31 – Books

“What are the best and worst books you’ve ever read?”

That’s a great question.  There’s a number of books I read almost yearly because the writing in them is so appealing to me and I gain something new with each re-read.  There’s not too many books I’ve disliked that I’ve actually finished.  So that list is much shorter.

The Good:

Catch 22: (Joseph Heller) This is my favorite book.  I first read it in high school, or maybe middle school, when I was going through the books on my parents’ shelves trying to find something I liked.  At the time I very much enjoyed the irreverence and humor and somehow missed the progression into darkness.  This is a book that follows Vonnegut’s “Man in Hole” graph well, I think.  Yossarian goes into some awful places.  A major motif is the wibbly-wobbliness of the narrative which creates a perplexing puzzle of sequencing, which I also like.  Much of my later writing aspires to Heller’s prose.

Breakfast of Champions/Slaugherhouse V/ Man Without a Country:  I include all three as they ARE all written by Kurt Vonnegut.  Despite not having authored Catch 22, Vonnegut is my favorite author.  The man was insane perfectionist and diligently edited each page of his manuscripts.  There’s so much in each book – you know doubt see the thread of time being soft from Heller’s opus to Vonnegut’s oeuvre.  “Breakfast” suffers as it is more of a “I’m going to unload everything I’ve thought about writing but couldn’t get to work into a single volume,” but it ends up an excellent read for the Vonnegut fan.  There’s not much there for a casual reader.

“Slaughterhouse V” is beautiful.  This is an epic tale condensed into a short read.  Deeply personal in a way that offsets the lunacy within.  So serious is the Dresden bombing Vonnegut can make few jokes about it, except those in the shadow of the gallows and it has carried with me since reading it.  There is real honesty and truth to these pages, despite the bulk of it being fiction.  Even the parts with Montana.

“Country” is another story altogether.  It’s basically the ramblings of an old man.  This slim volume is repetitive and yet has real weight throughout.  Vonnegut understood “less is more” very well.  I also enjoy “Cat’s Cradle.”

On the Road (Jack Kerouac):  I read this in tenth grade and it filled me with a wanderlust so great that I briefly considered hopping a train.  This is another book of truth and pain.  It is filled with heartbreaking scenes, romantic scenes.  A particular favorite is a small scene with Sal and Dean sitting in a poor man’s kitchen lit by the single bulb of the household.  There’s a lot no doubt embellished, but this book also gives me a favorite quote:  “I’m going to build a bookshelf that will last A THOUSAND YEARS!”

The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald):  I was forced to read this in 10th grade, a Herculean task I did not accomplish.  Instead, I faked much of the classroom discussions as I almost died of boredom after chapter 2.  This was not a book for a 15 year old with no regrets.  It is a book for a post-college grad who has made mistakes and lost loves.  I read it again at 22 and understood it.  Now, at 31, I find some of it a bit too obvious and would welcome some subtlety.  The latest movie missed the mark on that score, but was enjoyable.  I still like it, but I’m not sure if it will be on the list in my future.

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams):  This is my favorite trilogy that is actually five books.  It is hilarious, it is irreverent, it is full of preposterous ideas, it has time travel, and I would quote it far more often if more people had read it.  We are reading this and the second book for our December book club and I am thrilled.  We are also watching the BBC series based on it, which is less thrilling since Zaphod’s second head is terrifying.

There’s many other books I’ve enjoyed, but these I carry with me without actually having them, if you know what I mean.  I’ve also been marked by Neil Gaiman’s writing as well as Terry Pratchett – and of course Ray Bradbury.  There’s many others, no doubt.

The Bad:

Catcher in the Rye (Salinger):  It’s been a while since I’ve read this, but GOOD LORD HOLDEN SUCK IT UP!  This is however-many-pages of an adolescent complaining.  And complaining.  I found no hidden meaning and no reason to enjoy it.  Perhaps I’d enjoy it now that I’m older, but I think the opposite is true.

Batman: The Widening Gyre:  What the hell was that, Kevin Smith?  I’d highlight the lowlights, but Comics Alliance has done it for me.

The Giving Tree:  More like “The tree that let itself be taken advantage of and then was forgotten and then sat on.”  I’ve seen this done as chapel at camp so many times.  There is a message a lot of people take away that is an okay message, that we should be caring and give more.  But the book is so bluntly about the opposite.  This is not a book I would read to anyone, ever.  I’d read them SkippyJon Jones or something.

That’s about it.  It’s not even that I hate these, I just don’t care for them.  Usually if I don’t like a book within the first chapter or so I won’t read it.  Unfortunately, “Game of Thrones” is up for November book club, so I’ll have to read that.  There was no getting through the first few pages of that for me the first time.  Book Club!  How could you?!

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