This is one of those Facebook memes: a list of 15 books that matter to me, written down in the order I thought of them, without reflection or editing. I scribbled it down last year, felt satisfied, and forgot to post it. So here it is for whatever it may be worth.
- The Bible – obviously. It’s everywhere.
- The Quran, depsite the lack of a really good version in English.
- Othello, the most devastating of Shakespeare’s tragedies. (I guess the subtitle, “The Moor of Venice,” led me to think of it right after the Quran.)
- Nathan the Wise, by G.E. Lessing. My favorite German play, a parable of religious toleration set in Jerusalem during the Crusades.
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, by Anonymous. My favorite poem in English. OK, Middle English.
if ȝe wyl lysten þis laye bot on littel quile
I schal telle hit as tit as I in toun herde
as hit is stad & stoken
in stori stif & stronge
w/ lel letteres loken
in londe so hatz ben longe *
- The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, who also introduced me to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
- Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar, esp. the story of how Egil’s daughter lovingly tricks the old bard out of his suicidal despair. (The psychological depth and spare prose style of the Icelandic sagas are remarkably modern-seeming.)
- Facing East from Indian Country, by Daniel Richter. A book I recommend as a way into “new” American Indian history.
- With the Old Breed, by E.B. Sledge. The best soldier’s memoir from World War II. I met and interviewed the author.
- Bartram’s Travels, by William Bartram, the “Flower Hunter” of the Seminoles. The classic account of the American South when it was still Indian country.
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. Some of the funniest sentences in the English language.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Yes, it really is the great American novel.
- The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain. This flawed novel is Twain’s public struggle with race. He finally surrendered.
- Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, by Michel-Rolph Trouillot. “We are never as steeped in history as when we pretend not to be, but if we stop pretending we may gain in understanding what we lose in false innocence.”
- Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, by Jules Verne. An annotated edition of this book gave me my first insight into the problems and responsibilities of translating. (You can’t start a fire by holding a lentil up to the sun.)
* OK, I admit I looked up the exact (mis)spellings of this passage before posting. But I do know the lines by heart. ↩