Some Thoughts on Books that Matter

*brushes off dust*

Oh, right, I have a blog.

In the wake of the holidays, my attention was hogged by these pesky things called assessments.  You know, the academic sort with deadlines that really matter.  The stuff that will determine whether I receive a piece of paper that says MA on it.  Yeah, those things.

But I’m back.  I’ve emerged from my cave and I have something I want to talk about.

This is a topic I touched on in December, which featured three posts about books.  (In order: A Year in BooksOn Xs and Ys, Chromosomes That Is, and Top Five Books of 2015.)  I talked about writers that had influenced me and books that had stuck with me and how these things aren’t the same.

If you remember (Okay, you don’t.  Fine.), I was struck by a moment of anxiety over the fact that my Books-That-Have-Stuck-With-Me list is short.  Really short.  As in six books long.  6.  And when it came to two of those six, I debated long and hard about whether their existence on the list was valid.

I know a lot of people out there could list books for days when asked to name the ones that mattered most.  Seriously, go check Goodreads and you’ll find people with upwards of 50 or 60 books making their cut.

I find this hard to comprehend, but I don’t judge.  In some ways, I even think I might be a smidge jealous.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to have 60 books making that kind of impact?  Obviously we can’t make comparisons or conclusions.  This is way up there on the-most-subjective-things-ever ladder.  But it makes me curious.

How do books qualify for this kind of status?

Why are some lists much shorter than others?  Or maybe, why are some so long?

Someone somewhere could probably do something science-y to answer these questions but that person is not me.  I can only attempt to give you the answers to these questions as they pertain to me.

Let’s begin with the stickiest of sticky books on my sticky book list.

That’s The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and I will always and forever list it first when someone asks me this question.

I couldn’t tell you everything about it.  I don’t have it memorized.  I haven’t deciphered the meaning behind all of it.  In fact, I’ve only read it once.  But it is without doubt the best example for me personally of a sticky book and I think I know why:

I had never read that kind of story and I had never read any story of any kind told in that way.

I mean, that’s a pretty powerful combo.

So clearly this book’s place on my sticky list has something to do with timing.  I read it when I was 16 and it was completely and entirely unlike anything I knew.  It was the right book at the right time.

But this sticky factor cannot be applied universally to my list.

Take, for instance, The Iliad, which, after The Things They Carried, found its place on my list very naturally and without trouble.

I’ve read The Iliad at least three times.  Twice for academic purposes, once for fun.  I think timing has nothing to do with its place on my list.  Rather, it is a book, a story, that simply speaks to me.  It touches all the right buttons: mythology, epic-ness, visceral, rich language.  Those epithets!  Those high-hearted Achaeans!  All that gleaming bronze!  Unlike The Things They Carried, I was meant for The Iliad and it was meant for me.

And as for why my sticky list is so short?  I think it has something to do with how intense my feelings for The Things They Carried are.  Not a lot of books, if any, can compete with the powerful mixture of story and writing and timing that put The Things They Carried on my list.  If I hold it up as my #1 sticky book, many books, in comparison, no matter how enjoyable, will not measure up.  That’s not their fault and it’s not my fault, it just is.  If my standards were different, if I had never read The Things They Carried, my #1 would be The Iliad and my sticky list might be a lot longer.

I could go on in this vein and explain away each book I listed on my sticky list, but instead I want to veer off course and talk about a book that didn’t make the list, that maybe should have, and that is perhaps the slowest burning relationship I’ve ever had with a book.

I first read Macbeth when I was about 17.  I hated it.

I mean it.  I railed against it.  Macbeth was stupid, Lady Macbeth was annoying, and I’m pretty sure I vowed never to crack its spine again.

Imagine my chagrin when, freshman year of college, Macbeth was on the list for the Shakespeare class I had chosen.  (I know, I know, I should not have been surprised….)  And so I read it for the second time and my initial feelings held, though I think I tolerated it better being slightly older and wiser.

Macbeth cropped up for the third time three years later in another college class and something changed.  Transformed.  I don’t really know what happened, but suddenly Macbeth began to speak to me.  Quietly, at first.  It seeped into me, taking root while I simply wrote a paper and moved on.

Macbeth slumbered in me for about 8 years and during that time I warmed to it.  Without intent, without purpose, I became fond of it, of the thought of it, and I couldn’t tell you why.  I’m perfectly willing to admit that I now possess a serious, unflinching adoration for the Scottish play.  And I also know that part of that has to do with the film adaptation that came out last October.

As I sat in that movie theater, it was as though I was seeing Macbeth exactly as it should be, as I had always wanted it to be, needed it to be, but couldn’t quite create on my own.  Love it or hate, I don’t think any viewer could deny that the movie was breathtakingly atmospheric.  It was gorgeous, it was deadly, it was riveting.  It was only after it ended and I let out a deep, lung-stretching breath that I realized the extent of its intensity.

Hang on a minute, you say.  That’s a movie.  Made from a play.  What does that have to do with sticky books?  Isn’t it unfair to the other books that are merely books on the list?

Macbeth was always meant to be seen and heard and experienced, not read in a dorm room and examined in a paper written for a professor who has read one too many papers on it.  And if any work by Shakespeare was meant for the big screen, for cinematic rendering, it was this one.

I think I always wanted to like Macbeth and perhaps it was this that made me dislike it so much initially.  It has Scottish moors and witches and warriors and conspiracy; I should have loved it from the start.  Seeing the film, seeing Macbeth unleashed, made the promise of the page, of the words, complete.  It made me want to read it again, to read it and see it again in my mind’s eye.

My journey with Macbeth has been decidedly different from the journeys I had with The Things They Carried and with The Iliad.  But I don’t think it’s any less valid, certainly not because it incorporated a visual story as well as a written one.  Ultimately, a book is a story, and the stickiness of that story has nothing to do with how it got there, just that it is there.


All hail Macbeth….

Welcome to the sticky club, dude.

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