I came across one of those listicles this morning where 12 authors gave thanks for a book and really liked that idea a lot, but I couldn’t come up with just one book. The more I thought about it, the more books I came up with, some for personal reasons; others have been important professionally. But the thing is, when you are a professional reader, which I am, that line between the personal and the profession often blurs.
In any event, I decided to make a list of my own.
The Waste Land (T. S. Eliot) It’s hard to overestimate the effect that Eliot’s poem has had on my life. I can remember being introduced to it as an undergraduate. I was taking an honors seminar on Noise (the title was more interesting than that, but I don’t remember exactly what it was). The class was exploring different ways to think about noise and sound and meaning. As a music major, this interested me. Little did I know that classically trained music major me was about to have her neatly logical world spun off (the course would also introduce me to literary theory for the first time). We talked about post-modernism and jazz and somewhere in there, The Waste Land fit in. I didn’t understand much of it. I didn’t really understand much of anything in that class, as it turned out, but I really liked the discussions just the same. In many ways, my life has been a series of returns to The Waste Land. I encountered it again in graduate school at Penn State with a professor who would become my mentor and close friend, and then again when I got to UCLA and was asked to be the graduate research assistant for another professor, who would ultimately become my advisor, Michael North. That project was the Norton Critical Edition of Eliot’s poem. Perhaps it was only fitting then that The Waste Land would be the subject of the first chapter of my dissertation, and it’s a poem that I enjoy teaching whenever I get the opportunity. I still don’t understand all of it. But then, I’m pretty sure that understanding all of it is beside the point.
Paterson (William Carlos Williams) Another poem that has opened doors for me both personally and professionally. I encountered this poem for the first time in grad school. I was sitting in on a class on the Modernist Long Poem with my director–mostly because I figured that if I didn’t, I’d never make it all the way through The Cantos on my own. My dissertation was imploding, which is to say that many of the primary texts I had planned to write about became less relevant, the more I wrote about The Waste Land. I remember going to a meeting with my advisor during the weeks that we were reading Williams, and I remember him saying to me in that meeting, “You know, maybe you should write about Williams.” I had been thinking the same thing but in a much more vague and unspecific way, and when he mentioned Williams, it was as if I had been expecting it all along. As a result, I not only wrote about Williams for my dissertation, but I also went to my first Williams conference and met several people who would become both good friends and important mentors. It also would lead eventually to a run of MLA panels and service for the Williams Society.
House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) When I was asked to switch TA assignments right before the term began, I had never heard of any of the novels on the syllabus, but I really liked the professor (Kate Hayles), and I didn’t mind the last minute shuffle. Little did I know that HoL, would not only become one of my “Desert Island Novels,” but that it would become a cornerstone in my teaching career. Part noir, part Gen-X angst-fest, part theoretical engagement, part mind-fuck, this book is one that readers either love or hate. You can guess which camp I fall into.
A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving) One of my most favorite novels of all time.
Pretty much everything that Stephen King has written though some more than others. Especially, 11/22/63, Revival, It, and everything to do with The Dark Tower including The Talisman, and Salem’s Lot.
[Creative Commons licensed image by Flickr user Longborough Library]