Sunday, August 19, 2007

In Case Newsweek Lost My Number

by Marcus Sakey

My wife is a Newsweek junkie, and turned me on to a new sidebar they've been running. It's called "A Life in Books," and involves asking famous authors about the five books most important to them, which 'Certified Important' book they haven't read, and a classic that disappointed upon revisiting. It's an addictive little addition, and to my delight, they've been picking authors from all genres: one week Elmore Leonard, the next Jonathan Safran Foer. Some try too hard to prove how smart they are, picking obscure texts in the original German; some try too hard to be funny, going for the laugh instead of the truth. But by and large, you get an interesting peek at the reading habits of a pro.

As one of my favorite guilty pleasures is snooping people's bookcases, this is custom-designed for me. Unfortunately, I'm guessing that Newsweek probably has a few people on their list before they get to me. And as I was born without the patience gene, I decided hell with them; this is what the Outfit is for.

Thus, I present to you the Marcus Sakey version of "A Life in Books," a la Newsweek. I'm hoping some of you guys will post your own versions as well.

MY FIVE MOST IMPORTANT BOOKS

CLOUD ATLAS, David Mitchell.
A virtuosic piece of writing singing a heartbreaking story about life and time and hope and the way things move in a circle. My personal favorite book.

NEUROMANCER, William Gibson.
Not just a fantastic read, but also a textbook for how to write. I learn a new technique every time I read it.

THE GREAT GATSBY, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Pretty much the great American novel of its day. The best part is the way Fitzgerald makes everybody, even the reader, culpable.

BLOOD MERIDIAN, Cormac McCarthy
A fever dream. McCarthy throws away more brilliance in offhand passages than most people can pack into a whole novel. It's challenging, and there's plenty I'd hate to have to explain in front of the class, but it's worth the effort.

CAT'S CRADLE, Kurt Vonnegut
A comedy pretending to be a drama pretending to be a comedy, and a profound and empathetic portrait of humanity. Part of Vonnegut's charm is that he expects people to fuck everything up but loves them anyway.


A Certified Important Book you still haven't read:

MOBY DICK, Melville
I actually made it about 200 pages and then lost steam. But I'm going back to it someday.


A classic that, upon rereading, disappointed:

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Dostoevsky
I liked it fine, but didn't think it came anywhere close to living up to the accolades. Plus, to me, the philosophical issues seemed like three a.m. dorm room debates, and just about as deep.

Having done it, I have to say, it's a pretty interesting exercise. Cutting the list to five books is brutal--it's hard not to go for type, like you're mixing all five to create a composite of the stuff you like.

Which, looking at my list, would be one hell of a strange novel.

Your turn. Pretend Newsweek is calling. Tell me about your life in books.

41 comments:

Woodstock said...

NPR Sunday morning interviewed Gibson this AM. Very interesting guy. I didn't know that NEUROMANCER was the source of the term "cyberspace."

My five most important books - wow, picking five?

JOURNEY by Robert and Suzanne Massie. A joint autobiography relating their struggles when their first child and oldest son was born in the mid 1950's with classic hemophilia. At that time, kids were doomed to destructive joint bleeding. And the book itself is about living with what you cannot change.

OLD GLORY by Jonathan Raban. A brit living permanently in the US, Raban's insight into America and Americans is spot on.

THE CLOISTER WALK by Kathleen Norris. Very spiritual set of essays by a writer who doesn't pound her faith into you, and hence makes it very intriguing.

Well, that's three, and I don't think I can filter out two more.

Classic I've never read?

Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. I've had a paper back set of all of them for ages and ages, just never read them!

And I'm with you on BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. For the same reasons.

Michael Haskins said...

My favorite five: The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway; Heaven's Prisoner, James Lee Burke;Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane; World Without End, Amen, Jimmy Breslin; The Irishman's Horse, Michael Collins.
Michael Haskins
www.michaelhaskins.net

Kevin Guilfoile said...

This list would change almost hourly depending on my mood but: THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole, CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller, CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell, and (ahem) THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.

Sorry to disagree but I think The Grand Inquisitor interlude in BK is still the most profound commentary on organized religion ever written, and reading it today Dostoevsky looks like a prophet. The only great philosophical fiction has always and ever been existentialist fiction and Dostoevsky was and is a master of it.

For about the fourth time this month, though I am drafting Marcus on the David Mitchell parade. Read that book, man. It's supergood.

