10 Important Books

I’m going to make my first trip to the new Kansas City Public Library today, and I thought I would take the occasion to jot down 10 books which have been important to me. (I was also motivated by Flip’s announced intention to stop recommending books.) These are not necessarily my 10 favorite books, though most would rank in there, nor are they arranged in any order. But they are 10 books I highly recommend. The links are to Powell’s Books, a fantastic place indeed, but, even better, buy them from a local independent bookstore, or check them out from your local library . . .

1. A Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin: The main character in this novel happens to be a veteran of World War I, but the great war is, in my opinion, the struggle for the human soul to see the beauty and feel the pulse of love. The prose in this book is rich and luscious, and my copy is dog-eared from where I marked passages I wanted to return and savor.

2. Catch 22, by Joseph Heller: This book changed my life. Doc Noonan introduced us to this masterpiece on the absurdity of modern life in general and war in particular during my senior year in high school. Its message of hope in an insane world is delivered with humor and a refreshing anti-establishment message.

3. Middlemarch, by George Eliot: I tried to read this hefty tome when I was in high school, and thought it was terrible and ponderous. Later in my life, I gave it another try and found it to be wise and the most humane, thoughtful and sympathetic book I’ve ever read.

4. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving: This book had me laughing out loud in an airport, attracting stares. Irving serves up a rich novel full of allegory and meaning, while keeping it wildly enjoyable. Of all the books I’ve ever recommended, this one is the one that has been most generally enjoyed.

5. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Hemingway was in complete command of the English language, and his short stories are polished diamonds of literature. They resist simplistic understanding, and echo with an emotional range that exceeds the stereotype of “Hemingway macho.” Read carefully and openly, they leave me aching and short of breath.

6. Why I am Not a Christian, by Bertrand Russell: Questions of faith are irresistibly attractive to me. For some reason, I am not content to accept, but feel the need to fight and wrestle with it. The family legend is that I wailed so loudly at my baptism that I could be heard blocks away. Similarly, I don’t take Russell at face value, but he challenges the reader to think hard.

7. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer: Too many of my generation accept the rise of Hitler as some sort of distant, historical mass insanity. Shirer’s careful reporting is frighteningly clear, and makes it all the more terrible because it is all so understandable. It is more comforting to believe that what happened in Germany can never happen here or anywhere else, but it can, and may.

8. Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella: Perhaps you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I distinctly remember buying this book during finals week at law school, solely because it looked like something I would enjoy, even though I had never read or heard about it. This is a magical book that engages me on multiple levels.

9. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare: Damn. How was Shakespeare so good?

10. The Discoverers, by Daniel Boorstin: Boorstin was the Librarian of Congress, and this book is an erudite, insightful, and informative tour through the history of human discoveries. What was time like before clocks were common-place? The Discoverers is an intellectual playground full of moments where you’ll stop and ponder.

Well, friends, what are some books that would be on your list?

Update: The library is beautiful and the collection is extensive, but they won’t let you browse through the CDs! Instead, you have to look up on one of their computers what they have, and ask at a glass-enclosed desk for someone to retrieve you selections. That’s a huge disappointment for someone who likes to be guided by impulse.

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