In celebration of Image's thirtieth anniversary, we asked three writers—a poet, novelist, and essayist—each to pick their top ten books of the past thirty years.
HERE’S A SCENE I play out in my mind. The Brontë sisters (and little Branwell, of course) are sitting around the house in Bradford one fine mid-nineteenth-century afternoon. It’s a Saturday. The children have just been reading Byron’s “Darkness” aloud to one another for the umpteenth time. Or not reading it at all, as they have memorized it and can recite it at will:
_____ I had a dream, which was not all a dream….
Suddenly the postman comes to the door. I have no idea, actually, how the post was delivered in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the early to mid-nineteenth century, but let’s say it happened like this. The children run to the door. Patrick Brontë flips through the mail as the children cluster around him. He hands Emily a piece of mail covered in brown paper. Everyone knows exactly what this is. It is the latest edition of Blackwood’s Magazine, which the children will devour over the next months, reading each story, poem, and essay over and over again.
These same Brontë sisters will have the good sense to produce a mere handful of truly great works of literature and then die tragically young. Bravo.
One of these is Wuthering Heights, written by Emily. Wuthering Heights ranks, to me, as one of the greatest works of world literature partly because I’m still not sure I understand what it is. Even the plot confuses me, with its story wrapped in various nestlings of telling and retelling. The first two times I read it, I was baffled and mildly annoyed. And yet. The way others discussed the book kept me coming back. And a childhood memory of my father coming down the hallway late one night just after he’d given me a tattered paperback copy of the book, crying, “Heathcliff…. heathcliff….” with a mischievous smile at the corner of his mouth. And all the terrible movies that could never capture the book’s dark mystery. And all the literary essays that try and fail to penetrate its heart. And Kate Bush dancing, ridiculously, wonderfully, in her flowing red dress in the woods somewhere.
_____ Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy
_____ I’ve come home, I’m so cold
_____ Let me in through your window
Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” was released in 1978. That’s about 130 years of marinating in one book. And Wuthering Heights cannot, now, be disinterred from all that marinating, ruminating, slow digesting. All the stuff piled on top of the book has become one with the book; the Wuthering Heights of 2019 is a rich, encrusted, heavy thing.
There’s a word in Arabic, Hafiz. It means a person who has memorized the Quran. That memorizing isn’t just a one-time commitment. You must constantly put the memorization into practice. You have to renew it every day, and you are supposed to act upon all the stuff you have memorized. You are supposed to live the words that are now written in your brain, on your soul. The book becomes your life.
People of the Book. What does it mean? I can tell you that it doesn’t mean People of Publishing. It means something more like people consuming and manifesting and becoming words. What would happen if we just stopped publishing new books altogether for a few years, to see what happened, cleanse the palate, invest ourselves in the books we already love? (Well, except for my books, of course. You can publish those.)
Truly, the older I get, the older are the books I want to read, and the fewer. I creep further and further back into history. I hide in the murk of lost time.
But enough about me. I did read a few books published in the last thirty years. Most of them bored me to tears. A few, however, were so odd or stupid or, here and there, brilliant that I had to take notice. I was not able to dismiss them, as I would probably have preferred to do. Below, in no particular order, are some of the books that have stuck in my head.
Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art (2011)
This book is 272 pages in the English translation put out by Verso. The flap proclaims, “This incisive study provides a history of aesthetic modernity far removed from conventional understandings of modernism.” I notice that my bookmark is stuck at page eleven. You could say that I have no business discussing a book of almost three hundred pages when I read less than eleven pages. This is fair, though I should note that the preface is a few pages long and counted separately, in Roman numerals. Nevertheless, those first eleven pages (plus preface) were so torturous that I couldn’t go on. This is significant in itself since I have always been something of a literary masochist. Once I’ve committed to a book, I’m generally in for the long haul, regardless of the pain… nay, even perhaps partly because of the pain.
So what about this book destroyed my ability to read it? It isn’t the French theorizing, since I am rather fond of a certain kind of Gallic prolixity. It isn’t the self-importance and studied seriousness of the writing, though there is plenty of that.
Actually, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the book at all. It’s just that somehow the book doesn’t speak to me. Probably this is because so much of the book, in its first eleven pages, is filtered through Diderot, and I have never trusted people who read copious amounts of Diderot. Even if those people claim to be critiquing Diderot, it doesn’t matter. The only real way to defeat Diderot—and he must be defeated—is to ignore him. Rancière failed in this. He thinks that one must defeat Diderot by means of permanent and constant engagement. I suspect that Rancière is even rather fond of Diderot. This idea terrifies me. That’s probably why I ran away from the book. I’m not interested in critiquing the Enlightenment. I’m interested in pretending it never happened. This is an important thing to learn about oneself, and I am, therefore, grateful to Rancière and his unreadable book.
