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Memoirs of a Biblioholic

For a while, I’ve been meditating over a rather flattering request to provide a list of 5 to 8 of my favorite books for the next edition of the Whole Library Handbook, for a section on books chosen by Famous Librarians. “As before, the term ‘book’ is defined as loosely as possible, so you may choose anything from incunabula and novellas to feature films or websites.”

I’m in short supply of incunabula here at MPOW Central. I do feel that books should be books should be books. Feature films? My heavens, why not “Fat Actress?” (Which, by the way, is profane, astonishing, and irresistable.) No: they may offer to accept websites, but I will give them surprises captured in shards of dead trees.

So I’ve been struggling. After all, they might not ask again, so someday when my obit is written this list could be extremely important. (Now you see the problem with “Fat Actress.” “As Schneider approached fifty, her taste deteriorated…”)

The first book that always comes to mind is an honest choice: Robinson Crusoe, a book I have been enjoying for over four decades. Dear Crusoe, slogging it out by himself, carefully reinventing the universe, and so pleased to find a friend!

Then I am tempted to gild the lily. Yes, I read War and Peace. A favorite book? I was happy to finish it, which tells you–pun intended–volumes. With a really good book, I turn pages more and more slowly toward the end. You only get one opportunity to finish reading a book for the very first time. If I’m going to be so duplicitous, why not lie and say I’ve read Anna Karenina?

So I turned back to books I truly love, love, love, really love, with that heart-thumping ardor of a true biblioholic. Up bubbled Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, the loveliest, most erudite memoir-of-ideas, which traveled with me for twenty five years so that I could again sit in a classroom discussing it, an experience which made my eyes sting with tears afterwards.

With another tug on my memory comes Jane Austen and the Brontes. Stick me on an island somewhere and forget about me forever, but leave me Austen and the Brontes.

Of all the Austen novels, Persuasion is my favorite, with its nautical flavor and its mature forward glance. It’s less snarky than the others–though Austen is queen of the elegant, understated snark, a skill lost on most modern writers–and has a gentle quality, yet it is filled with the lively parlor politics and sexual issues of all of her writing.

Jane Eyre, on the other hand, is anything but gentle, with its stormy, formal language, its slap-your-face symbolism, and its high drama. Sometimes when I cannot sleep but cannot quite stay awake I open Jane Eyre to any page, dreamlike book that it is, and segue to rest. Then there’s Emily’s great book, all sound and fury signifying everything, and finally, for true aficianados, I recommend The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne was not as great a writer as her sisters, but a lesser Bronte is nothing to sneeze at.

I want to love Alice in Wonderland, but it has been over-quoted and over-referenced by the left-leaning intelligentsia of a certain era. Maybe in a decade or two it will be fresh again. It’s certainly funny enough to last another century or three. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” Perhaps I do love it after all.

Then there are the books I haven’t read through in twenty five years, but love to quote and rummage among: Life of Johnson, Boswell’s diaries, Shakespeare. I thought I would never re-read any plays by Shakespeare, much as I wanted to, until last fall when while writing an essay I got a craving to quote from the Tempest, and found myself reading the play end to end as easily as if it were a newspaper, something I could not do when I first studied these plays. Why was Shakespeare so hard to read in college? Was it because we were over-reading the texts, and I was trying too hard, or is it because Shakespeare is easier to read when you’re older?

Would it be so terrible to list Pooh, or Charlotte’s Web, dear old tattered friends of my childhood, still on my shelves? What if I included the Heinlein and Asimov that fueled my tween-age reveries, strapping me into galaxy-bound rockets that lifted me away from my fat, pimply misery?

As I work on this list I worry I’ll neglect an old friend, like a tattered book of Russian fairy tales absent from my life for two decades before I realized my sister had it. It’s an edition with extraordinary illustrations, Russian-style (by Adrienne Segur for Golden Press, 1961), and the best stories, including Winter’s Promised Bride, The Snow Queen, the Nutcracker.

I worry I have old loves I no longer remember and might not even recognize if I saw them.

I was feeling conflicted about this list. Haven’t I enjoyed thousands of books since I first placed my hands on the ones I list here? But I see that all these books have this in common: someone important in my life–parent, friend, beloved teacher–placed these books in my hands, figuratively and often literally. I don’t know what my final list to the Whole Library Handbook will entail, but I hope along with my list are my thoughts, due to all they signify about how we learn to love to read.

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