Tuesday, May 02, 2006
Books I can't live without
You know that game where you have to pick five books to take with you to a desert island? I hate that game. First of all, no matter which five you pick, someone’s going to argue with you or make fun of your choices. Second, I rarely believe the lists people make—half the time, they’re just trying to impress somebody. (Yeah, right, like you really want to spend what’s left of your lonely life slogging through Moby Dick over and over again.) Third, how could I possibly choose? There are too many books out there that I haven’t read yet—how can I possibly make a list when I don’t have all the choices?
Maybe I’m making this game too hard. Maybe I should just quit playing it with English grad students (hence the whole Moby Dick one-upmanship). Heck, I can’t choose a favorite song or movie either. Too many possibilities.
But there are some books that are indispensable. Books that should be on everyone’s shelf—whether you want to be a writer or not. So, while not necessarily the books I’d take to a desert island, I wouldn’t want to live without them.
1). The Dictionary. Seriously. Yes, I’m enough of a geek that I find the dictionary an endless font of entertainment and have been known just to flip it open for fun, but every house should have at least one. Three would be optimal. I don’t care if the dictionary is on-line these days; nothing beats looking up a word. The definitions in a real dictionary are far more complete than the ones on-line, and you often stumble upon a new word while you’re looking up a different one.
2). A thesaurus. I can barely say the word, much less spell it, but a thesaurus can stretch your vocabulary in wondrous new ways. Synonyms require you to distinguish fine shades of meaning as you search for le mot juste. Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
3). Bartlett’s Quotations. So you can do what I just did and go look up exactly what Mark Twain said about the “right word.”
4). A grammar book. Because no one can honestly remember where all the commas belong.
5). The Bible. I don’t care what religion you are (and y'all know I'm not exactly a theological scholar, so this has nothing to do with religion, per se). So much of literature, art, music-- you name it-- is either directly based on, alludes to, or builds from the Bible.
6) A good mythology book. Again, so much alludes to or builds on mythology, a good working knowledge opens up a world of meaning.
7) The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Because there is a whole world waiting for you in those plays and sonnets. The language may be daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll see how powerful writing can be. The man’s a freaking genius.
Four of these books are on the shelf directly above my desk at all times--and they wouldn't be on the list going to the island. The other three are only a bookshelf away. Of course, they share that bookshelf with all the other books I love—a couple of hundred at least that I just can’t bear to part with. No way I could just pick five of them to come with me to the desert island.
So I’m not going to ask you to do the impossible and pick the five books you’d take with you…I’d worry if you were able to narrow it down to five anyway. Instead, what books do you think are indispensable—as either a writer, a reader, or simply a human being?