Back when I was an English major and when I thought I might teach, I played a little game. I tried to come up with a list of 10 books I would use to teach students what I wanted them to know about life.
Some of the books talked about the relationship between the individual and society. The Catcher in the Rye was on the list, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Others dealt with our relationship with the earth. So I selected Black Elk Speaks and Moby-Dick and The Forest People. I’d waver on Teilhard de Chardin and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. Walden. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet has long been a perennial, personal favorite, and I happily rode along with Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and its discussion of values, humanity and the search for quality. And Report to Greco by Nikos Kazantzakis taught me life should be a pilgrim’s quest.
I always thought something by Steinbeck was in order. I’d have to teach To Kill a Mockingbird. The Great Gatsby. Maybe something by Hemingway or Willa Cather. The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris always intrigued me. The Razor’s Edge. The Plague by Camus presents a feast of questions facing the human race.
As a change of pace, dropped into the syllabus like vacation dates, I’d add little books with big truths. The Little Prince comes to mind, and Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. The Brothers Karamazov provides great truths, but it was always too much for me.
I never taught such a course, and I’ve never been in a book club, and I don’t read nearly as many books as I should. But I keep one by the bed and am always a reader in progress. I usually fall asleep before turning too many pages; I have been known to bail on a book when it doesn’t sustain my curiosity. Occasionally a book will take hold of me and not let go.
Typically I prefer fiction. I like good stories, with good narratives and appealing characters. But they need to deliver good weight, deal with the meaning of life or go after truth or take on God or grapple with what we’re all doing here, or should be doing. I need a payoff, a reward, a harvest of wisdom — but don’t want exhaustion en route.
One requirement for me is quality of writing. The craft. Vocabulary and voice and clarity of vision. The writer’s ability to tell a story, create vivid scenes and settings and authentic characters, to contemplate life with nuance and honesty, texture, truth and subtlety.
I want the writer to have done the work so the reader doesn’t need to. But I am not a snob.
I greatly enjoyed Never Cry Wolf and The Magus and Watership Down. I read The Color Purple and A Gathering of Old Men when reporting on the 20th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and its impact on my Louisiana hometown. I marveled at All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. I read lots of Anne Tyler, then lots of Walker Percy and Richard Russo and Pat Conroy.
Through the years — having also read great books whose titles now escape me — I rethink that hypothetical reading list for the class I’ll never teach. And what I’ve realized is how that list changes as the life journey takes us into new terrain.
Those books I wanted to teach 30, even 40 years ago were books that were right for my age and a college classroom. They were about finding one’s place in the world, and how we might take our values and truths with us as we try to fit in.
As I grew older, other voices resonated. Different narrators, characters and themes spoke to me, and I could hear their echoes inside of me. East of Eden, for example, nudged ahead of Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath as the Steinbeck selection. The unmoored and distantly introspective narrators of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter and Independence Day were good companions at a particular time in my life. Wallace Stegner and William Styron took me deeper into life lived longer. And even though Lonesome Dove was a cowboy Western, it carried truths of life and honor, integrity and the unspoken bonds between friends over a lifetime that helped me wrap my arms around companions real and intangible.
This idea came sharply into focus in recent months because I’ve read two books that felt like masterpieces to me — perhaps because I read them at the right time in my life. Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson are about simple men who have led simple lives in out-of-the-way places, and each is looking back on a lonesome life but one lived with goodness and heart, humility, grace and a pilgrim’s soul.
Each felt as rich as life itself, as good as any book I’ve read. If I were teaching a class, they’d for sure be on the syllabus.
Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.