October 10, 2007

Required reading

What are the significant books in our lives, the ones that make a difference, the ones we would urge on our friends? I asked three writers to talk about books that have been important to them.

From Peter Jay Shippy (cq), who teaches at Emerson College (cq) and whose verse novel, How to Build the Ghost in Your Attic (cq) will be published in November by Rose Metal Press (cq), comes this story:

“On August 21st, my wife Charlotte gave birth to beautiful twin girls, Stella and Beatrix. We had each taken travel bags to the hospital, packed from lists provided by our obstetrician. My list was lean—change of clothes, toothbrush, a flask and abook. That last item required weeks of anxious deliberation. Should I bring my bootleg copy of Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson’s new novel, bought on eBay? Or perhaps a book from my fall classes at Emerson? Charles Simic’s Dime-Store Alchemy, our new poet laureate’s prose poems on Joseph Cornell’s magnetic, elusive boxes? Something for my children? Wittgenstein? Beckett? Just kidding? We just moved into a larger home, and for the first time I have a bookcase dedicated to poetry. No more must Robert Desnos rub spines with Don DeLillo! One day as I tried to stare the bookcase into submission, I was struck by the hold James Tate has on my collection. Tate has always meant the cosmos to me. His seminal first collection, The Lost Pilot, was the book that gave me permission to write poetry. These were not grandpa Thomas Stearns’ poems. They were fresh, irreverent, heart-broken, and funny. Poems could be funny? At 20, that was news to me. Life-changing news. So, for the hospital, I grabbed his 1997 collection, Shroud of the Gnome. The first poem? “Where Babies Come From:” “Many are from the Maldives, /southwest of India, and must begin/collecting shells immediately.” He concludes, “In their dreams Mama and Papa/are standing on the shore/for what seems like an eternity, /and it is almost always the wrong shore.” Almost always? Beatrix? Stella!”

Margot Livesey (cq), writer in residence at Emerson, author of novels including The House on Fortune Street (cq), due out next summer, says:

“I'd have to say Jane Eyre was a crucial book for me.  I first read it when I was about the same age that Jane is in the opening chapter --10 years old--and I felt immediately less alone in the world.  Here was someone who was having an even harder time than I was; the food was terrible at my school but at least we didn't have a typhus epidemic.  And then of course Jane grows up and meets Rochester.  The scene of her sitting on the stile at dusk and him riding over the frozen ground and falling at her feet is more vivid to me than many things that have happened in my own life.  I knew almost nothing about sex at the time that I first read the novel but I knew a great deal about passion.  And I understood at once how Jane feels recognized by Rochester.  Just as, later in the novel I understood, instinctively, why Jane shouldn't marry St. John.

As an adult I have re-read the novel a number of times--most recently last spring--and while I now hugely appreciate the artistry with which Bronte shaped the novel, and see many things in it that I entirely missed when I was 10, the main experience of reading is still an utter immersion in Jane's life and sensibility, and a passionate desire to see her triumph over adversity.”

Philip Hilts, whose most recent book is RX for Survival: Why We Mst Rise to the Global Health Challenge (cq), is struck by a book that finds parallels between 1915 and current world politics

“Muddy subjects can sometimes be made clear as running water by good writers. Globalization is one such subject and Niall Ferguson is the writer who, for me, brought clarity. Ferguson is usually counted as a conservative, and has some cranky attitudes, but he illuminates the big picture wonderfully. In The War of the World he makes it plain that we have been here before on globalization, and the last time we passed this way we botched it-:poor, insular, ignorant leadership led from a moment in 1915 when booming global trade and rising wealth made the future look bright. One terrorist attack, an overblown, misguided reaction, and soon nations that had been partners in progress were at war, in depression, then at war again. What the nations failed to do was cooperate for the common good. After WWII, leaders of several nations determined that cooperation was the better way. The United Nations, World Bank, and World Health Organization were all established and the Marshall Plan set the tone: we're all in this together, so let's build a functioning world system together. After some decades of success---though troubled to be sure--we are now slipping back toward that bad moment in 1915 when globalization collapsed. Again it is terrorism, a misguided, overblown reaction, and a broad failure to cooperate that risks all. Ferguson spells out most of this (though not the most recent troubles) in detail in a way I've not seen anywhere else. The book is too long so if you're in a hurry, read the riveting short version in his article “Sinking Globalization” in the March/April 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs. Pair this with the basic ideas in Jeffrey Sachs The End of Poverty, and/or Joseph Stiglitz's Making Globalization Work, and you've got the start of a plan! It would be what George Catlett Marshall would be thinking about if he were the general of the hour now instead of the lesser figures we see on TV now.”

 
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