The Ten: The Books That Stay With Me (Or You)

By Michael Nye

In the three weeks or so, there has been one of those tagging games on Facebook that have been ubiquitous since, oh, probably as soon as the site launched. Though one of my aunts used to send me emails that were very similar way back when all we had were AOL.com email addresses, so these “tagging” games have probably been around since humans learned to write. Anyway, the current one is to list the ten books that have “stayed with you” in your life. I was tagged by my friend Laura Relyea.

There are many tagging posts on Facebook, and probably, if you haven’t already written yours about books, you’ve at least seen them in your feed. I generally ignore these tagging games (and Candy Crush invitations) but I didn’t have an idea for a Monday post and it’s relevant to books and all that, so I thought, yeah, this will work.

However, with one or two exceptions, most of these lists that I’ve seen on Facebook lack context. Why did these books stay with you? What does “stay with you” mean? Why are you imploring me to read them? Or, perhaps, you aren’t imploring me to read them, you’re just sharing (or something). Or, it’s all humblebrag, as this correspondent from Huffington Post thinks, with the requisite amount of snark. But, I’ve generally found that I see people’s list and I wish that me and that person could talk about it. Just seeing a friend’s book list doesn’t feel like it even touches on why the book matters, to my friend or me, especially if the list is diverse. It only leads to more questions. So, here’s my list with, I hope, a sufficient enough explanation of why it’s on the list. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books: trying to do something a wee bit different here. And if it isn’t sufficient, hey, just ask me. I like getting emails.

Onward!

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I’m sure there were other books in my childhood that were big, important, impressive, amazing books. But this is the one that I really remember. This book is about Milo, a boy who is bored and unhappy with everything, and he comes home from school one day to find a cardboard box in his room. He opens it up, and finds that there is a toolbooth and a mechanical car big enough for him to sit in. He figures, why not? And, next thing he knows, he’s no longer in his bedroom but in some new amazing magical land. There are watchdogs named Tick and Tock, there is an island called Conclusions that you “jump to” (get it?), and about a hundred other delightful word games mixed in with what is a very cool story. This is the book that I felt was written just for me. And, there are thousands of readers of Juster’s novel who feel the exact same way.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. Of all the books I read in high school, this is the one that stands out. I read this junior year. When, on page sixty or something, it’s revealed that the main character—a black woman from San Francisco that keeps inexplicably getting sent back and forth in time to a 19th century plantation—is married to a white man. Why didn’t Butler tell us that sooner, I asked my teacher. I felt like I had discovered something that no one else had ever noticed! Oh, and, of course, Butler’s novel is a brilliant science-fiction, historical, romance thriller that deftly blends time and space and characterization better than most. An absolute gem.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m pretty sure I read this in graduate school. I used to go to the nearest coffee shop, which was a Barnes and Noble, to read and write. Back then, BN didn’t offer free WiFi, which is a really good way to get your writing done. Anyway, I remember reading large chunks of this novel, and was amazed and delighted by the narrative, the way Mitchell shifted voice for his various stories, and how entertaining the novel was to read. Since I’m now struggling to feel much for his new novel, I sorta wonder how much I would like Cloud Atlas if I read it again today (something I’ve wondered about all the books on this list).

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When was the first time you read this book? Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s the only book that my students are guaranteed to have read. I’ve probably read it at every level of my education, and once a year since. Fitzgerald was the first writer I tried to emulate: I would retype his stories, practice his rhythms and sentences, try to understand how he made Carraway so elusive and Gatsby so magnetic. Many years ago on the Ploughshares blog (I believe Elisa Gabbert was curating it then), interviews always ended with the question “Hemingway or Fitzgerald?” and I was always a bit pleased at how many people said Hemingway, as if Scott and I were friends with the world’s best secret.

Old School by Tobias Wolff. I hated this book. This is not a joke. I thought this was one of the worst novels I’ve ever read.

