A Prefatory Preamble to an Introduction to . . . Five Books

All college subjects offer their majors a few tricks. Math majors, for example, in addition to understanding the significance, if any, of Fibonacci’s Number, learn to quickly multiply any number by four—simply double it and double it again. Ornithology majors learn to tell immediately if a bird has rabies—it doesn’t: birds don’t get rabies. History majors with a minor in futurology can prognose whether a civilization will collapse. It will. They all do.

As an English major, I learned how to do well on essay tests. One simply rewrites the essay question in a way that plays to one’s strengths and away from one’s, errrr, weaknesses. For example, in studying Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own,” a student might be assigned a question like:

“Does Woolf consider poems or novels superior? Explain.”

Not having read the work in question, an honors English student will immediately manufacture:

“As Yeats told us, ’The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity.” Although Virginia Woolf wrote 10 years later and a country away, her essay draws upon the wisdom of ‘The Second Coming’ . . .”

This opening immediately impresses the professor reading it, for all English professors who have been doctratized in the last half century believe W.B. Yeats’ 22-line, two-stanza poem is the supreme literary achievement in human history. A reference to it earns any writer a B+ at the very least. In fact, a case can be made that understanding (or simply memorizing) Yeats’ poem should be enough to be awarded a B.A. in English.

(An aside, as an older man, attending undergraduate school during the Reagan administration, many of my professors had not gotten the Modern Language Association memo on “The Second Coming.” For those older scholars, I had to pull the bait and switch with “The Wasteland.”  My favorite lines to quote were: “twit twit twit/jug jug jug jug jug jug.” Look it up.)

All this introduction is a preface to a further introduction. John Warnke, my childhood friend, and I have reconnected. In a column last week, I betrayed John’s childhood faith in me and revealed his love for Cindy Bechtell, from whom neither of us has heard in 45 years. John, more properly Lieutenant Colonel John Warnke, USA, Retired, tracked me down with, I suspect, the intention of wreaking vengeance for my actions. Then, luckily for me, he got distracted and we swapped stories about life and families and work.

Now that John has been introduced, our foreword is nearly complete. Nearly, because John sent me an email that referred to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, a book he’s recommended and that I’ve just ordered. At the tail end of his message, John said:

“It’s one of the books on my shelf of 5 books if I ever have to hop in a spacecapsule or boat to escape some earthly calamity and can bring only 5 books with me.   Which leads to …. What 5 books would you bring ?”

That’s a hard question, John. Did I tell you I was an English major?

Chapter One

A friend wrote me recently asking me which five books I’ve reread most as an adult, a fair question that asks for no explanation of quality or reasons for inclusion. The five books I’ve found myself returning to over and over are, obviously, readable, but they also have enough meat on the bone that I always find something new to gnaw over. Just as Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a better work of art, but nowhere near as damnably hummable as the score to The Music Man, so are any number of novels better than those below. Still, they are brainworms that will infect you.

Number one on the list is not on the list, because it would take up 80% of the space there: the four volumes of George Orwell’s collected essays, columns and other non-fiction. Instead, in no particular order, here are my five most reread books:

A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller

The Great Gatsby by F. Scot Fitzgerald

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

I’d advise you to buy these in hardcover if available. Otherwise, purchase multiple copies the first time.


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