Monday, May 18, 2015

Top 100 – Part V

I’ve reached a milestone: today’s post is the five-hundredth on Over the course of the blog, I’ve been compiling a list of the books that I think about most. And in each of the one-hundredth, two-hundredth, three-hundredth, and four-hundredth posts, I contributed seven entries to that list. Today, I offer seven more.

• Annie Dillard, American Childhood. Every page makes you glad to be alive. Somehow Dillard writes her own semiautobiographical tale and yet makes it seem like the reader’s bildungsroman. She definitely had me in mind when reminiscing about reading names on the check-out cards in library books and thinking, there in the hush of the musty stacks, about the bonds forged between neighbors and strangers alike by the experience of reading a book. I wish I could just look at a list of names of people who have read American Childhood. Oh, wait; I can. That’s what Amazon is for!

• Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like a lot of people my age, I read this for history class in high school. (Social-studies classes had us reading actual literature even if English classes didn’t.) Of course this book has problems. But the little lady who made the big war brilliantly showed that if it is wrong to own a man, it is wrong even for a good man to own a bad man: not all the slaves in the book are Uncle Toms, and not all owners and overseers are Simon LeGrees. And yet Uncle Tom and Simon LeGree are in the book, and their climactic scene haunts my thoughts often. Tom pleads Simon not to whip him because of his concern for Simon’s soul. If that degree of charity seems unrealistic, the fault is not in the book but in me.

• John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad returns to the homestead after years in prison only to see a bulldozer about to take it down. “I’ll shoot you!” he shouts to the driver. “They’ll just send someone else tomorrow.” “Then I’ll shoot him, too!” “There’ll be another still.” “Then I’ll shoot the guy who’s sending them all.” At this point the driver offers words that have brought resignation and peace to me in many, many bureaucratic moments: “Don’t you get it? There’s no one you can shoot.”

• Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. I was amazed when I read in the 70s about planned obsolescence and other marks of what we now might call postmodern society. Now that I’ve seen so many of Toffler’s insightful observations become more and more the norm, I’m even more amazed.

• George Burns, Gracie. No entertainer could offer a humbler, more beautiful tribute to another than George Burns did in the biography of his wife. But my favorite story has nothing to do with humor and not much to do with Gracie. A year after adopting a little girl, George and Gracie receive a call during a dinner party with some other friends from show business. It’s the orphanage, asking if they would be willing to take another baby. As George explains his concern that his busy schedule doesn’t leave him enough time even for his one daughter, one of his dinner guests stands up, walks across the room, takes the phone, and says, “We’ll take the child.” They’re the only four words I know of Harpo Marx ever uttering. If I could choose only four words to say in my whole life, could I choose any more noble and beautiful than those?

• William Mouser, Walking in Wisdom. Mouser explains the form of the Hebrew poetry of the Bible better than anyone else I’ve ever read or heard. Before reading Mouser, I didn’t know how to read the Proverbs; after reading Walking in Wisdom, I do. Some of the most complex and rewarding proverbs are those that exhibit antithetical parallelism. Here’s an example:

    He who loves wisdom makes his father glad,
    But one who keeps company with harlots squanders his substance.

Now you can read it the way I used to: “Wisdom, good; harlots, bad.” Or you can look at the details of the parallelism. The proverb contrasts wisdom and harlots, glad fathers and squandered money. The implication of the parallelism is that Dad won’t be glad to hear you’ve spent your time on prostitutes partly because you’ve wasted money, probably his money. One more example:

    He who despises the word brings destruction on himself,
    But he who respects the commandment will be rewarded.

Without Mouser’s book, I would never have paid attention long enough to see the contrast in grammatical voice at the ends of the lines. The one who obeys the commandments does not bring reward upon himself; he will be rewarded (in the passive voice), and we’re left to decide who will do the rewarding, although that riddle isn’t too difficult to solve, given that the proverb is in the Bible and all. Sadly, this amazingly helpful book is out of print.

• Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. May I end with an obvious one? Like a lot of folks, I think about this intelligent book! this remarkable book! at least once each December twenty-fifth. But my favorite scene comes to mind many times a year for various reasons, and that’s the scene near the end in which the transformed Scrooge asks the little Cockney boy (at least he’s a Cockney when I read the book aloud) to run to the poulterer’s in the next street but one and bring round that turkey that’s quite as big as himself. Walk-ER!

I don’t know if I’ll reach a six-hundredth post. My decade-long reading plan ends next year, and I don’t plan to blog about my experiences with books past that point. Ukranian bots have discovered exlibrismagnis and account for most of the hits these days. But in case I do reach six-hundred posts by December 2016, and in case you’re a human, I have seven more books ready to praise.

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