John M. Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (1993)
I read this book for a class, actually. I’m getting a diploma in urban ministry at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. My bishop at Saint Anthony’s has decided this is part of the preparation for me to become a deacon. I have no idea why I’m supposed to be a deacon, nor do I want to be a deacon. That’s why I’m going through with it.
John Perkins is not going to win any major literary awards for this offering. The front cover of my copy presents a bad snapshot of two kids sitting on a stoop enjoying popsicles. There are chapters I do not care for at all, like chapter 7, “Evangelism.” Perkins writes, “We hope to persuade men and women, by every means possible, that Jesus is to be treasured above all the world has to offer.” I, by contrast, don’t hope to persuade anyone of anything. My wife is Jewish. I hope to persuade her not to hit me in the back of the head when I talk about Jesus.
There are, however, passages of such honesty and power in this book that I cannot get them out of my mind. Perkins says, essentially, that if one gives even the tiniest of shits about the Gospel, then one must go to the city and live with the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised. Not as a savior. Not as someone with answers. One must go and one must serve. Live a life of care. No excuses. Go and serve, asshole. He doesn’t actually say “asshole.” I added that.
Perkins anticipates our questions. But is it safe to do that, we ask? Is it sensible? No, it is not safe, he answers. It is not sensible.
It is good.
Lydia Davis, can’t and won’t (stories) (2014)
After I finished this book a few years ago, my wife asked me if I liked it. According to her, I answered, “Lydia Davis makes me ashamed to be a writer.” I meant this as a compliment.
Here is one of the stories from can’t and won’t. It is titled “Bloomington.” It is a one-sentence story.
Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.
One of the thoughts that Lydia Davis allows herself to express is that most of the things we do and think all day long are utterly pointless. Most of the time, when people write about life, they try to pretend that it is more significant than it actually is. They cherry-pick at life. In short, they lie.
God knows we need these lies. But not all of the time. It can’t be all lies all the way down. Thus, the importance of Lydia Davis. I’m quite sure she doesn’t think of her writing as religious in any way. But I do. What would a literature that is true to the simple inadequacies of daily plodding look like? It would look like these stories, of course. Would this be a new and unintentional sort of sacred writing? What a lovely thought. Yes indeed, it would!
Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word: Letting the Bible Live Again (2008)
There is one true preacher alive on the planet today. Her name is Debbie Blue. I first encountered Ms. Blue during a Glen Workshop some years back. She stalked to the podium wearing biker boots and a scowl. Then she proceeded to lay into scripture. She said some things about God that really upset me. That was nice. I appreciated it.
Most preachers preach as if they want to control scripture and wrap it up pretty. They domesticate the words. They are, in a word, boring, and they make the Bible boring. But the Bible is not boring. It is straight-out nuts from word one to word seven hundred thousand. The Christian Bible culminates in the Book of Revelation, after all. Is there a stranger, more terrifying and deeply unsettling work of literature?
In From Stone to Living Word, Blue writes about scripture as if there is still something to be said. This is audacious, when you think about it. “Maybe,” writes Blue, “having our hearts turned to flesh—being made alive—makes us see more and hear more and be more awake than could possibly be comfortable.” Indeed. After Blue smacks scripture around a few times, she likes to give it a kiss full on the mouth. The last sentence of the book is, “Delight in the fatness, and live.”
Rosalind Krauss, Bachelors (1999)
I like to read the books and essays of Rosalind Krauss because they are so intelligent. There is no one more intelligent than Krauss, no one who sees more deeply into the core aesthetic questions of the day. The central question of art today is the question of medium. I don’t have the time or space right now to explain why this is the case. You’ll have to take it on faith. Rosalind Krauss can explain it to you. But you are going to have to read some very difficult books.
I like to read difficult books. They make me feel like I am smart when I understand them. I’m so good at reading Rosalind Krauss now, having piled up so many years of reading Rosalind Krauss, that I often know what she is thinking even just before she’s thought it on the page. I’m just saying.
But oh Rosalind, how you torment me! You take all my Romantics, my artists holding out against modernity in the name of the sublime, and you fold them back into the system. You reabsorb them into the relentless logic of the modern. Look what you’ve done to Agnes Martin in Bachelors. No shimmering mysticism here, just the formalist grid and the perfect square and the “fundamental classicism of its Kunstwollen.”
I hate this book so much I love it. And vice versa.
Michel Houellebecq, Submission (2015)
This is an evil book written by an evil person. It is one of the mysteries of creation that there is evil at all. Why, God, did you do it? There is no answer to this question, which is, in itself, one of the wonders of creation.
Reading anything by Michel Houellebecq makes me want to collapse into a little ball in the corner and weep. It leaves me depressed for weeks, months. There aren’t very many authors who can do this. Nietzsche can do this. The great Polish writer and narcissist Witold Gombrowicz can do this. There are others. Why read these people at all?
