As an English teacher, you can imagine I sort of like to read. Just a little. Nothing crazy. :)
I am actually super meticulous about books. I keep a running list of fifty books I want to read, most of which are classics I never got around to cracking (or didn't know existed) when I was younger. I log every book I finish, therefore, I know that I average around fifty books a year. I’m aiming for seventy-two this year. Six per month, if I’m doing my math correctly. So far, I’m on track.
I also keep a list of my top twelve most favorite books of all time. I read one per month. sometimes the list changes, but it generally stays the same. Twelve books. Twelve titles that read like a brand new novel each year. Twelve small renaissances each year. Love.
(Before you dive in, you should know that I and my students have a running joke about my favorite books. When I am truly slain by a book, I will inadvertently announce that one of my future children will be named after one of the characters. I have chosen a future baby name for each of these books. Be forewarned, however, that there are no actual babies.)
January: Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis
Everything I know and believe about love is mapped out in this book. The curious tension between admiration and obsession, care and possession, love and selfishness, is dissected and defined in the pages. It's just gorgeous, meaning that I gorge myself on it. I recommend this book to my high school students regularly, and when one actually takes me up on it, he or she comes back to me to talk about it and we are both always so amazed and happy. I have a particular penchant for Clive's mythological ancient civilization. What a genius. Everyone should read this book.
Future baby name: Psyche
February: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
I wrote my senior thesis in college on this book. I, or anyone else, could literally discuss its many merits for years and still barely scratch the surface. I've read it countless times, and beyond the perfect writing and the fantastic characters and the intense action, there is the mesmerizing tension of gender capital. Could Daisy Buchanan have been successful if she had been a male character? Absolutely not! Is Gatsby feminine in his obsession of Daisy? Somewhat. The interaction between the genders is just fascinating. That's kind of a horrible explanation of gender theory, but you get the gist, I hope. Super interesting, succinct delivery, altogether brilliant. Definitely my most favorite novel ever.
Future baby name: Daisy
March: Life of Pi by Yann Martel
I hate winter. By March, the cold has entirely exhausted me. Enter Life of Pi, with its mouth-watering descriptions of Indian vegetation bursting into life, wild animals raring back in the fullness of their physical prowess, and Pi, in the middle, small but confident, claiming his place as God's servant. What an excellent novel. Furthermore, it reminds me of the reason that I love stories, and why the imagination is so essential to existence. Just FYI, the ending will kill you dead.
Future baby name: Ravi
April: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
This book sums up everything I love about modern literature. Four voices tell the same story, but the actual plot line fades in the pathetic, beautiful perspectives of this sad, fierce family. The novel takes place in Mississippi, where the Compsons are struggling to retain tradition and dignity in a world that simply does not acknowledge their values. Many fans of the book laud Faulkner for his spot-on characterization of Benjy, one of the Compson children who narrates a section of the novel. Benjy is retarded, which makes his perspective that much more weighty and tragic. However, my favorite character is Quentin, who goes to Harvard and can't go any further. Quentin's father gives him a watch, which only represents compounded pressure to Quentin. However, Quentin's father tells him:
"I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it."
That quote is worth wallpapering all over my house. This book is painfully pretty.
Future baby name: Caddy
May: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Ben knows when this one is coming. He remembers it because I spend the entire month squalling over the book and reading him long sections of it aloud. This is one of the more colorful books on the list in terms of language, but I just cannot bring myself to call it vulgar (although it's definitely not for children and probably not for teenagers.)
I love Owen Meany. When I imagine my children, I imagine them to be irresistibly tiny and speaking in a permanent scream. I want them to say things like, "IT'S AN UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE." and "GOD TOOK MY HANDS. I AM GOD'S INSTRUMENT." Owen is a dear; he is so inspirational that it is a little frightening.
Bonus: This book is hysterically funny. I know that I just said I cry all the way through it, and I do, but sometimes I cry because I’m laughing SO HARD. This is the only book that I would classify as funny on my list, but it more than makes up for the lack of humor in the other eleven.
(Side note: If you have seen Simon Birch, ignore it. Ignore anyone who tells you that movie is connected to A Prayer for Owen Meany. This is simply a LIE.)
Future baby name: Owen
June: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Oh, Sylvia. When I was in college, I made friends with a lot of girls who were English majors and just as nuts about literature as I was. We would literally sit around and listen to recordings of Gwendolyn Brooks read "We Real Cool"... from our ipods. (Yup, Poetry Out Loud is definitely loaded on my itunes. I’m a loser.) Anyway, we met Sylvia around the same time, and we all loved her, even though girlfriend is crazy. I read The Bell Jar in homage to those days of sensational literature and perfect friends. Just like Owen Meany, this is not a book I'd recommend to the young'uns, but oh, it is sublime.