A quick digression: I’m well aware that Toby Wolff is one of the finest American short story writers of the late 20th century, and by all accounts he is a terrific teacher and all around good guy, and this probably means I’ll never ever set foot on Stanford’s campus, and I do sorta feel bad about saying this about his novel; further, I think of all the nasty things said about books, about negative reviews, literary citizenship, community, etc. and I not only wonder about adding to the noise, but, and I would guess most people who teeter on this fence feel the same way, I worry about how this will shape my life: what if Toby Wolff knows my chancellor and gets me fired; or his friends write me and tell me I’m stupid; or I get this massive backlash from readers; and is all of that really worth it just to write two or three paragraphs about why I don’t like the book, and really, is there any harm in not liking book; no, probably not, but, actually, having all these thoughts running through my head actually kinda make me angry because then we really aren’t a community where “all voices are heard” and we sorta live with fear of offending people in case we need a favor in the future, and, really, to hell with that.

So.

Old School is a terrible book. It’s a novel written by a guy who, it seemed, didn’t really want to write a novel. There are guest appearances by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, who are portrayed exactly as you think they would be, wrapped up pretentious teenage boys saying pretentious things about literature, and then Ernest Hemingway is supposed to show up only – surprise! – he kills himself RIGHT BEFORE HIS VISIT (oh, how convenient!) so the book is one big boring narrative leading to absolutely nothing and then, sorta, the book decides to actual begin with a longish short story about theft, and you realize that 150 pages were tacked on to the front of the real story. Why? I don’t know. Lots of critics loved this book. They were wrong. They were very wrong.

I was puzzled. Why did all the critics think this book was good? Why did people rave about it? This was the first time I vividly remember going completely against the grain, against popular opinion, and doing so with absolute certainty. This wasn’t just a matter of taste. This was bad, and people were telling me it was good. My first lesson is being willing to refuse, to be my own critic, about contemporary books.

(rant over!)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Yes, I liked this book that much. Yes, I understand the criticism of it. Yes, Tartt writes some very bad run-on sentences with some clunky metaphors. Maybe because it has all these flaws and it doesn’t matter at all is why I love it. Maybe because I lent my copy of it out twice. Maybe because discussing the book with some of my favorite people over the past year is part of the reason it’s on the list.

Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. I think the first Andre Dubus story I ever read was “The Fat Girl” but I’m not a hundred percent positive. I also wouldn’t choose that one as one of my favorites of Dubus. I don’t remember when I first bought his books—I own them all—or when, exactly, Selected Stories became the book that I reread once a year, or pick up when I’m sad, or pick up when I’m working on a story and feeling stumped with characterization. Selected Stories might be the book that I’ve read the most.

But there’s another reason this book is on my list.

Andre Dubus is how Laura Relyea and I became friends. Andre Dubus is how Andrew Scott and I became friends. There are examples of authors considered a “writer’s writer”—John Williams and William Maxwell spring to mind—but then there are the “writer’s writer” who are deeply personal to you: how you write, how you feel, how you think. And when you meet people who are moved by someone’s work in the same way you are, you’ve found something rare.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Oddly, twice in the past two weeks or so, friends have told me they didn’t like this book. WHAT?! I had so much fun reading this book, and re-reading it, and the depth and humor and insight that Smith brings to her characters. Many current readers probably know Smith best for her essays—which are excellent—but I always return to the energy and wit of her first novel.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Say what you will about Franzen, and many have, but when I first read this novel as an undergraduate, I was blown away. This was the kind of large canvas, the type of complexity and anger, that I responded to, the type of book that I wanted to write. It actually made me a little sad that someone else wrote the book that I wanted to write (if I knew how to write a novel, which I still don’t, or had even begun writing a novel then, which I hadn’t). I’ve read all his novels—and like them quite a bit—and the one I’ve reread is Strong Motion. But this was the novel that had the most impact on me, that made me think about aiming bigger with my own writing.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I wrote about re-reading this novel a few years ago, and how it was a bit stunning that such a dark, grim novel is so often taught in junior high. This is a masterpiece of language and character, every paragraph excellent, the horror of war lingering over the boys’ existence, and a tale of jealousy and friendship wrapped into one slim, elegant narrative. I’ve often thought about how such a story can exist beneath a story of prep school tragedy, how there are so many layers to this book, and how Knowles’ novel has remained on my mind with everything I’ve written the last three years.

Honorable Mention: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; The Privileges by Jonathan Dee; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Columbine by Dave Cullen; Loose Balls by Terry Pluto; Rookie of the Year by John R. Tunis; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach; The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens; Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; England, England by Julian Barnes; A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr; The Millionaires by Inman Majors.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye