The seed for this post and its second part was planted with a Maureen Dowd column two years ago. In it, she wrote about making a list of books from A to Z that would help someone perhaps gain some insight into the person making the list. It’s something I’ve thought about doing ever since but just got around to actually doing in the last couple weeks.
Having completed the task, I’m not sure what, if anything, it reveals and leave that to you. The biggest problem Isee with the list has two aspects. First, some books made the list simply because of the sparsity of choices for certain letters (“Q” comes to mind) and might not otherwise be on a favorite books list. On the flip side, some of my favorite books aren’t included because some letters seem to have an abundance of excellent choices.
The list comes from the book journal I’ve kept since 1975 (and which is not complete for that year). Thus, any book I read before my second semester of college is not included. While that may eliminate a number of classics, I figure if I haven’t taken the time to reread it over the last 30 years, it probably wouldn’t make the list any way. Thanks to the book journal, I am also putting the year I first read the book in parentheses in the entry.
Here’s the selections for the first 13 letters (the words “A” and “The” were ignored at the beginning of titles). This installment indicates I read a helluva lot of great books from 1975 to 1978.:
A — Accelerando, Charles Stross (2005). As I said in my review, this is SF that will make your brain hurt — but in a good sort of way. As our reliance on technology and the power of that technology increases, this work explores the future societal implications of the convergence of the two. And after all, isn’t that one of the main themes of SF, looking into and speculating about our future?
B — The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse (1975). Certainly dated now, this book went inside the campaign press corps during the 1972 presidential election. As a straightforward counterpoint to Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, it had a significant impact on me, pushing me more toward political reporting.
C — Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut (1978). This was the first of four or five letters that are really tough. There were at least four other books I seriously considered here. This book won out, though, when I realized it was really the Vonnegut work that led me to start consuming his books, something that ultimately made him one of my favorite authors.
D — Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler (1976). This fictional account of a party leader who falls subject to a Stalinist purge gave me more insight into the reality of life in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc than probably any other written works, including Solzhenitsyn’s. I don’t reread a lot of books, particularly ones originally assigned for a class. I’ve read this one once every decade.
E — The Execution of Private Slovik, William Bradford Huie (1976). I still vividly recall the 1974 TV adaptation of this book, first published in 1954. In fact, it led me to read the book, which tells the story of Eddie Slovik’s execution in January 1945, making him the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War.
F — The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1975). Okay, this is probably unfair since it really is three books but the combination of them makes one of SF’s greatest masterpieces that much better. Besides, I read all three titles (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation) in a row and they are/were available in a one volume set.
G — The Glory and the Dream, William Manchester (1975). Originally published as a two-volume hardcover, the subtitle of the book says it all: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972. This well written and highly readable book may be in part responsible for a growing interest in history and, ultimately, a history minor in the ensuing years. As an aside, this is not the only Manchester work on the list that sparked an interest in history.
H — The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1982). Who would have ever thought such a thoughtful and great work of SF could also be so hilarious. This is SF for both the fan and those who claim to hate the genre.
I — I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941, Victor Klemperer (1998). This is the first of two books of the actual diaries of a man who was the son of a rabbi, a Protestant convert, a decorated World War I veteran and a professor of French literature at Dresden University. His accounts of Nazi policies and their effects mixed in with the course of his everyday life build as gradually and inexorably as the policies themselves, making this one of the finest firsthand accounts of life in Hitler’s Germany.
J — Julian, Gore Vidal (1977). For those who don’t know, Julian was the last pagan Roman emperor. He, in fact, converted to paganism from Christianity and sought to restore polytheism as the leading religion and to reduce the influence of Christianity in public affairs. Vidal’s fictional account of Julian’s life may be one of the best works of historical fiction I’ve ever read. As the first Vidal work I ever read, it led me to many of his other fictional works and made me a big fan.
K — Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, Donna Kossy (1994). I happened to pick this book up on a lark in a New Age type shop near Big Sur. It turns out to be an interesting guide to what one blurb calls “the growth science of Crackpotology.” Collecting a variety of kooky or bizarre beliefs ranging from religion to politics to the origin of species, including reprints of handbills handed out on street corners, it is a wonderful survey of fringe beliefs.
L — Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris (2006). It should be no surprise that a book I bought copies of to give away would make the list. I called this commentary on the role of religion in our nation “a must read book of the year.” Let me modify that a bit. It is simply “a must read book.”
M — A Million Little Pieces, James Frey (2003). I know. It’s real easy to roll your eyes or just dump on this book given Frey’s misrepresentations. But I really don’t care if the entirety of the work is made of whole cloth. The style and story are so compelling that I’ve never questioned whether the book would make this list.
Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.
Isaac Asimov, Foundation