Monday, February 12, 2007

The Top Ten (Books)

OK - with two mentions of John Crowley's Little Big in two days (here and here) I will capitulate and do my Top Ten list. That particular fantasy swept me away. The concept is huge, the writing begs to be read aloud...

I'm going to possibly bend the rules, though, to include poems/prayers that have had huge impact on my life.

Putting these in order is impossible. I don't think I can - so I'm not going to number these.

The Book of Psalms - I have had several pocket versions of this ancient prayer book, illustrated in one case, that got bent and dog-eared from being carried and prayed with the rest of the Catholic world at the eight "hours" of the day - times with magnificant names like vespers, lauds, and matins. Some changed my life, like the short and exquisite 133 (Catholic numbering) "How good, how delightful it is to live as brothers all together..." which I used at age 16 as the chaplain of Boys' State in NY, to the approval of the group of rowdies there with me.

The Book of Isaiah which somehow, even more than the Gospels, commands my faith in Jesus and the revelation of Christianity (whatever damage churches may do to it). How did the author(s) of this prophetic book get it so right, hundreds of years before, and in such language? Only God knows. Yep, must be a God.

Little Big by John Crowley - Terrific story containing all stories somehow. Layers and layers of worlds within worlds within houses within books... This fantasy is larger and more intimate than any other I've read.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand - part of me climbed inside this play at age 17. I read it amazed that someone had created a character that captured and ordered so much of the emotional chaos of my late teen years.

Aeneid by Virgil. Reading this in Latin at UNC-CH seemed to be the reward for my college education, and where it had been headed all along. The book that depicts the fall of Troy itself, and particularly the actual fall of Priam's house, tears your heart out. I recall being hypnotized by the poetic devices Virgil used, lost in English but so obvious to his Roman audience, like the way the Latin word for doors was deliberately broken around the word bipenibus, the huge destroying double bladed axe. The one line that I recall (correctly or not) is from the book with Queen Dido: "stat sonipes ac frena ferox spumantia mandit." Potent metaphor for sexual anticipation, the density of this line still thrills me, and how can anyone have the heart to try to translate "sonipes."

Anima Christi a short prayer I say silently in Latin while my family all hold hands after Eucharist. This prayer, even more than the Lord's Prayer, though I've said that and the Jesus Prayer of the Eastern Orthodox many more times, seems to cover all my cosmic needs and wishes. "Intra Tua vulnera absconde me / Ne permitas me separare a te." And the use of the Latin "second person familiar" for God makes me quiver every time I write these words...

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame - of which A. A. Milne wrote that it was a book you read to your lady and if she did not like it you asked her to return your letters. The friendship of Mole and Rat, the follies of Toad, the way some paragraphs work in the mouth. This book makes good use of the "cold iron ring of the English tongue" (Auden, I think), and many of England's other singular graces, as well.

The two Pooh books, which I insist are one work in two volumes. There is so much wisdom about all of us in these stories - we ARE these creatures. We have spent many a campfire or hearthfire with children sprawled on pillows reading aloud each child's pick of story from these books. My wife and I read them to each other before we had children. We all play Pooh Sticks on the high bridge over the Linville River off the Blue Ridge Parkway. We have all tried to find our way home, "But Rabbit would talk."

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery (what a magnificent name) - I never get tired of the section about the fox. "You are forever responsible for what you have tamed."

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein - this more than The Lord of the Rings would get my vote because of the great pleasure I've taken in reading it to each of my children. Where Bilbo ends up by the end, compared to where he starts... It's a lesson I wish I could take to heart far more often. And the chapter where you meet Smaug is one of my favorite dragon dialogues to read aloud (along with chapter 5 of A Wizard of Earthsea).

And I already regret others I'm not including, like the Bunny Planet trilogy by Rosemary Wells, which I have read and prescribed to co-workers as medicine for stress. Or like The Way of the Pilgrim which changed my prayer life drastically when I was 15. I'm sure I'll be adding other omissions to this in future posts...

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