Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tackling the "Must Read" List

Nothing makes me happier than learning that a book I recommended found a satisfied reader. This past spring, I happened to mention a book I'd read to one of the art teachers where I work. I've never had the slightest artistic talent, but no one appreciates art more than I do. I'd mentioned to Jane one of my favorite poems, "The Curator" by Miller Williams (Lucinda's dad, by the way), set in the Hermitage during the war. Soldiers come, hoping to see the national museum's great art about which they had always heard. They learn that the paintings have been boxed up and shipped to safety, but the frames have been left to mark their place. They ask the curator to tell them about the paintings, which he does. The next day, more people are there, waiting for the tour. That's all I willreveal about the poem; what comes next never fails to move me. The novel Madonnas of Leningrad, is the story of a young docent there during that same time who ends up living in the museum with other refugees during those terrible days of seige in Leningrad. One of the older museum workers takes her from room to room, teaching her about the works that once hung there.

After reading the book, Jane was ready for more reading suggestions, so I showed up at an end of the school year/beginning of summer gathering with a stack of books, some of which I ended up passing along to several other of my teaching colleagues. Since then, I have learned that Water for Elephants has been passed on from hand to hand. I've even had most of the books returned, read.

This week I had an email from a student from last spring, an adult closer to my age. She'd needed a book to read when she and her husband went camping and chose Watership Down because of my recommendation. She had loved it. Via Facebook, another friend told me that she was trying to read classics she had missed and wanted suggestions.

I realize that reading preferences are so subjective. Just as I have to avoid coming off as too judgmental when others share their own favorites (Nicholas Sparks or Nora Roberts, for example), I know that I have loved books that others have completely disdained. All I can do is build my list of books worth reading and hope some of them hit home.

I always poll my students to see who has not read To Kill a Mockingbird. I insist that they must read that book to be fully human. Pearl Buck's The Good Earth is another book I have loved in many phases of my life--even more as an adult with a family than as a high school student. When I finished Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca long ago, I went on to read everything I could find that she had written. If the Florence (Alabama) public library hadn't moved to a new location, I could still walk right to the Fiction D shelves.

Around the same time, I read Leon Uris' Exodus, staying up late at night because I had to get past the sections set in the concentration camps. Only recently have I read his novel The Haj, set in the same part of the world, but with a focus on the Arabs. His novel Trinity put the Northern Ireland struggles into poignant perspective for me; even more important to a reader, it presented characters and situations that still live in my head.

When I assigned Tale of Two Cities as a summer reading book one year, as I re-read, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Then I found myself so engrossed (especially in the wonderful women's fight) that I decided that the payoff was well worth the exertion. I think the perfect book for summer reading is Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. One students years ago said he planned to read it every summer for the rest of his life.

Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth influenced my brother-in-law to go into building. It made me love touring the cathedrals of Europe even more. My husband, who has never been to Europe, still counts it as one of his top ten favorite books. For different reasons and to different readers, I also strongly recommend Eudora Welty's slim little memoir One Writer's Beginning. Some parts of that book had such an effect on me that I was surprised to find the images delivered piecemeal throughout the book, only assembling in my head.

These are just a few titles that come to mind without even consulting my reading lists from the past (or even browsing my shelves). I could just as easily name another lengthy but different list of titles, without even beginning to list all the writers living, working, and writing now who keep finding a space on my shelves, until I lend them to other willing readers.

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