Ten Most Influential Books

William Blake's Jerusalem

Frontispiece from 'Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion' (1804-1820) by William Blake.

My friend Tim, on his blog, burns the “Ten Most Influential Books” internet meme flame and asks what are yours? As he notes, “influential” is a slippery word shooting over every which way. His post got me thinking (as he inteneded), but rather than clog up his blog comments as I usually do, I dashed off a list here.

And man do I feel like a snob, a poser, someone Salinger would bludgeon with a tire iron if he could. But there you have it. And the more I think about the list, the more I go “oh, wait, no that’s not right.” but then I felt like the first instinct should serve.

In order to lessen the self-disgust I feel at my own pretension, I’ve included commentary (because pontificating on classics is so much less pretentious….)

The list in no particular order (and I’ll amend the meme to include 10 texts—some shorter than a “book”) with prodigious links:

John Milton: Paradise Lost (though Lycidas was my first Miltonic poetic love, Paradise Lost freaked me out and gave me my first Ph.D. dissertation topic. The first of many.)

Virgil: The Aeneid (I spent every day one summer working with my Latin tutor to translate this one. The text still astounds me in its subversive brilliance.)

John Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn (I love this poem for the simple reason that I was assigned Keats by my graduate advisor just after Grace was born and, while Sara went off to work, I read my assignments aloud to Grace. And Keats made her giggle. She’d sit up, smile, listen, and giggle. If you shut off the words and just listen to the music of Keats, you’ll know why. I often find myself mumbling the opening: “Thous still unravish’d bridge of quietness / Thou foster-child of Silence and slow time” –perhaps my favorite spondee in the English language. Ruth giggled mostly to The Doors “Riders on the Storm.” One will write lyrics the other the melody.)

T.S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (Like many, this was the first poem I ever memorized. I have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with Eliot but this one still rings in my head and the closing stanza stills moves me, partly because of the echo of the sirens used in Homer and Virgil.)

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (I love Fielding, love his parody of Richardson, love his public life, love the novel. In many ways a forerunner for the next few texts.)

Here begins the “Big Ass Books” section, or the “Postmodern Enclyclopedic Novel” section
Willaim Gaddis: The Recognitions (The guy wrote five novels, two which won National Book Awards. He also garnered a MacArthur Genius Grant, and a slew of other awards. I’d never heard of him when I picked up The Recognitions, but have never forgotten this novel or any of the Gaddis subsequently read.)

Don Dellilo: Underworld (On a series of flights and connections lasting 30+ hours between Montana and Singapore where I was stuck in the middle row in the back for 18 hours, the only thing I remember was starting and finishing this novel and being so engrossed I don’t recall much else. For someone who spent much of his time in older works, this pulled me back into contemporary fiction).

David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest (this one deserves a long, thoughtful post of its own, but for a shorter take, see here)

William Blake: Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (This too produced a Ph.D. dissertation prospectus. A brilliant professor of mine commented on it with this: “reading Jerusalem is like your second shot of heroin. You realize two things immediately: one, it’s so indescribable and weird that you’re hooked and two, you realize you’ve flushed your life away.” This one never got done either.)

Stuart Dybek: The Coast of Chicago (“Chopin in Winter” blew my mind the first time I read it. So did the stories “Blight” and “Pet Milk.” I single this book out but any Dybek would fit. I re-read them regularly. I love “Lunch at the Loyola Arms” from his recent collection.)

that’s ten, but because it’s my blog damnit, a few more:
David Means: Assorted Fire Events

A few works of theory:
Slavoj Zizek: Plague of Fantasies (can’t read this blog without seeing this pop up everywhere)

Victor Burgin: In/Different Spaces

Sigmund Freud: Interpretation of Dreams (its status as a cultural landmark means we all think we know what this one says without reading it. I thank the professor who forced me to read it.)

Peter Stallybrass and Allon White: Politics and Poetics of Transgression (This was one that I was asked to cover during the written exam portion of my master’s, in a question relating to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and have loved the work ever since.)