Favorite Books

Now and then I’m asked to list my favorite authors and books. The answer’s always tricky because the list is quite long and, besides, often changes. To narrow it down for the most recent request (five favorite books for the Horizon Books website) I went to my bookshelves looking for the books that I’ve most often re-read. Immediately it became clear that they share certain qualities. They’re big. They’re complex. They’re original and daring. They impart a seemingly limitless store of learning. They’re bursting with love of life and language. Perhaps most tellingly, although they are not all novels they are all outstanding examples of the quality by which Jane Smiley defines a great novel: one that gives the reader “the feeling of abundance.” (This from an interview with Smiley in The Boston Globe, September 15, 2005.)

One surprise is that no books by women make the list. It turns out that favorite books and favorite authors are different categories. Authors I cherish for their humanity, the magnitude of their worldviews, their voices, their writerly gifts include Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf (and male authors such as Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Don DeLillo, Michael Ondaatje, Nicholson Baker, Evan S. Connell, Jose Saramago). Their bodies of work are essential to me. I read everything they’ve published, but  no single book makes my short-list of favorites.

Here, then, are the books I most often return to. That I would wish to have with me if I were shipwrecked alone on an island. That I can’t imagine living without.

(Oh, and I can’t make myself limit the list to five.)

1. Ulysses, James Joyce. Every reading is new. Surprises arrive on every page. And it is surely the wettest of the Great Books: “They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled…”

2. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow. My choice for the greatest American novel of the 20th century. Endlessly rewarding.

3. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee. I love the heartbreaking elegies, the mad (and sometimes maddening) rushes of language, the razorsharp portraits of people, the lists and inventories, the jazzlike riffs of philosophy that lift us from heartbreak to hope.

4. Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Refuses to stay on shelves. Must be anchored to the earth with cables.

5. The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. I sometimes think I’ll outgrow Hemingway. Hasn’t happened yet. Every time I read the stories my admiration deepens.

6. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. Creates not only the abundance feeling, but the feeling that you are inhabiting a whole world. Often I return to it just to savor the amazing hay-cutting scenes, where in losing himself in the work, Levin finds himself.

7. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville. The original Modernist novel, with natural history and fiction blended into a new genre entirely.

8. Walden, Henry David Thoreau. Who can resist the bold assertions, the wild rambles, the uninhibited proclamations of love for the earth? Even when wrong-headed and disingenuous, Henry was charming. My all-time favorite reading on snow days.

Now it’s your turn. Which books do you return to year after year? Which have most enriched your life?

5 thoughts on “BOUNTIFUL WORLD

  1. Pamela Grath

    ULYSSES and WALDEN (with you there)
    SHANTYBOAT, by Hubbard
    But who would want to stop at only five books?!

    Glad to have you back in the blogosphere, Jerry.

    1. Jerry Dennis Post author

      Thanks, Pam. Good to be back. Now I have to look into Shantyboat by Hubbard.

  2. Carol

    Congratulations on your new book! We were just camping in the Traverse area last week but had to return to real life on Saturday…we would have loved to have met you at Horizon. We will keep our eyes open for your book.
    The only book I reread is the Bible…the wisdom is needed on a daily basis : ) My friends know how much I love to read and just yesterday received two books from two different friends…I am blessed. There is never enough time to reread when there are wonderful new books piling up on my desk :) I love your choices though and may just go to my shelves and take time to extract a book or two that have become a little too comfortable resting there…
    Have fun at your book signing!

  3. Amy

    My mind turned immediately to a small book, written by a woman, that packs a BIG wallop — Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie. So much, so few pages!!

    And then I cast aside all the classic female writers (Austen, Elliot, Bronte, Gaskell), Poets (Emily Dickinson, my favorite), playwrights (Jane Bowles), those who have captured a time period (Mary McCarthy’s The Group or Alice Walker’s Color Purple or Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook), the entertainingly commercial female authors (Highsmith’s Ripley series or J.K. Rowling), a lot of GREAT current female authors (Erdich, Monk, this list is exhausting) … and I thought about the “tiny, small whispers” that totally have knocked me out in my lifetime:

    The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – again, absolutely.

    The Maytrees – Annie Dillard (Jerry – you love her as I recall. Have you read this gem?)

    Wuthering Heights – longer, but shorter than her sister Charlotte’s Jane E, so I’ve listed it.

    The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

    The Awakening – Chopin

    Gigi – almost anything by Colette, I’m a sucker for – her scenes are paintings of life

    To the Lighthouse – Woolfe is a master, of course, but this is such an economically powerful piece

    Heartburn – Ephron, despite being somewhat sentimental

    The Lover – Marguerite Duras

    Ethan Fromme – Edith Wharton

    Babette’s Feast – Karen Blixen (Isak Dineson?)

    Their Eyes are Watching God – not “tiny,” but mind-blowing & powerful. Likewise Little Women occurred to me, but that doesn’t really fit into my small-with-amazing-impact genre by women writers.

    Is it coincidental that these small incredibly evocative books all written by women? Are there male equivalents? Maybe Calvino or Levi?

    Interesting, Jerry. Can’t wait to read your new book.


  4. Jill

    Hello Jerry: When I saw in the October 2011, Ann Arbor Observer, an article about you (which was the first time I had heard of you), and your visit to Nicola’s Books, I felt a strong pull to seek out your writing. I felt some sort of eerie connection with you and thought if I got one of your books I might be able to figure it out. I chose “The Living Great Lakes,” due to living in Michigan, along with my sailing history.

    While I was waiting to get your book I grabbed one of my top 5 books, that I hadn’t read in awhile, from my carefully edited book collection. Lo and behold I saw that on the back of the book you had written one of those brief comment/review things. The book is Pete Fromm’s “Indian Creek Chronicles.” As with your writing, I felt a connection to Pete’s book, possibly due to we are all about the same age, and our love of the wild outdoors.

    I first heard about Pete Fromm, and “Indian Creek Chronicles” back in the early 90s when I stumbled onto a wonderful magazine “Big Sky Journal” (BSJ). Through this magazine I learned of many writers who became favorites.

    Through BSJ I discovered the author of what became one of my other top 5 books, “Winter” by Rick Bass. This was his first book. It is about journeys, raw wild nature, the beauty and awesomeness of snow & cold, and the richness of solitude (I’m no writer).

    I also enjoy Pam Houston’s “Cowboys are my Weakness.” I so envy her outdoorsy lifestyle, and her clear & concise way of writing. I realize that “Cowboys” is fiction but it seems to based Pam’s life.

    Dixie Franklin’s “Faces of Lake Superior” is about the wonderful & unusual people Dixie has met along the Lake Superior shore.

    “The Superior Peninsula” by Lon Emerick” I also treasure for his wonderful depictions of his lovingly thought of upper peninsula, especially the Marquette area. He was an NMU professor.

    I finally figured out the “eerie” connection I feel with you. I was at NMU the same time that you and your wife were. You mentioned in “The Living Great Lakes,” the winter up there of 1978/79 as being so brutally cold. Dixie Franklin in her above mentioned book writes about the tragedy that occurred that winter at the “Crying Cabin,” in Marquette. If you don’t recall the “Crying Cabin” and this incident you can seek out Dixie’s book.

    Marquette is still my favorite place in the world. My husband and I are heading there this weekend. I hope to sometime meet you and your wife. I just got off the phone with my closest friend, who was also my NMU roommate, telling her about you, and we are going to try and get our other NMU friend and all come and see you at your Ann Arbor library event.

    Best of everything to you and your family. I look forward to reading more of your work.


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