, with these results:
My Husband:
The Citadel, by A.J. Cronin    
     
Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz    
 
Cancer Ward, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn    
 
Sweet Thursday, by John Steinbeck    
 
A Very Long Engagement, by Sebastien Japrisot    
 
My Son (age 16):
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen    
     
The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper    
 
Watership Down, by Richard Adams    
 
Ball Four, by John Steinbeck    
 
He couldn't come up with five. Is this insufficient parenting on my part? I wonder ...
My Daughter (age 12):
Holes, by Louis Sachar    
     
The Wind in the Door, by Madeleine L'Engle    
 
Darling, If You Love Me, Would You Please, Please Smile,
by Rukhsana Khan
   
 
The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl    
 
The Gentleman Outlaw and Me, Eli, by Mary Downing Hahn    
Reading
Website copyright 2000- Linda Sue Park. All rights reserved.
Photos and text on this website may not be re-used electronically or in print without permission.