Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Life in Books

by Kerry Blair

Every Tuesday I pull Newsweek from the mailbox and immediately flip to page fourteen or fifteen. On the way back to the house I read a two-column, twenty-five-line feature called “A Life in Books.” It’s sometimes the only thing I read in the magazine, but I never miss it. If I have a serious problem with addiction, this is probably it.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s a mini-column in which notable persons from the arenas of politics, business, and the arts respond to a challenge to list their “Five Most Important Books” and then explain their choices in one or two sentences. (Usually very short sentences.) This amazes me on several levels.

The main thing I find incredible is that in all the months I’ve been reading the feature, not a single book of scripture has made it into anybody’s top five. Not the Book of Mormon, Bible, Torah, Qur’an . . . or Egyptian Book of the Dead. Nada. Admittedly, Newsweek has yet to interview the prophet, the pope, or even Mitt Romney, but you’d think that somebody among the movers, shakers, and so-called intelligentsia of the world would have at some point stumbled upon the word of God and been impressed by it. I’m not sure if this says more about the magazine or the country, but it makes me wonder. (Sometimes I worry.)

The second thing that always surprises me, although it probably shouldn’t, is the diversity in the choices. I am one of the most well-read people I know, but in a good week I’ve read maybe three-out-of-five of the books named. Only once have I read—and admired—every one of a person’s selections and that was a Harvard professor of literature who cited Homer (I would have picked The Odyssey over The Iliad), Shakespeare, Milton . . . and three more I’ve forgotten now but was familiar with at the time. Usually I’ll sit down at the computer to look up the books I’ve never heard of. Nine times out of ten, they’re nothing I’d care to read. Again, I’m not sure if this says more about me or the respondents -- and I try not to think about it.

Finally, I have to admit that what truly astounds me is that anybody can do it in the first place. To define my life in books, I’d need to compile a list of fifty. At least. And explain my choices in one line or less? Never happened. That said, I have nevertheless decided to try.


1) The LDS Standard Works. (Yes, I know that’s more than one book. I said I’d try it; I never said I’d play fair.) The Bible defined my life and the Book of Mormon refined it. If the Book of Mormon were the only book extant in the world there would still be poetry, drama, romance, insight and inspiration to spare.

2) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. It isn’t his best work, or even my favorite, but it provided my first literary “ah ha!” I’ve remembered, and cherished, that moment my whole life.

3) Puddin’head Wilson by Mark Twain. This man peered into the soul of humanity with a jaded yet infinitely compassion eye. Only Twain can rip my heart out and make me laugh while he does it.

4) A Midsummer-Night’s Dream (or Macbeth or Cymbeline or Othello or Hamlet or . . .) by William Shakespeare. I love the English language and nobody in the history of the world has used it more skillfully than the Bard. After the scriptures, The Complete Works of Shakespeare is the most-read book in my home.

5) Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson. I know she’s the poet many lit professors love to hate, and, yes, one can sing much of her verse to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” but I found Emily in my girlhood and am stronger, wiser, and in every way better for it. No one can make the mundane as sublime as did Emily.

Now that I’ve compiled the list I’m tempted to erase it. I do live much of my life in books and I can’t define myself without including Tolstoy, Faulkner, Longfellow, Tyler, Emerson, Buck, Barrett-Browning, Milton, Austen, Poe and dozens of others.

Still, I’ve tried and now it’s your turn. Assuming that 97.86% of the readers of this blog will put scripture at the top of the list, tell us your next two or three or four choices. I’ll send out a Frog Fun Pack or two if it will entice you to play along, but I hope you’ll also do it for the joy of reflection and self-discovery. (And because I am simply dying to read a list from every one of you! Don’t make me start yet another game of cyber-tag.)

A Life In Books. Is there a better place to live it?


At 4/27/2007 1:36 PM, Anonymous rob wells said...

So, we're talking top five most personally important? (Not favorite?) Okay:

1. Scriptures

2. Huckleberry Finn. This is the book that, after hating English and literature all through school, finally made me decide reading could be enjoyable.

3. Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. Possibly my favorite book of all time. Possibly because I hate both civilization and technology.

4. Baptists At Our Barbeque, by Robert Farrell Smith. Weird choice for a Most Important list, I know. But this book is the one that inspired me to write LDS fiction (kinda obvious when you think about On Second Thought's plot...)

5. This one is not a very literary choice, but The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie is one book that I can read over and over and over and never tire of.

At 4/27/2007 5:39 PM, Blogger ChillyGator said...

Hi Kerry!

I'll play very quickly (as I have an insane amount of work to do but like to support your games anyway).

1. Scriptures, of course. How can you study them day in and day out and teach them, memorize them, love them and not fall in love with them?

2. Esperanza Rising: I had a YW leader give this book to me for my birthday one year the situation I was in and the story has taught me lessons again and again.

3. Seedfolks: Again, given by the same YW leader. It helped me realize the impact one person can have on so many lives. That helps me have more patience with life when nothing I do seems to matter.

4. I'm going to cheat here (is that fair? You did, after all, but it's your game...?) and say a talk by Clayton Christensen that he gave at BYU "Decisions for Which I've Been Grateful". Wow. That one you just have to listen to. It's amazing.

5. Walk Two Moons: I read this in 5th grade and it was the first time I realized I enjoyed reading and could do it for fun.

And my large stack of work still awaits. Darn.

At 4/28/2007 1:39 AM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

I'll play but I'm not going to number them. :)

Little Women, Little Men, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

Behold your Queen by Gladys Malvern

Christy by Catherine Marshall

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Beauty by Robin McKinley

Each of these books has a young female protagonist who learns lessons about herself. There's an element of romance in each but it doesn't complete the character -- it just adds to it. I didn't think to come up with a common denominator for all of them until now, but there you go!

At 4/28/2007 10:59 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

I've read books for as long as I can remember. But the authors that changed my life were all authors that I discovered in my teens. I didn't know it at the time, but they were the books that suddenly opened my eyes to how many different poibilities there were in fiction. I think they set the path for the kind of books I would write later on. None of them were classics, except for Poe. At the time, classics were what I had to read. These were books I devoured in a day. So here they are in no special order. (Again I am just assuming that the scriptures top the list. )

SE Hinton (Can you say teen angst? I loved it all.)

Stephen King (Wow did he give me some sleepless nights. I loved the common man placed in extordinary circumstances. Bag of Bones, IT, and The Stand are masterpieces.)

Poe (Who new a guy who wrote so far back could be so twisted?)

Tolkien (Who really helped me understand about that fiction could indeed create whole new worlds)

Asimov (I still reread the Foundation Trolgy every few years.)

At 4/29/2007 2:15 PM, Anonymous Amy said...

Hmmm... I'm not sure if I can choose just a few but I can try. Besides the scriptures, which are of course the first on my list, my list goes:

1. Anything by Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, etc.

2. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (The directly translated from French unabridged one)

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

4. The Outsiders by SE Hinton

5.The Last Promise by Richard Paul Evans

6. Anything in Fiction or Church History that I can get at Seagull or Deseret!

At 4/30/2007 11:18 AM, Anonymous kerry blair said...

This is so interesting to me. I've read four of the books on Rob's list, four of Chilly's (assuming the talk counts since I haven't heard it), two of Tristi's (counting all the Alcott books as one), and all of Amy's and Jeff's. (Well, I haven't read The Stand, but I'll have corrected that oversight by later this afternoon.)

Other random thoughts:

When I read Jeff's list I thought I could have just as easily interchanged it with the one I posted. (I know it must be a scary thought for you, Jeff. Sorry.)

Seedfolks is one of the most cherished books on my shelves. It was given to me by a dear friend and it is so HER. If you haven't read it, you must. (It's short.)

I can't wait to read the books I've missed -- particularly yours, Tristi. If they've help to make you what you are then . . . wow.

Thank you all!

At 4/30/2007 4:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I was in elementary school I read above my grade level. My school was in the midst of placing me in a more challenging group when my mother passed away and I moved to another school. Unfortunately, I fell through the cracks. I wasn't challenged with reading and never developed a love for it as a child or teenager. In fact, I didn't read anything outside of school assignments for years. (I have made sure this does NOT happen to my children and I buy them lots and lots of books and read to them and with them so they will not lose out like I did).

