A couple weeks ago, I received this note from one of my students:
Professor, I mentioned the idea of getting your recommendation for five of your favorite books that I need to read before I die. I know you are most likely slammed with reading and grading so take your time, but let me know when you can so I can get to work as soon as possible while I still have time over break. Thanks so much.
Five favorite books. Books that he needs to read. Books that he shouldn’t miss before he dies. Books he can start working on right now, over break. I totally failed to answer his question. But here is what I said:
Great question, Scott. There are lots of great books, of course, and it seems to me that which ones are indispensable depends a lot on the person. And probably the season of your life: there are books that aren’t necessarily great, but I read them at just the right time and they made all the difference.
One of the books that really rocked my world is Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. I don’t know that it would impact most folks like it impacted me. It took a lot of stuff I knew and made it seem very specific and practical. Another author that I think about nearly every day is Malcolm Gladwell, especially his book Outliers. I’m about half way through his latest book, David and Goliath, and it’s amazing. Not a classic, but it makes so much sense of so many things I’ve wonder about. These books have changed the trajectory of my life and continue to influence my thinking constantly.
I love everything written by Henri Nouwen, especially The Wounded Healer and Can You Drink the Cup? And C. S. Lewis, of course: the second half of Mere Christianity, and the essays in Weight of Glory in particular.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is on my list, for a lot of reasons. It is saturated with goodness, in fact, it is almost a parable of what it means to live well. It also shows the beauty of language and the power of human imagination, better than any other artifact I know.
There is not much fiction on my list. I read very little fiction, really. But there are some novels that I’m crazy about: Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Card’s Ender’s Game. And kid’s books, too, especially The Little Prince, Where the Wild Things Are, Little House on the Prairie.
And then there are favorite plays: Sophocles’ Antigone, and the musical Les Miserables.
And poems: William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins.
Some critics say that if you want to know everything about this life, you should read Shakespeare, and if you want to know everything about the next life, you should read Dante. It’s hard to argue with that.
What are five books you should read before you die? I don’t know the answer to that. But I’d say this: keep reading, keep asking for recommendations, keep enjoying what you read, keep returning to and re-reading and re-rereading he books you really like. And this: make sure you don’t limit yourself to one genre, time period, place, or intended audience.
And when you have a minute, write me back and tell me what you’ve read, and what you think of it.
with all good wishes,
There are lots of problems with a note like that, of course. For me, the biggest one is that the minute I push SEND, a dozen other book titles come flying into my head and I can’t believe I didn’t list them instead.