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:


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








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.


MattH said...

No way I could pick just one or two books per decade, since Kim and I have so many, but three specific passages stand out for me.

One is CS Lewis in Mere Christianity observing that since he "had a good digestion" and a generally satisfactory life, he'd not been especially tempted to major sins. But others who might look like awful people from the outside perhaps have just been tempted in ways he hadn't. In Heaven, where we'll see souls as they really are "there may be some surprises," Lewis said. I basically still try, not always successfully, to live by what I was taught at a Jesuit High School. What has changed a lot since age 18 has been my tendency to judge people in very different circumstances from my own.

The other two favorite passages, from Aquinas on Faith vs Reason as complementary ways to the truth and Isaac Newton on the Earth's equatorial bulge, are too complicated to explain here. Also too complicated are some brilliant bits from Darwin's Origin of Species.

Peter Onigan said...

I was checking in and enjoyed your new post, and then I got completely distracted by this question. After turning it over for a few days, I'm forcing myself to post in order to stop analyzing it further! The main thing the exercise makes me notice is that periods where I know I was reading all the time--high school and undergraduate--have relatively few distinct texts that jump to mind. It's my time in graduate school, when I started to broaden my reading outside of classrooms, that led to me encountering texts that have clearly shaped my tastes, thinking, and beliefs.

Thank you for the fun question and insights. I'll add several of your books to my reading list.

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Roald Dahl

I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque

Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn
The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois

Dream Country, Neil Gaiman
The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
Envisioning Information, Edward R. Tufte
Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware

A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

Mister Miracle, Tom King

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