An autobiobibliography

(Scroll to the end of the post if you want my list of personally significant books by half-decade of my life without the navel-gazing backstory.)

If you ask me what my favorite book is, I will just laugh at you for asking such a silly question.

If you ask me what my five favorite books are, I will still just laugh at you for asking such a silly question.

If you ask me what my 12, or 15, or 20 favorite books are, I might say, "Now there's a number that I might be able to work with. Let me get back to you on that." And then I will spend a couple of days pleasantly musing about the question, then forget about it for seven years, and never get back to you.

If you ask me again what my 12, or 15, or 20 favorite books are, and cut me off before I have a chance to say "Let me get back to you on that" to insist, "No, no, don't overthink this; it doesn't have to be your all time top 20 list, just tell me what comes to mind right away!" I will say, "Don't overthink this? Have you met me? If I'm not allowed to overthink in this game, I don't want to play." And I will, once again, never get back to you.

The only time I have ever successfully compiled a list of "My Books" off the top of my head was in response to this prompt from First Things, and I totally broke the rules. They asked for two books; I came up with sixteen. That's about as low as you'll ever get me to go on one of these kinds of questions.

But it was a fun exercise, even if I failed at the intent. So now, having mentioned the existence of the list to people whose curiosity it piqued, I will eventually share it with you.

The question in First Things was to name TWO books that most define you. These are called "bookends" in the piece, but I think the two foci of an ellipse is a more apt analogy. As Carter notes, a pair of books, especially if they are of somewhat disparate character, is much more illuminating than a single book. So even though I generally just laugh at any request for fewer than 10 books, I actually gave this one some thought -- and found it much easier to identify a pair of books than one single favorite.

But as I considered my pair, I realized that the pair was definitely definitive of myself around the time I read them (18-20ish), but did I want to claim them for my whole life? As Rusty Reno observes in one of the few comment threads on the whole internet that is worth reading, "most personality-defining books come early in life, during the formative years." So it stands to reason that my pair would come from that period of life. But I still wasn't sure about committing to my me-at-20 pair.

So I tried again, and came up with a completely different pair -- and quickly noticed that those suited 25-year-old me to a T. But my whole life? I still wasn't sure.

But observing that my first two attempts had landed neatly at roughly 5-year intervals, I wondered, could I trace my life in books in 5-year chunks, two books per half decade? And lo, I found that I could. And since this was for me both more interesting and easier than naming only two, ONLY TWO books for my whole life, I abandoned that quest and took up the other: the compilation of my autobiobibliography.

A few notes:

  • It gets harder to be confident of my picks the closer I get to the present. This is probably in line with Reno's observation of formative reading happening earlier in life, plus the lack of critical distance. This is why the last pairing isn't yet finalized.
  • There are some books on this list that are parts of series. I chose the particular volume I did on purpose. In most cases it is fair to take those books as synecdoche for the larger whole, but in a couple of cases I didn't even finish the series and/or loathed other installments.
  • There are some books on this list that were later expanded by their authors into larger, more definitive treatments. My selection of the earlier, shorter versions is deliberate. 
Now then, if you're still with me, my list:

5ish

Honorable Mention: The Great Green Turkey Creek Monster by James Flora

10ish

15ish

20ish

25ish

30ish

35ish

40ish

If any of my friends finds it an interesting exercise to examine their lives in terms of books (in whatever intervals of years and number of books per interval works for you), I would be delighted to see the resulting lists.

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