I love books; I love the smooth feel of the paper under my aging fingers, the rough edges of the pages, the excited squee of a brand new book opening for the first time, the creaky but familiar ache of a beloved book being called into action for another round. They are like family members to me; selecting favorites and estranging the dysfunctional are as painful as gathering them into my lap with wine or tea are comforting. It is rare for me to discard a book before completing it because I feel they all deserve their chance at a loving family; it is equally rare for me to reread books for a similar reason - the time I spend rereading a book is time I cannot spend getting to know another, whom I might want to welcome into my world.
Reluctantly, I will admit to a few weaknesses. If pushed to select a single favorite book, I would choose John Green’s Looking for Alaska. At the time I picked it up, I had read and enjoyed a lot of young adult fiction. Nevertheless, Looking for Alaska affected me in ways I never expected from a young adult novel. John Green’s characterization brought boarding school life and main characters alive with such clarity and force that when the climax occurred, I felt as if I had been struck by a train. It is well known among Green fans that we don’t discuss plot in public forums in case we risk spoiling books for others so I can’t say too much, but it was nearly impossible to disconnect from the fictional world he had drawn me into and to remember that the characters were not, in fact, part of my real life. Later, I would discover that every John Green book would have that effect. His understanding and portrayal of the lives of adolescents is startlingly accurate.
I meant to select a young adult book and an adult book that I loved, but the old favorite who keeps nosing her way into my recollection is Little Women. It is a book I return to when life is difficult or celebratory. I remember being heartbroken at my grandmother’s death; my mother told me find a book I really liked and read it. Since then, I have reread Little Women at least a dozen times, variously relating to the strengths and weaknesses, loves and losses, interests and foibles of Amy, Meg, Jo, and Beth. At least one of their lives always brings me comfort and has a lesson to teach me about what is happening in my own life. They have traveled far with me in my 50 years, and their pages feel like fine Irish linen.
Among my adult favorites are almost anything ever written by John Irving - until he began to recycle his characters and plots into new forms that are interesting but not anywhere as engaging as their great grandparents. The Fourth Hand, for example, is the great grandchild whose eyes are the spitting image of great grandpa John. Even though his writing skills develop as you travel from The World According to Garp to A Prayer for Owen Meany, he becomes a little too comfortable when he reaches a certain age, round about A Widow for One Year. It doesn’t seem to matter though. Unconditional love is unconditional, and every single book he writes is welcome at my Thanksgiving table.
Similarly, Wally Lamb won me over with his ability to describe the painful but uplifting challenges of Delores Price, who has no reason to hope and every reason to give up but is bestowed with an unexpected, undeniable, lifesaving, spunkiness. Every book he writes is that best friend who becomes family, not because you share the same blood, but because you choose each other. It takes Lamb forever to write a novel so our visits are infrequent, but when you do meet up for coffee, it is as if you never spent time apart. Every. Single. Book. Genius.
The most memorable book I was forced to let go was American Psycho. Early on, not as a young adult but as a Young Adult, I enjoyed Bret Easton Ellis’ descriptions of the beginnings of adulthood, of how we make the transition to being semi-responsible people who live without our parents, hold down jobs, take on new roles, and experiment with our places in the world. But American Psycho? I just couldn’t. I have been told that the story is a tongue-in-cheek look at a sociopath rather than gratuitous violence, blood, guts, and gore, but I found American Psycho so disturbing that I had to kick him out of the house. I didn’t even try to find him a new home. I threw him away, in the garbage; relegated him to a life of homelessness, later to be glorified in an equally disturbing movie, that I also could not embrace as one of my own.
So, there they are; the four I can’t live without and the one I can’t live with; I remember where and when I was when I encountered each of them; their comings and goings are etched into my memory like my first and last memories of my loved ones; some perfect and some painful, but I would not be who I am today without having spent time with each of them.