About a month ago my friend Joshua tagged me with one of those Facebook memes that goes around every now and then. Those memes used to be fairly common, back in the Jurassic Period of social media (2009) but in this day and age you don’t find them much anymore and when you do half of them are either marketing ploys or identity theft trojans or both. It’s kind of a shame, really. I liked those memes.
This one in particular seemed both fun and harmless, though, and right up my book-lover’s alley as well so I figured okay.
The original task was to choose seven books that you have loved and post the covers, one day at a time, with no explanation or commentary. This turned out to be harder than I thought it would be – not because coming up with seven was difficult but rather because when I sat down to create my list of books it took me no time at all to come up with more than thirty possibilities, and narrowing a month’s worth of covers down to a week looked like more time and energy than I wished to spend on a meme project.
So I just kept posting.
You know you’ve reached a certain point in your life when you finally understand the wisdom of Blaise Pascal’s apology for the length of one of his letters. “I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter,” he said. “I didn’t have time to write a short one.”
It’s just easier to keep going.
But you can’t just post the covers and not say something about the books, or at least I can’t. Maybe you can, but then I’m the one writing here so I get to say what I want. I suppose you can tune me out if you’d like, but there it is.
So here they are, a month’s worth of books that have stayed with me over the years. Some of them are single books, and some of them are stand-ins for entire series of books or even entire catalogues from certain authors. That’s not within the rules of the original meme, but I figure I can do that anyway. It is, as noted, my blog.
They’re not in any particular order, but they do cover a lot of ground.
1. The Gone-Away World (Nick Harkaway)
Nick Harkaway has more fun with the English language than any other living novelist, as near as I can tell. You have to be willing to follow him into some tight corners and down some long digressions but I’ve always been happy with the results when I have. This is kind of a picaresque about the end of the world, though that doesn’t begin to cover the story really. There are ninjas and soldiers and one hard-ass school principal with one of the best speeches about education in all of fiction, and it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of my all-time favorite books. His other books – Angelmaker, Tiger Man, Gnomon – tend to be slightly more straightforward (well, maybe not Gnomon) but equally entertaining.
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
Science-fiction comedy is a difficult genre to write in, and nobody has ever done it better than Douglas Adams. Arthur Dent finds himself whisked away from the destruction of the earth by an alien named Ford Prefect, and it just gets weirder from there as they explore the true strangeness of the universe. I was introduced to this by my friend Julia and over the years it became something of a touchstone between myself and a great many friends. My college roommate Jack and I got into a long disagreement one evening over the exact wording of a particular section of the book, for example, and it only got resolved when we each found our own copy and discovered we were both right – he was quoting the British edition, and I was quoting the American edition. There was a time in my life when I read the entire four-book series annually. I could probably do that again and get something new out of it. I still quote this book in conversations – sometimes on purpose, to see how people react, and sometimes because it’s just that ingrained in my psyche that I don’t even notice anymore.
3. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (Christopher Moore)
This is, hands down, the funniest book I have ever read – and I’ve read all of Discworld and the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series. The rough draft of the Sermon on the Mount is worth the price of the book all by itself. Moore starts from the premise that Jesus was exactly who He said He was – Son of God, Savior, all that – but that His friends, well, weren’t so exalted, and from there he tells the story of Jesus, more or less. I have given this book to evangelicals and atheists alike and they have all enjoyed it. All of Moore’s books are worth reading – he has an ear for dialogue, and I’ve never read a book he wrote without laughing out loud – but this is his best.
4. Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbor One Siren at a Time (Michael Perry)
I spent five rather unheroic years as a volunteer firefighter back in the day and nobody has ever captured the feeling of what it meant to be an emergency services worker better than Michael Perry. After becoming a nurse and moving back to his old home town of New Auburn, Wisconsin, he became a First Responder – about a notch below an EMT – and this is his experience responding to emergency calls in a town where everyone knows everyone. There are bits from this book that haunt me still, and other parts that are laugh out loud funny. I met him once – he came to speak at our local library and chatted a bit in the book signing line when he noticed my fire department sweatshirt. He seemed like a decent guy.
5. Mostly True (Brian Andreas)
I’ve never been much of a poetry person, though I do appreciate it when I see it. Andreas is my favorite poet, in large part I suspect because his poems read like very short stories, and perhaps even more importantly because he has a deep sense of the sentimental absurd. I stumbled into his stuff in a goofy little store in Galena IL, and I’ve loved it ever since. One of my favorites is called “English Major” and it reads, in its entirety, “When I told him I had a major in English, he said, / Too bad for you this is America / & he started me out at the bottom.” Many of the poems are accompanied by his distinctive artwork, and if you go to his website you can buy not only books and artwork but sculptures based on them as well.
6. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster)
This is the story of a very bored young man and the adventure he goes on when he discovers a box containing a small car and a tollbooth left for him. In a swirl of puns and imaginative humor, he travels through Digitopolis and Dictionopolis, across the Mountains of Ignorance, to rescue the Princesses Rhyme and Reason. His companions are a giant bug (the Humbug) and a watchdog named Tock, and if you can read this book and not fall in love with it then I have no idea what to do with you. My mom read it to me when I was a kid and I read it to my daughters, and maybe someday they’ll do the same for theirs. You do kind of have to read it for yourself rather than have it read to you if you want to get all the jokes, but it’s worth it.
7. English as She is Spoke (Jose Da Fonseca & Pedro Carolino)
There is no better way to describe this book than the jacket cover. “In 1855,” it says, “Pedro Carolino set about writing an English phrasebook for Portuguese students. But there was just one problem: he didn’t know any English.” All he had was a Portuguese to French phrasebook, a French to English phrasebook (written by Da Foncesca, who probably never heard of Carolino and certainly never met him), and a can-do attitude that had no basis in reality whatsoever. The results were howlingly funny. If you’ve ever wondered just how badly someone can mangle the English language, read this book and wonder no more. “Nobody can add to the absurdity of this book,” said Mark Twain. “Nobody can imitate it successfully, nobody can hope to produce its fellow; it is perfect.”
8. The Eyre Affair (Jasper Fforde)
Jasper Fforde’s mind must be a fascinating place to live. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s published and enjoyed it all – he has a gift for a well-turned sentence, a truly bizarre sense of humor, and a head cluttered with allusions of all sorts (half the fun of his books is parsing out the references – in one of his books there’s a half page of dialogue lifted straight out of Star Wars without attribution or comment, for example, and you just have to know). This was the book that got me started with him, though. Thursday Next is a detective in an alternate 1980s England where the Crimean War is still going on, dodos are household pets, and literary crimes are serious matters. She works for SpecOps 27 – when the boundary between reality and fiction is porous, someone has to police the border – and eventually she gets pulled inside the books to solve crimes. This is the first of a four-book arc, followed by several more standalone books in the same series (with a couple more in the related Nursery Crimes series), and it’s all that and more. You’ll never look at Miss Havisham the same way again.
9. The Silmarillion (JRR Tolkien)
I discovered Tolkien in the 1970s when I watched the animated version of The Lord of the Rings on television at my grandparents’ house and thought to myself, “this story is better than this.” So I checked it out of the local library and became an addict, reading it on an annual basis for the next decade or two. Eventually I found The Hobbit as well, and after that The Silmarillion, which is my favorite of the Middle Earth books. It’s the background to LOTR – the millennia-long story of how you get to the beginning of the story – and as a historian that appealed to me. It’s not an easy read, being written in a high mythological style rather than the novelistic style of LOTR (in The Hobbit, things “go pop!”, in The Lord of the Rings things “make noise,” and in The Silmarillion things “render a doleful clamor unto the heavens”) and it is, fundamentally, a tragic tale without a breath of humor, but the depth and texture of the stories are just marvelous.
10. Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)
I first found Kurt Vonnegut in the summer of 1985 when my friend Jenny gave me a copy of Slapstick and said she thought I’d like it. She was right, of course. I went on to read everything he published and much of what he didn’t publish in his lifetime but which his estate has since released into the wild. Absurd, pessimistic, savagely funny, and deeply humane, Vonnegut’s works are easy to read yet surprisingly complex upon reflection. It’s a shame most of my students don’t know who he is anymore. This book, loosely based on Vonnegut’s own experiences as a prisoner of war in WWII Dresden – a city that the Allies firebombed while he was there – is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier who has come “unstuck in time.” There are aliens. There is revenge. There is war. So it goes.
11. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (David Eagleman)
This is a short collection of even shorter vignettes – each one maybe 2-4 pages, each one separate from the rest though centered on the same question: what happens after we die? Eagleman describes a host of afterlives, with Gods that range from attentive but misunderstanding to inattentive and unreachable, with environments that can be disconcerting or meditative or even quite pleasant if rather puzzling, and so on. I read this several years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. It’s one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read.
12. Kitchen Confidential (Anthony Bourdain)
I miss Anthony Bourdain, even though I never met the man. I loved his shows, all of which were basically the same: take an interesting and interested person with a deep knowledge of food and cooking, send him to some exotic locale, and have him eat, drink, and converse with the locals. He had a gift for cutting through bullshit, a cynic’s romantic streak, an ability to see people as people and not constructs, and a twisted sense of humor, and the world is poorer for his loss. This was his first book – a look inside the kitchens of New York from a guy who worked his way through enough of them to become a head chef at a respectable restaurant. It has unforgettable characters, good advice, and a bracing point of view. I’ve read most of his books now, and I’ll keep reading them.
13. Night Watch (Terry Pratchett)
This is definitely a book that stands in for a larger series, in this case the Discworld books. Terry Pratchett was a British author whose Discworld books (nearly four dozen of them) could make you both laugh and think, and that’s a rare combination. He was perhaps the greatest satirist of the last hundred years, bar none, and like all satire his books revolved around a deep moral center. “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things,” he said. There are several subseries within the Discworld, all centered on a different main character. One stars Rincewind, a coward and possibly the worst wizard in the universe. Another Granny Weatherwax, the stalwart witch of the chalk country. Another stars Death – a craftsman who likes people even if he doesn’t understand them, but who has a job to do and does it well. And one stars Sam Vimes, the captain of the City Watch. This book is from the City Watch series and it’s perhaps the darkest of the Discworld books. If you could go back in time to a moment that defined who you are and change it, would you? Would you really?
14. Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe (Bill Bryson)
Bill Bryson was born in Iowa and has spent most of his life trying to get away from his birthplace and then writing about his travels. He has other books as well, but his travel books are my favorites. Many of them are centered on the UK, where he lives now. This was his first travel book, and it’s mostly a memoir of a trip he takes in 1990 interwoven with an earlier journey through Europe with his buddy Katz that they took in their youth. It’s marvelously funny, and you can see where the travel bug hit hard. I’m not much of a traveler, but I do enjoy travel memoirs.
15. Neverwhere (Neil Gaiman)
There are a few writers whose books I will purchase simply because of the author’s name on the cover, and Gaiman is one of them. Everything he writes is worth reading. This one I’ve always loved, though. On the one hand, it’s an adventure story. Richard Mayhew is a young man in London who suddenly finds himself in London Below – a London of shadows and strangeness – and there he has to find his way out and has adventures along the way. On the other hand, it’s a novel of existential horror as Richard’s life in London above suddenly disappears and he is forced to make his way through his new world from scratch. Gaiman writes crystalline sentences and thoughtful plots, and if you’re looking for an introduction to his books this is probably the best place to start.
16. The Fox Hunt (Sven Nordqvist)
We read a lot of books to Tabitha and Lauren when they were little. It was our time together, and we enjoyed it immensely – and they got a lot of out of it as well, I think. The Findus and Pettson books were probably my favorites. We got the first one from our Swedish friends Mats and Sara when Tabitha was very young, and over the years we managed to collect quite a few of them – not an easy task, as they have never been consistently translated or published in English, as far as I know (you find them here and there, but not as a set – sometimes you’ll see their names as Festus and Mercury, for example). Pettson is an old Swedish bachelor farmer and Findus is his mischievous little cat, and together they have adventures. That’s pretty much the plot of all of them. Except that the illustrations are wonderfully detailed and exuberant, the stories are interesting, and there is an undercurrent of melancholy that you never find in American children’s books. In this particular story one of Pettson’s neighbors says that there is a fox in the area and they should watch their hens, so Findus and Pettson construct an elaborate Rube Goldberg trap to catch it. Naturally things go wrong, and eventually all there is left is Pettson staring into the night at a frightened and possibly injured fox, feeling sorry for it. It’s a surprisingly quiet story for all the (literal) fireworks.
16a. The Hat Hunt (Sven Nordqvist)
It took me a long time to decide between this book and The Fox Hunt, so I figured I’d put it here anyway. This is the story of an old man who loses his hat and the adventures he has trying to get it back, and it ends with him sitting in a meadow thinking about his childhood and the people he loved who are now long gone, and maybe he doesn’t really need his hat after all. Again, it has that melancholy streak that you don’t see in American stories and which I loved immensely.
17. The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie)
Nobody does black comedy in fantasy like Joe Abercrombie. His books are filled with weary, rueful characters trying to better themselves and never quite succeeding, and he’s a master of the shifting point of view. This is actually the first book in his First Law trilogy – where most of his books are set – and you know when the heroes are an aging barbarian warrior and a government torturer you’re not in for the standard ride. There is intrigue, there is war, and in the end what did it accomplish other than provide you with a gloriously entertaining book to read?
18. Maps of Time (David Christian)
As part of my teaching load as a historian on a small campus, I get asked to teach pretty much anything that comes available and as an adjunct I always say yes because they only ever remember the last thing you tell them, so if you ever say no you’ll never get asked to teach anything ever again. This is how I ended up teaching World History Prior to 1500, because my PhD on the political culture of the early American republic naturally qualifies me to teach Harappan India. It’s a strange class to teach because it covers everything from the Big Bang (I start with creation myths) to Columbus and it’s hard to find themes to organize things around. But if I am ever asked to teach the class again I will center it around this book (or at least the textbook that David Christian wrote based on this book), which Kim gave me as a birthday present one year. Christian is one of the leading figures in the Big History movement – the idea that you need to start small and work up rather than simply move through time, and you need to take more of a forest and less of a trees perspective – and this book lays out his whole program. It starts with the Big Bang. Then you get matter. Then atoms. Then molecules. Eventually planets and stars. Still later, life. Then humans. Then societies, in increasing orders of complexity, until you get to the present. It’s an interesting way to look at the broad sweep of time, and surprisingly well written. Plus he seems like a decent guy – I emailed him looking for resources and he was wonderfully helpful.
19. The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss)
This is the first volume of the Kingkiller Trilogy – currently going on a thousand years waiting for the last volume, but hey, it’s worth the wait. Rothfuss is one of the most lyrical writers in the fantasy genre, and he has a lot to say. He’s also a pretty nice guy, from what I can tell. Kim and I went to one of his author presentations and enjoyed it thoroughly, and he was kind enough to talk to us a bit during the book signing part. In an out of the way corner of the world is an innkeeper who used to be Kvothe, one of the land’s great heroes. What happens to heroes after their story is done? Framed as an interview with a traveling scholar, this is Kvothe’s story. I bought this on a whim and loved it enough to sell my paperback copy and buy the hardback version.
20. The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)
We live in a golden age of YA fiction, and this is but one example. It’s more of a tone poem than a story (how they managed to make a movie out of it I have no idea) but the story will stay with you anyway. It’s World War II in Nazi Germany, and young Liesel finds herself given to new foster parents – fierce Rosa and gentle Hans Huberman – and their Jewish refugee, Max. For a while things work out, and then they don’t, because that’s how WWII was – we romanticize it as The Good War but the most recent estimates by historians are that somewhere between 80 and 100 million people died as a direct result of it, after all. It’s narrated by Death, and the last line of this novel is one of my favorites in all of literature.
21. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
John Irving is another author whose works I will always read just because his name is on the cover. You expect certain things from an Irving novel – a gentle humanism; references to bears, Vienna, Iowa City, New England, and wrestling; and characters that stick with you long after the book is done. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s published, but this was my first. It’s the story of two boys – John Wheelwright and Owen Meany – growing up in New England in the 1950s and 60s. Owen believes himself to be an instrument of God, and the plot mostly follows along those lines in a complex sort of way. The thing about it, though, is that it can be really funny. The Christmas pageant scene is worth the price of the book all by itself.
22. The Atrocity Archives (Charles Stross)
This is the first in the Laundry Files series, so it mostly stands in for the whole. Bob Howard works for the Laundry, an agency of the British government so secret that even knowing about it is a crime for the unauthorized. Their job is to protect the realm – and by extension the rest of us – from the Lovecraftian horrors that populate the multiverse and are accessible by higher math (Bob was recruited when his graduate work nearly destroyed Wolverhampton). The series starts off as a blend of science fiction, horror, spy novel, and office comedy – Stross can be really funny – and gradually gets more serious as it goes. I once emailed Stross about the series and he was kind enough to write me back.
23. The Portable Door (Tom Holt)
This book is one of my favorites written by Holt, and is here a stand-in for all of his books as well as the ones he publishes under the name KJ Parker. Pretty much everything he writes is worth reading, really. Books published under his own name tend to be comic fantasy novels, long on British culture (he does not Americanize anything), intricately plotted, and often rather bittersweet. This particular novel is the opening of the JW Wells & Co. series. Lovelorn Paul and bony Sophie find themselves employed by JW Wells & Co. and eventually they discover that the company is the premier magical pest control agency in London, whereupon hijinks ensue. It’s funny, as Holt’s novels tend to be, and the series gets more thoughtful as it goes. When I was choosing my Holt book, it came down to this or The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice, an exactingly comic look at the economics of fairy tales (how do all those woodcutters make a living in a world where the forest is right outside?). I also love his KJ Parker books, which tend to be just as intricately plotted but much more serious and often rather grim. You know things won’t end well in a KJ Parker novel, but you don’t ever know how until it happens. You keep reading because to stop reading a book with such well-crafted sentences would be unthinkable.
24. Watching the English (Kate Fox)
Kate Fox is an anthropologist after my own heart. Why should I spend several years being uncomfortable researching cultures in faraway areas of the world lacking in basic sanitation or creature comforts, she asks, when I can examine my own culture here in England? And so she does. With an anthropologist’s detachment and a thoroughly British (which is, after all, broader than English) sense of irony and sarcasm, she dissects the behaviour of the English across both space, time, and – most importantly – class. She’s fascinating by eating rituals, hobbies, and how they treat their pets, and she’s the only anthropologist I have ever read who could make me laugh out loud. I’ve been to England a couple of times and what little I’ve seen seems to bear her observations out. I regard that as a good thing, and I look forward to going back.
25. Straight Man (Richard Russo)
Richard Russo tends to write warm, shambling novels about people trying to do their best in small towns that don’t have much room for that sort of thing – all of which are worth reading – but this is an academic novel. Hank Devereaux is the reluctant chairman of the English department in a small, underfunded Pennsylvania college, and in the space of a week he will have a series of crises large and small, perhaps highlighted by his threat to kill a goose live on television. It’s funny and all too recognizable as a portrait of life in modern academia for those of us living through it these days.
26. Perdido Street Station (China Mieville)
Nobody does Other like China Mieville. Most authors’ Other characters are just humans in funny suits, but Mieville’s are Other to the point of being difficult to fathom. In the city of New Crobuzon there are several different races – humanoid, insect-like, bird-like, cactus-based, and at one point actually demonic – with the city itself perhaps the most compelling character. The plot is dense, involving a creature called a slakemoth that can eat the minds of its victims, but mostly I liked it for the world overall. He has a couple of other novels set in that same world, but the further he gets from New Crobuzon the weaker they become. His other novels are worth reading as well – rewarding, but not easy.
27. Skinny Legs and All (Tom Robbins)
If Nick Harkaway has more fun with the English language than any living author, Tom Robbins has more fun than any author other than Nick Harkaway. This book opens with two characters driving down the highway in a large Airstream turkey, and it just gets weirder after that. There’s not much of a coherent plot, as I recall, but there are a lot of great scenes and characters, and ultimately you do get to the final dance promised in the title. I read this back in the 1980s when it was still new – a newspaper article I clipped out of the Philadelphia Inquirer the summer before ended up being quoted verbatim in this book, much to my delight – and it has stuck with me since. I’ve read the rest of his books since then, but this remains my favorite.