Well, it’s like I said before. The devil walks these lands. You’ll have to face him sooner or later. Why not now? Why not grasp this book with both hands and let the darkness unfold? Why not gaze full bore into the loneliness and misery that is at the core of human experience and will ever lurk there? The only way to overcome the horror is to confront it. That’s the way it is for me, anyway. But then again, you’re talking to someone who has slowly been collecting an entire library of the most soul-shattering works of world literature. This book is in that collection.
Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus (2012)
Okay, this book is already on tons of best-of lists for literary Christian types. For this reason alone, I would probably have avoided it. I read it because Warren Farha of Eighth Day Books put it in my hands and said, “Read this. It is amazing,” which was enough for me.
Laurus makes me want to be Russian. Not even Dostoyevsky ever made me want to be Russian, though I become more appreciative of the singular genius of Dostoyevsky with every passing year. Still, Dostoyevsky makes me want to be anything but Russian. Laurus somehow draws you into the world of which we got a passing glimpse in Andrei Rublev. But having been drawn into that world, we are overwhelmed by it. A dear friend once wrote to me, in a letter, something to the effect of, “Laurus scares me because it shows me how inadequate I am.” The effect of Laurus reminds me of a book my wife likes to read during the High Holidays. The book is by Alan Lew and it is called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared.
Laurus shows us that God would tear us apart and reduce us to nothing if only we’d let her. We’d be burnt to a cinder and then reborn in the light of what must be. Goodbye forever to your own paltry needs and desires. O God, break my bones, as a recalcitrant young pear thief once cried out into the empty sky. That is Laurus.
Iris Murdoch, The Message to the Planet (1989)
This book just makes it under the wire, having been published in 1989. I’m glad to get a book by Iris Murdoch onto the list for the simple reason that Iris Murdoch is the best. I don’t mean that as hyperbole. It is a statement of brute fact. Anyone not blown away by Iris Murdoch is, ipso facto, a hateful moron.
“Blown away” is a good way to put it, since the novels of Iris Murdoch are semi-controlled, exploding things. Trying to summarize the plot of The Message to the Planet would be like trying to summarize the goings-on of, say, global weather over the last thirty years. It is my belief that Murdoch knew only roughly what her plots and characters were going to do. That is the power of the people and events she created. She made her characters so much into what they are that they do things even she cannot control.
I wonder if that isn’t an apt metaphor for God in relation to creation. To make something so real that even you are surprised by it. To make something and then to wish, sometimes, that you hadn’t made it at all. In every book by Iris Murdoch I have ever read—and I have read most of them—there is a moment where something downright magical, something otherwise impossible, suddenly happens. These moments are the opposite of so-called magical realism because, in Murdoch’s novels, they are necessary, obvious, and clear. These moments are the proof that Murdoch saw reality for what it actually is, which is mystical.
Derek Walcott, The Bounty (1997)
I have my problems with poets. Their relationship to language can be proprietary and irresponsible. “We are connected to language in its absolute purity,” they claim (such audacity!), “and can therefore do what we want with it.” Oh really? I’ve never met a poet who does not believe, somewhere in her heart, that God speaks through poets more than through anyone else. The annoying thing is, they might be right.
Walcott unleashes such a torrent of language in this collection that you’re drowned by it almost immediately. I get bleary-eyed within a couple of pages. In general, I’ve got to put Derek Walcott down quickly whenever I pick him up. The thin volumes weigh tons. Can a book of poetry make you vomit simply through the vertiginous motion of its language? The answer is yes.
Theologically speaking, this book convinced me that language is, in fact, a force of creation, just as we were promised. It is not a metaphor. The Word takes on physical force. Language has heft and volume. There are oodles of beautiful sentences in this book. I can’t remember any of them specifically, but they’re all sloshing around somewhere in the wading pools of my unconscious.
Joan Didion, Where I Was From (2003)
Joan Didion is not a nice person. I would almost put her in the category of Michel Houellebecq and Witold Gombrowicz. But not quite. I’m not sure what quality it is that holds her just at the cusp of “evil writer” without her falling in. Perhaps it is that she believes, though she would never put it this way, in the redemptive capacity of the act of writing.
This book is nowhere near her best or most interesting. But it is special to me. Like Didion, I grew up in California, more or less. Nobody writes about the sad longings of Californians as Joan Didion does. Nobody hates California as much as she does. And nobody, therefore, cares about it quite as much either.
And then there is the prose of Joan Didion. Hard stuff much of the time. Sentences that don’t hesitate for a second in laying the matter, whatever the matter be, bare. Exposing the shit for the shit that it is. Ruthless sentences. But oh, there is a payoff. An unexpected beauty, even. A tenderness that comes out of old hardhearted Joan in the last instance.
In the end, she is a lover. At the terminus of her excoriating prose, being a person always comes down to love.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.