In the last several years or so I have begun reading. Although I've read many books, I can only think of one that's really stayed with me: "Stargirl" by Jerry Spinelli. It's even more poignant to me now because I have a child who is "different." This book just hit me.

As a side note, my son was cast in "Othello," "A Midsummer's Night's Dream," and "Les Miserables" in high school so I have been exposed to those as of late. I'll have to find his copies and read them now.

Sometimes, it's hard because there are so many books I want to read (and wished I'd read), but I have so little time. I wish I could have a brain dump from you and have all that literary knowledge.

At 4/30/2007 7:17 PM, Anonymous kerry said...

Anonymous: "Star Girl" is another book that could easily have made my top five! If you love it, don't miss "Freak the Mighty" and "Esperanza Rising." I'd make them required reading in junior high schools across America if I could.

"Othello" always depresses me. You have my permisson to skip it and go right on to Les Mis. :-)

At 4/30/2007 7:56 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

Like you, I can hardly do this in less than 50. I'll try, but I know as soon as I click Publish, I'll remember something else that should have been on the list.

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh; the book that gave me the idea to write.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee; the book that taught me I was not the center of the universe and that I needed to be aware of the suffering of others.

Dune by Frank Herbert; the book that taught me I could live through fear.

Woman of Destiny/Saints by Orson Scott Card; the strongest woman I've ever met.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd; I haven't figured out why I like this book so much, but it speaks to me on a very personal level.

At 4/30/2007 10:07 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I pondered this over the weekend and wasn't able to come up with much. I have books that are favorites (although, I'm more likely to have a favorite series than a single book.) but important?

But, here's what I came up with:

1. Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff. This is the earliest book I can remember reading and I know that I checked it out multiple times from the library. I'm sure that books like this fostered my love for reading.

2. Hardy Boys mysteries. I read over 100 of these in a row one summer. (Is the first one something about a haunted tollbooth?) At one time I would have said Fantasy was my favorite genre, but Mystery has come to the forefront of late. My fascination started with Frank and Joe.

3. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This was the first non-fiction book that I really got into. Prior to that, I generally scoffed at NF thinking them to be too much like textbooks. You might say that reading biographies can have elements of fiction (yeah, James Frey, I'm looking at you!) but they generally talk about real life which is so utterly engrossing.

4. Christine by Stephen King. Probably not my favorite of his, but it was the first one. I can't recommend his work to everyone (R-Rated), but he is an amazing storyteller with a true gift for making the mundane seem extraordinary.

5. I'd like to take the high road and say that Tolkien was responsible for my interest in the Fantasy genre, but the truth is, I have never been able to slog through one of his books. (Stone me if you will.) Instead, I would have to say that David Eddings, for all his faults and repetitions, writes one good fantasy epic in the Belgariad (and then repeats it in the rest of his series.) If you can feel immersed in the setting (and wish you could be there!) then the author has done his job.

5b. I'll also just throw in that the Sunrunner books by Melanie Rawn are important to me because they were interesting enough to my wife that she started reading Fantasy because of them. There's a fairly decent romance angle going on, so if any of you are looking to bridge the gap, try it out.


At 4/30/2007 10:13 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Ooh, thanks, Rob, for the Gun Seller. I will HAVE to read that one! =)

At 5/01/2007 9:01 AM, Anonymous kerry said...

Karlene: Definitely "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Secret Life of Bees!" I was first in line to buy Sue Monk Kidd's "The Mermaid's Purse" (? -- that doesn't look right now that I've typed it) when it came out; didn't do anything for me. In fact, I disliked it and have given the book away.

Jon: I can't help but agree with you on some of Tolkien. There are diamonds there but, boy, the slogging you have to do to find them. :-) Thanks for such a thoughtful response. But you do know, I hope, that Nancy could have mopped the floor with Frank and Joe. She solved a tollbooth mystery sixty or seventy books into the series, but I can't swear to the Hardys.

Final comment: I bought "The Gun Seller" on Amazon for three bucks.

At 5/01/2007 9:39 AM, Anonymous robisonwells said...

Warning about The Gun Seller: It has LOTS of bad language.

It is, however, absolutely hilarious. I hope it's worth the three bucks.


Post a Comment

<< Home