In the warehouse of blog lists that’ve usurped and perverted the term “meme”, there’re many items that ask you to list favourite books. Most of them, though, just have you throw the book’s name out there, with little or no explanation of why you like it.
On the other side of things is NPR’s series, “You Must Read This”. In each item in the series an author talks about one book, which that author considers indispensible, and there’s time for the essayist to go into the “why”.
I’m going to cross the two, mostly because I can’t pick one indispensible book, but have chosen three that everyone should read, each for a different reason. And there’s room here to talk about the reasons.
You must read these:
Alonso Quixano, enamored of stories of knights and their quests, imagines himself as the knight errant Don Quixote de la Mancha, and his imagination turns into delusion as we follow Don Quixote’s adventures.
Miguel de Cervantes wrote the book in two parts, published ten years apart — in 1605 and 1615. Cervantes was roughly contemporary with Shakespeare, so the original was not only in Spanish, but in turn-of-the-17th-century Spanish. I find that the most enjoyable translations take that into account, and render the text in something of Elizabethan-era English. Do look for that, and for a “full” version, not a pocket edition (it should be on the order of 1000 pages or more).
What is on the surface a story of the fantasies of a delusional man is, at a lower level, satirical commentary on the society of the time. There’s more clever insight here, than just fanciful silliness. And Cervantes was a master of a well-turned phrase: he gives us almost as many common phrases as did Shakespeare, phrases such as, “time out of mind,” “too much of a good thing,” “there’s the devil and all to pay,” and “I begin to smell a rat.”
I consider Don Quixote to be the single best book prior to the modern era. I wish I could read it in the original Spanish, but I’ve delighted in the English translations.
Staying with satire, we have Joseph Heller’s story of Captain Yossarian, a U.S. bombardier in World War II Italy, and an extensive array of other characters around him, from Milo Minderbinder to Major Major Major Major to General Scheisskopf. Through it all, Yossarian is the only relatively normal one in a very nutty story-world, and is essentially set up as our narrator, introducing us to everyone else and leading us through the swamp of craziness.
The title comes from this: while the bomber crews can theoretically go home after a fashion, there’s a catch. The number of missions one has to fly in order to go home keeps being raised before anyone actually attains the threshold, so the only way out is to be declared crazy. Wanting to go home, though, is a sign of mental stability. You can go home if you’re crazy, but if you want to go home you’re not crazy and you have to stay. That’s the catch; that’s Catch 22.
Of course, the story is merciless about ridiculing the military, and bureaucracy in general, but it doesn’t stop there. It also pokes fun at our general tendencies to rigidity and tunnel vision, at our social interactions, at our notion of sanity, at our religious beliefs, and, well, pretty much at everything else, as well.
I’m about to read this one again; I can never tire of it. (The movie, by the way, is amusing (hey, screenplay by Buck Henry, directed by Mike Nichols, Alan Arkin as Yossarian, what could be bad?), but just a shadow of a semblance of a snippet of the book. Read the book.)
To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee gives us a compelling story about the defense of a black man in 1930s Alabama, who is falsely accused of a vicious attack on a white woman. A young girl called “Scout” narrates for us, and tells us how her father, Atticus Finch, takes on the defense of Tom Robinson, alienating most of the white townfolk in the process.
This is a story of fighting for justice and principles, regardless of the cost. It’s a story of how we can be blinded by our prejudices. It’s a story of how even when we can’t win against them, we can have a piece of victory for having stood for what we know is right.
There’s no satire here. To Kill a Mockingbird looks the evil of racism in the deep south of the time, straight in the eye. Telling it from the perspective of a young girl gives it a different quality, and adds impact. It’s another book I can read again and again, and that I re-read every few years. And, while the movie is excellent, with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the book is simply essential reading.
[A side note here. In 2001, NPR reported that at the same time as the Chicago Public Library decided to put the book in its “One Book, One Chicago” program, the school board in Muskogee, Oklahoma, chose to remove it from their required reading list (but not ban it). The largely African-American community was uncomfortable requiring the reading of a book that uses a particular racial epithet with which we’re all unfortunately familiar. The book’s overall anti-racism message was not enough to make a difference there.]
“I mean it, Yossarian. You’ll have to keep on your toes every minute of every day. They’ll bend heaven and earth to catch you.”
“I’ll keep on my toes every minute.”
“You’ll have to jump.”
“Jump!” Major Danby cried.
Yossarian jumped. Nately’s whore was hiding just outside the door. The knife came down, missing him by inches, and he took off.”
—— the final lines from “Catch 22”