Let’s Hear It for Databases

I was sitting around with some other grad students late one night when the topic turned to favorite books, and without giving it much thought, I said mine at the moment were William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body.

Those choices were very much of the times. Every English grad student adored Blake, and everyone who could read at the eighth-grade or above read Tolkien. I don’t know how popular Brown’s book is today, but it sure made sense then. His mash-up of psychoanalysis and Christian mysticism touched a nerve, as did his argument that humanity fell from a kind of instinctive innocence into the chains that await us today – in other words, exactly what Blake and Tolkien were saying.

That was forty years ago. If somebody asked me today for three books to take to a desert island, I could easily recommend the same three.

And if I were asked for more names, I’d tell them this story. Not long ago, a city crew began pouring a sidewalk at the end of my driveway. When the workers packed up their tools and went home for the day, I got a Tru-Value screwdriver out of my toolbox and, without thinking too much, wrote JANE AUSTEN in one corner of a still-wet square of concrete and JOHN KEATS in another, followed by WALT WHITMAN and LITTLE RICHARD in the last two corners.

These four artists aren’t all of my Elvii, and a month from now (or tomorrow) I might take one or more names off that list and add others, once again without thinking a whole lot, which, as you’ll notice, is a consistent theme in this essay. The more you read, the less you have to think, actually: authors and titles just spring up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. But I’m often asked what to read (or, in the case of Little Richard, listen to), and this little story provides me with a quick answer. Besides, when I go out to get the paper in the morning, I like to see walkers pause in their morning stroll and smile as they try to figure out how these names got there and why.

Then I got the chance to expand my list when an editor asked a number of writers to list ten books that mattered most to them. This time, I figured I’d better put my thinking cap on. In the end, I chose:

  1. William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  2. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
  3. Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems
  4. Dante, The Inferno (the Ciaran Carson translation, though the ones by John Ciardi and Mary Jo Bang are just as good)
  5. Shakespeare, Complete Works, especially Macbeth and Twelfth Night
  6. John Keats, Odes
  7. Little Richard, Little Richard’s Greatest Hits (Recorded Live)
  8. Barbara Hamby, On the Street of Divine Love
  9. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  10. Primo Levi, If This Is a Man and The Truce (in one volume; also published as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening)

So, there’s Blake and Keats and Whitman and Little Richard again. There’s Barbara Hamby, who is one of the best poets writing today as well as my wife. We swap poems constantly, so I know her work better than anyone else’s except my own. The other names on this list are self-justifying with the possible exception of Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor and memoirist whose you-are-there prose is a model for any writer writing about anything.

The problem with lists of this kind is that picking favorites is just going to remind you of all the books you didn’t pick. Too, you’ll be faced with how narrow your preferences are: in my case, they’re pretty white, pretty male, pretty Anglo. One way to get around these issues is to ask other people to help you make your list. For one thing, you’ll get a lot of good recommendations that you hadn’t thought of yourself. For another, you can also point the finger at the other compilers when people complain about the choices, and believe me, they will.

I got my chance when a higher-up at my university asked me to survey a select group of faculty and come up with a reading list to be put on a poster and mailed to Florida high schools as bait for potential students. This time, instead of just saying, “What are your favorite books?” I asked, “What books would you like your own children to have read by the time they finish college?” Here’s what the group came up with:

  1. The Bible
  2. Dante, The Inferno
  3. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
  4. George Eliot, Middlemarch
  5. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
  6. Homer, The Odyssey
  7. Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
  8. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
  9. Toni Morrison, Beloved
  10. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
  11. William Shakespeare, Plays (especially King Lear)
  12. Richard Wright, Native Son

Now you’re talking. There’s something here for everybody. You could build an entire college curriculum around these books. Or books like them, I should say—as with my personal lists, ones like this can and will change. And should.

In the meantime, I call on every citizen of the Republic of Letters to compile their own list of favorite books, together or with others, and do so in consultation with the many constantly evolving lists that you can access with a couple of keystrokes. These include the annual long lists of the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards. They include as well the weekly “Editors’ Choice” feature in The New York Times Book Review.

Speaking of The Times, you might take a look at the “My Ten” (sometimes “My 10″) feature in the Sunday edition of that paper where creatives of every kind list 10 much-loved items that have shaped their lives. The items can be anything from a dog breed to a personal habit to an artist or song or movie or trait you admire in someone else. Books show up on these lists a lot, though they don’t dominate, which makes sense: books are central to a well-lived life, but so is a warm childhood memory or a favorite brand of liverwurst.

If you consult these databases regularly and also subscribe to the Literary Hub and Arts & Letters Daily web sites, you’ll end up with more books than you can read in a lifetime.

And that’s a good thing. Take the word of Kevin Dickinson, whose essay “The Value of Owning More Books Than You Can Read, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Tsundoku” can be found on the Big Think web site. That Japanese term in Dickinson’s title refers to the books you’ve bought but haven’t read and is a blend of two other words, tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books).

Right now, I’ve got several thousand books in my house with more arriving daily. I’ll never get around to them all, but that’s a good thing, says Dickinson, since an overabundance of books offers lessons in both humility and optimism. “The unread books remind us of what we don’t know as well as the pleasures we can look forward to,” he says. “Anticipated pleasure is life’s great driving force: no one ever said, ‘Oh, I think I’ll just have a bowl of cereal on my birthday.’”

You can never have too many databases. Mine include recipes, workmen with different skills to care for our aging house, hotels in cities Barbara and I will never visit, songs I can manage with my limited musical skills, favorite restaurants, movies I’ve seen and ones I want to see, parties we’ve thrown and parties we’ve been to, scores of basketball games I go to with my friend Howard.

Last summer a start-up publisher asked me to write a poetry textbook. At first I was reluctant to involve myself in a project of that size, and then I thought of all the material I’d compiled over decades of teaching—syllabi, prompts, sample poems, inspirational quotes—and six weeks later, I turned in a manuscript that would eventually become a 500-page book modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them. It was the most ambitious writing job I’d ever tackled; it was also the easiest. By adding consistently to the teaching databases I’d started years earlier, I’d written a book without knowing it.

We’re not on this earth that long. We’re obliged to get the best out of our time here, and one way to do that is to compile lists of the good things we want to remember as well as the ones we haven’t tried yet. You should have databases that apply to every aspect of life that appeals to you.

But mainly books.