A CERTIFIED IMPORTANT BOOK YOU STILL HAVEN'T READ

Too many to list, probably. But I've never read DON QUIXOTE. It's one of those books that has informed almost all of fiction and I know the story from osmosis but I've never read more than two or three successive pages of it.

A CLASSIC, UPON REREADING, DISAPPOINTED

I don't do a lot of rereading anymore. Actually that's not true, I go back to parts of books I love almost every day, but I'm not sure when was the last time I reread a book all the way through. There are a lot of classics I never liked in the first place, though. Pretty much any Virginia Woolf. Any Theodore Dreiser. I adore paragraphs of Joyce but books of him give me a headache.

Oh wait. I reread HEART OF DARKNESS a few years ago and it didn't have magic for me the way it did in college. Maybe I just felt like Coppola did it better. And with less patronizing, anachronistic racism.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

(A topic for another discussion: I really believe the reason CLOUD ATLAS didn't get more respect when it was released was that it was a paperback original. It got its due in the long run and a Mitchell book is an event now, but I think the hardcover bias really hurt Mitchell with that novel. At least in this country.)

Maryann Mercer said...

My five most important books--that's a challenge. We had to pick our top ten at the bookstore and that was hard:
1) Illusions by Richard Bach. The story speaks to me...it's about taking chances to find out we can do things we thought impossible

2) The Sherlock Holmes collection by Conan Doyle. He was one of the first mystery authors I ever read and I still find things I've missed

3) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Christie. From a writer's aspect, one of the best cases of misdirection I've seen...and a great read to boot

4) The Diary of Anne Frank.

5) The Bible-doesn't matter which version. History, words to live by, tragedy, comedy, and really good advice all rolled into one book.

Classic I've never read? Moby Dick.
Just never had the urge. Even in school, I always picked another to read.

Re-visited and disappointing?
The Wizard of Oz...a children's classic with grown-up nuances. I liked it better as a child. I didn't see those nuances, just the thrills and happy ending.

Adam Hurtubise said...

Woodstock said:

"JOURNEY by Robert and Suzanne Massie. A joint autobiography relating their struggles when their first child and oldest son was born in the mid 1950's with classic hemophilia. At that time, kids were doomed to destructive joint bleeding. And the book itself is about living with what you cannot change."

And their son, Bob Massie, was the Democratic nominee for Lt. Governor of Massachusetts in 1994. A thoroughly decent guy.

Pete said...

Five most important: Knut Hamsun, HUNGER; Nelson Algren, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM; Ralph Ellison, INVISIBLE MAN; Sinclair Lewis, BABBITT; John Steinbeck, THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

Classic, unread: Herman Melville, MOBY DICK. (Maybe 2008.)

Classic, re-read, disappointed: I don't do much re-reading, and when I do so it's almost always a genuinely great book that withstands any chance at disappointment. (I've read the above top four several times each.) As for first time reads, however, this year I was very disappointed with James Joyce's A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

Barbara D'Amato said...

A book that really holds up: The Choirboys by Joseph Wambaugh. Also Lord of the Rings, but duh!

Jude said...

The five books most important to me: The next five I write. I know. Lame.

The "important" classic I haven't read: Ulysses (Okay. I read it. Really, I did. I just don't want to admit I'm that much of a dweeb).

The classic that disappointed when reread: Catcher In The Rye. I'm simply not the same person I was when I first read it. Now, I'm inclined to say, "Get a life, punk!"

Marcus Sakey said...

Kevin, that's an interesting point you raise regarding CLOUD ATLAS. You said it was a paperback original--did you mean a trade paperback? That's the format I read it in, and the only one I know of.

If it was a flatout PBO, meaning a mass market paperback, then I think you're right--that would have made a big difference. Silly or not, there is a prestige gap between PBOs and trade.

If you mean, however, that it lost respect because it wasn't hardcover, I'm not sure I agree. Trades get a lot of review space as well, and I think reader are far more willing to give something a try for $16 than for $26.

Personally, I think part of the problem was that it's got one of the lamest, tamest, dullest covers I've ever seen. Thematically, it ties to the story, but the central message is conveys is yawn. I only bought the book because one of my favorite indies (Unabridged) was featuring it as a bookseller recommendation. And even so, it took me a year to get around to reading it, in part because that cover was so damned boring.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Yeah it was released originally over here in trade. And I take your point that many intelligent readers don't hold that bias. In fact, I happen to think that the hardcover model is broken in a lot of places and that in many cases authors, publishers and readers would be served better if certain books were released only in paperback. I know many, many readers who only buy paperbacks and there are countless outstanding books that are released each year only in paperback. (I just gave a blurb to a terrific one that will be coming out early next year.)


