I like to think of books as a moveable feast, the finest ones residing with and sustaining us our whole lives. For every memorable time in my life there is an equally memorable book, a book that spoke to me on some elemental level or a book that stretched the boundaries of my knowledge. Generally speaking, nearly all I know about history, philosophy, religion, and world culture I learned from books, mostly novels. My reading habits run a bit amuck. I go through periods of obsessive reading, like the year I shared an apartment with Brother Mine in the Uptown Minneapolis. Having just graduated from college, I felt woefully under read for English major. I had a series of minor panic attacks when I tried to calculate the number of books I had read in my life and the amount of time I had left to read everything that might be deemed meaningful before I died. As fortune would have it, the evening bus stopped right in front of the Uptown branch of the public library, a short few blocks from our apartment. Every few days, I would get off the bus, take the stairs down to the subterranean library and search the shelves for something compelling. That year I read my way through everything I could find by Robertson Davies, Toni Morrison, Wallace Stegner, Lousie Erdrich, Jane Austen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Salman Rushdie. Moderation is not my strong suit.
I even love reading book reviews and book lists (the Orange Prize and Man Booker Prize usually select outstanding reads). Then there are the 100 Books You Must Read Before You Die lists or the Best Books of the 20th Century lists. It is all terribly subjective and I rarely agree with the whole list. I find them daunting as well. How can you narrow a life time’s worth of reading into a list of the ten or fifty or hundred best? So, rather than say this is my end-all and be-all list of books, I’ll say simply that this is today’s list of books deemed meaningful by me at some point in my existence.
Homestead by Rosina Lippi
This book touches me, just touches me. Each story is connected to the next through the complicated family tree of several clans in an Alpine village. The women are at the heart of these stories that span nearly a century. I’ve reread this now several times, and each time is as rich as the time before. One of the finest, most poignant moments in all writing comes when an aging mother bends over her grown son returned from war and quietly takes in the smell of his neck as she did when he was an infant.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Another longtime favorite, I’ve read this novel numerous times. Hurston’s use of dialect reads like poetry to me. Janie had my heart from the moment she contemplated the bee and the blossom beneath the pear tree to when she tells Phoebe, “Two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves’.” It’s a beautifully told story of Janie’s awakening .
Evensong by Gail Godwin
Margaret, the main character and an Episcopalian minister, spends a fair portion of this novel inside her head, undergoing a sort of personal spiritual rebirth. I’m sure that my first reading of this novel took place during a period of my own spiritual growth, and that’s one reason it spoke to me. I’m also simply fond of Margaret.
Tracks by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich has created the most dynamic characters in literature today, beautiful and flawed all at once. My favorite of these is Fleur Pillager. I look for the strength of Fleur in the women of my own complicated family tree. “Power travels in the bloodlines, handed out before birth. It comes down through the hands, which in the Pillagers are strong and knotted, big, spidery and rough, with sensitive fingertips good at dealing cards. It comes through the eyes, too, belligerent, darkest brown, the eyes of those in the bear clan, impolite as they gaze directly at a person.”
Coincidentally, each of these books contains some of the most complex and beautiful female characters ever. Themes of ancestry and interconnectedness run through each of these novels too. I am sure I can come up with all sorts of book lists and will, no doubt, down the road. For now, this will do. Is there a book that speaks directly to you or one you have read and reread time and again?