Future baby name: Esther
July: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
My mom introduced me to this book and it is sheer deliciousness. It follows the journey of two parents and four girls from Georgia in the 1960s. The father is a Southern Baptist minister bound and determined to win the Congo for Jesus. (Spoiler: He doesn't.) The language is pristine, the story is fascinating, and the message is timely. In my opinion, the religious infrastructure that Reverend Price attempts to bring to the Congo is one that, ironically, lacks God in any recognizable form. I think you'd be hard pressed to argue that the book is anti-Christian since the proselytizing is "Christian" in name alone. Anyway, the story is just perfect, one of those novels that surprises me, yet I always find myself nodding in agreement with the author's choices. Gorgeous novel.
Future baby name: Anatole
August: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Remember when I said that Ben knows when I’m reading Owen Meany? He also knows when I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird, because I always beg him to let me name our first son Atticus Scout. (He always refuses, sometimes more gallantly than others.) This is another one of those novels in which the story is the point. Sure, the message of the book can be summed up in a sentence or two, but the story will absolutely catch your breath and knock your teeth out. I always cry when Jem invites Walter Cunningham home for lunch. Hungry people always make me cry. Again, this novel deals with adult issues, so beware, young readers. It is, in any case, a delightful, moving novel.
(And for Pete's sake, if you're from Alabama and over the age of 18 and haven't read it, shame on you! We only have two authors worth their salt from the state, and anyone can manage two books. So, get off your bootay and retrieve To Kill a Mockingbird from your library. Right now. Actually, wait, because the second great Alabama author is coming up. So read the next paragraph so you can pick up both books. I saved you a trip!)
Future baby name: Atticus Scout
September: All Over But The Shoutin' by Rick Bragg
I swear, my people are in this novel. My mama swears it too. This memoir is a fantastic set of stories about Rick Bragg, NY Times writer who came from Backwoods, Alabama. He writes beautifully and truly. It is a very refreshing thing to read a book from a living author who has such a distinctive writing voice. I could pick him out a mile away.
Read his description of my home state:
"This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven."
I recently listened to someone slam Alabama for its drug problem and its inability to ever elect a reasonable official. I understand those problems, and I worry about them. I, however, know that country like Mr. Bragg knows it. I am fairly certain that stars are holes in the floor of heaven, and I that certainty comes from my grandmother having whispered it to me when I was tiny enough to sit in her lap. Alabama is backwards and wrong, but it is also true and pretty and real.
Future baby name: Ava
October: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I love teaching this novel. I love watching the same masculine faces that scrunch up in DISGUST at a GIRL'S BOOK twist into laughter when they realize that Austen is far more interested in making you laugh than making you swoon. Witty, biting, fresh, and the complete opposite of what you'd judge from its cover, this is a book for the ages. It always makes me laugh in a satisfied way.
Future baby name: Darcy
November: The Great Divorce by CS Lewis
My father, who is brilliant (but very kind about it) is at his best when he is teaching. He has taught many Sunday school classes in many churches throughout his life, and they are always provocative and interesting and generally fantastic. He is good about asking interesting theoretical questions that expose our shortcomings and inconsistencies. My father taught me to be humble about my faith and my salvation. The Great Divorce teaches me a similar lesson, that I am being prepared for heaven, that my God doesn't send people to hell, but that they refuse to prepare for eternity with him. It exposes our sinful natures as pitiful, small, and wretched compared to the glory that will be revealed in us. While even Lewis himself cautions readers that this book is entirely fictitious, the messages are true and important. Read it.
Future baby name: Clive
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
This book is edgy. It pushes the limits of faith. I imagine some would find parts of it silly, if not offensive. However, I read it for two reasons. One is purely indulgent: Donald is a phenomenal writer. He is simplistic but rich, unpredictable, and true. I envy his easy tone, his nimble ability with words. But this reason to read is simply self-coddling. What I love about Blue Like Jazz, and what I always forget about Blue Like Jazz, is the section on love as currency. It smacks me down like the hand of God every time. I am always convicted of my manipulation, my pride, my inability to give as I have received. The frigidity of winter melts away in the moments of warmth this book indicts me to create. I also love these lines:
"The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a music birthed out of freedom. and that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality. A music birthed out of freedom. Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands."
Future baby name: Penny
These are my twelve.