But I think there is an establishment bias, especially on the literary side (as opposed to the suspense side) against paperbacks. Just a few weeks ago, Marcus, you and I had a discussion about a foreign publisher that seemed to be making significant commitments to books and then printing only a handful of hardcovers. Granted, we're talking about an overseas market, but I think at least part of the reasoning is that a hardcover release is, in some circles, like a limited theatrical release in Hollywood. Maybe the movie is going to make its real money on the DVD but they release it briefly in a few theaters to avoid the stigma of "direct-to-video."

If I recall, Cloud Atlas got decent review coverage and ended up on several best of the year lists. But I still don't think it got the respect it would have had it been released in hardcover. My kowledge on the subject isn't encyclopedic, but has a paperback ever been a finalist for the National Book Award? Has a paperback ever won a Pulitzer? I think we both agree that Cloud Atlas was good enough for that kind of consideration.

(I think it's significant that Cloud Atlas was published in hardcover in the UK, where it won the British Book Award for Literary Fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.)

There are a lot of signals that major publishers send to the media that this is a book they ought to pay attention to, and one of them is publishing in hardcover. I think some of those outlets overlooked Cloud Atlas unfortunately.

Sara Paretsky said...

Read this and weep!

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070821/ap_on_re_us/reading_habits_ap_poll

Marcus Sakey said...

Hey Sara, I don't know why that link didn't come through, but I saw that today too. Scary stuff.

Let me try posting the link a different way--click here to see the article.

Cameron Hughes said...

Five most important Books to me

1) 8 Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block.

For me, this is a few things for me. Its THE P.I. novel, its THE New York Novel, and its THE alcoholicism novel. Block's writing is just so emotional but spare at the same time and never wastes a word, and the ending is one of the few crime novels to make me cry.

2) Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Such a great novel. Funny, warm, exciting, every American should read this.

3) 1984 by George Orwell

Scariest and best sci-fi novel ever written because so much of it could happen if people don't stay vigilant in keeping their rights

4) Drowned Hopes by Donald E. Westlake

Westlake is THE comic crime master and Drowned Hopes is such a dark comedy, so expertly plotted and executed, never missing a beat. It is brilliant in every way

5) Homicide by David Simon

If you want to write in the genre, you need to read this, it spawned brilliant series like Homicide and The Wire, but the book is better than both as it presents the stories of the men and women of the Baltimore Homicide squad in all their dirty glory. Dark, hilarious, sad, best true crime novel ever written.


Classic I never read

There are many I haven't read, but my biggest shame? I've never read To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye. One day...

Biggest disappointment:

This is where I will have people wanting to make me bleed. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley. It's well-done and a fine read, but hardly the classic everyone says it is. I greatly prefer The Right Madness.

Maryann Mercer said...

I know people who "don't read"...they"just don't". Scary for me to think of NOT reading, or not being able to read. Thanks for the link Sara and Marcus. I missed that one.

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Big bad Bogota said...

What about a choice without worrying about whthet the world will agree?

Scott715 said...

My Top Five (in no particular order)

1. Mother Night-Kurt Vonnegut.
Not his most popular but deeply affecting. The movie with Nick Nolte was pretty good too.

2. The Descent-Jeff Long.
His books always devolve into cheesy metaphysics and psuedo spirituality but he can write about fear and raw suffering with an eloquence that is startling.

3. 1984-George Orwell
If you think the collase of the Soviet Union finished the kind of society he described read it again and think about where our's is going now.I re-read it every year.

4. Letter To A Christian Nation-Sam Harris
Better than Christoper Hitchens I think and a message that resonates with me.

5. A Confederacy of Dunces- John Kennedy Toole. A real shame he died before it was published but really a perfect novel.

A classic I have never read. War and Peace-Lev Tolstoy. I have started it several times and just can't get through it. I managed to get through Anna Karenina and was disappointed. My Russian wife tried to re-read it recently and didn't like it any more either.

A classic I was disappointed in after re-reading. The Sherlock Holmes stories. I was obsessed with them when I was a kid but the Victorian prissiness is off-putting now and the detecting not that amazing.

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