28. Protect and Defend (Richard North Patterson)
On the first day of a liberal president’s term in office, the extremely conservative Chief Justice of the Supreme Court dies of natural causes. The president would like to appoint a pro-choice judge to replace him. The Senate leader would like to prevent this. And that’s the plot. It’s a phenomenally well written political thriller from a less vicious age, when politics wasn’t a blood sport and Fascism wasn’t the open goal of the American right wing. I heard an interview with Patterson about this book and I have no idea how he managed to get this kind of access, but his research for this essentially amounted to going to Bill Clinton – an acknowledge master of parliamentary procedure – and saying to him, “This is your legacy; you’ll pull out the stops and call in the favors to get this to happen, so what do you do?” and then taking Clinton’s answer to Bob Dole – another acknowledged master – and saying, “Your legacy is to prevent this. Bill Clinton said he’d do X, Y, and Z. How do you respond?” And then ping-ponging back and forth between them (“Bob said he’d do THAT? Okay, here’s what I do next…”) until he got to the end.
29. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Richard Hofstadter)
I wrote my dissertation, at least in part, in response to this book. It’s the first full-length monograph about the role of intellect and its detractors in American culture, and while it is elegantly written and often persuasive, I felt that his chapter on the early American republic got it wrong. One of my committee members – a former student of Hofstadter, which in the academic sense makes me Hofstadter’s intellectual grandchild – was sufficiently impressed by my arguments to approve my degree, which was a good feeling. In an age where Americans seem bound and determined to elect the most viciously stupid leaders available to them, it’s something of a comfort to know that this tendency has been with us a long time and perhaps it can be overcome.
30. The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (Ian Mortimer)
This is what social history ought to be. Mortimer – who also has volumes covering Elizabethan and Restoration England in this series – starts with the premise that you are an ordinary Briton of the modern world who has suddenly been whisked back to the England of the 14th century. You will need to know how to behave. What to wear. How to eat. How to earn a living. All of the little things that make up a daily life. Mortimer is an engaging writer with an eye for detail and he makes it fun. I found this book in a gift shop at a historic site in England (the American version spells it “traveler’s”) and not only is it a good book but it also reminds me of a place and time.
31. Listening Is an Act of Love (David Irsay)
The Storycorp project is based on the quiet but powerful idea that ordinary people have things to say that are worth hearing. They travel across the country and record people, and these are some of those stories. If you can get through this book without tearing up you have a heart made of stone. Irsay has edited several volumes of these stories and there are other, similar projects out there (Paul Auster’s collection, I Thought My Father Was God, is also astonishingly good) but this one that sticks with me. The title is good advice, too.
1. The Crooked Letter (Sean Williams)
A delirium of a book and the first of a four-volume series, it starts with the murder of one brother and the quest of the other to find him in the increasingly strange world that follows. It’s one of those books that I have loved and read several times over but I’m never sure who to recommend it to.
2. Rumpole of the Bailey (John Mortimer)
Horace Rumpole is a British lawyer and these are his cases. That’s pretty much it. I’ve never seen the television show, but I’ve enjoyed the stories.
3. Moo (Jane Smiley)
An academic novel set on a large midwestern campus, it’s kind of a picaresque rather than an overall story – you follow any number of characters through their campus lives, and sometimes they intersect and sometimes they don’t. It can be very funny, and some of the parts that seemed like wild satire when it was written in the 90s have since come true.
4. The Prince With A Hundred Dragons (Malcolm Foster)
One of my favorite stories when I was a kid, and one I went out of my way to read to my daughters when they were young. What happens when a young knight doesn’t want to kill dragons, and the dragon he meets turns out to be rather urbane? Fun, that’s what.
5. The Lecturer’s Tale (James Hynes)
There is no better portrait of the adjunct life at the end of the 20th century than this story of an English lecturer who suddenly discovers he has the ability to compel people to do whatever he tells them to do, and the inevitable catastrophes that come from that discovery. Funny, but biting.