I read. A lot. I imagine that it comes as no real surprise. As a writer I am also an avid reader. I go through about a book a week, though it has slowed down considerably with the writing, working, and cycling I try to fit into my life now. Reading is still my favorite pastime. Nothing else helps fire my imagination or gives me perspective on life like reading a good book. I tend to read authors that have some degree of social commentary in their work, even if it is not immediately obvious. I enjoy watching writers make their point through the story and not beat you over the head with what they want you to think. I like watching a craftsman work, one that can lead you down the path of how they came to their point of view and hope that you get there as well. The absolute best can do this without you even realizing there was a point to the story until you think about it after finishing. They can craft amazing stories that you can read for entertainment, whether or not you learn anything along the way. They make me laugh, they wrap me into the story and characters, and then at the end I can spend some time thinking about their themes and see if they have changed the way I think about life.
People ask me for suggestions about what they should read next. I often just tell them whatever it is that I am reading at the time if I am enjoying it. It is hard to narrow suggestions down past genre or topic. I also get asked who my favorite authors are and this question is much easier. Terry Pratchett, Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, Rick Riordan, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King are among my absolute favorites. I can’t think of a bad book among their collected works. To be fair, that is a partial list at best and there is a reason that each of those names are best-selling authors. They are also the one that are top of mind because they are the ones that I have read recently. I can’t make any list without Hemmingway, Salinger, Vonnegut, Mark Twain, and others. All of these could be considered my favorite author at some point in time, or even some point in the year depending on what I have read recently.
The easiest question of all to answer is what is my favorite book? It is none of the books by any of the authors listed above. It should be a harder question in some ways. I just did some quick math and if you take the combined works of just the first group of authors there are well over one hundred titles. I read 40-50 books a year. The sheer volume should make my favorite work hard to name. If I don’t think too hard when asked I might name one of the books by any of the other authors, but just a little thought will bring me back to my favorite every time. The Once and Future King by T.H. White has always been my favorite from the moment I first read it 26 years ago to the present. It is the story of King Arthur, from his first meeting as a boy with Merlyn through his death. I started rereading it recently for a project that I am working on. I am going to write a series of articles on books that you should have written. I wanted to reread and write a review on some of the classic literature that we should have read in high school. Books that influence culture and that society will assume that any educated person will have read, but that a shocking number of people haven’t. I wanted to start with my all-time favorite book and proceed on from there. If I am going to take the time to read the books and write about them, I really want to enjoy each one, because I am a little selfish like that.
The amazing thing about The Once and Future King (TOAFK) is that every time I read it I identify with a new part of the story. The scope of work is so huge, a man’s entire life, that there is always a point in your life where you will find the characters reflecting you. I first found the book because I was always asking the librarian what to read. I was a 12 year old terror to her, I am sure. I would come storming in after school and beg her for new suggestions. She would always ask what I was interested in and what I was watching on television. She was a saint among the stacks. I mentioned a Disney movie I had seen, The Sword in the Stone. Her eyes lit up and she showed me TOAFK. She said that the first book was the inspiration for the movie and the rest of the book was filled with knights, battles, magic, and chivalry. I checked it out and I have been rereading it ever since. The first book of the collection is indeed The Sword in the Stone. Merlyn is found and he changes Wart into many animals. The story is told on two levels with most of the animal scenes heavily illustrating three of the central themes of the book. The twelve year old me loved the first book, dreaming of the animals I would become if given the chance. I loved the adventures that Wart went on and identified with him. I felt satisfied when he went from living in his step brother’s shadow to the new King of England. The best part of this book is that it is written with a bit of childhood innocence that is reflected in the characters. Even the adults seem to have a certain innocence about them that they lose as the story progresses.
The second book shows Arthur applying his lessons he learned from the animals. It also introduces his main protagonists, the Orkney Clan. Most of the Orkney boys will become knights, but they will also be central in Arthur’s tragedy. Arthur is grown and establishes his realm against a feudal uprising of northern lords. The Orkney boys come of age and the story of Mordred’s birth is told. The twenty-something me loved this part of the story because Arthur had the courage and ability to change the world. We all think we can change the world in our twenties, but Arthur did. I always drew some strength and comfort from his success. I felt like all I had to do was believe in what I was doing and it might just work out in the end. He also rages against fate and destiny in this book, trying to get Merlyn to fight against his coming captivity. He acts just like a typical mid-twenties male. He is thoughtful and moral, and he believes that this is enough to survive the world.
The third book is the tale of Lancelot. The story paints him as the ill made knight. Physically ugly but unsurpassed in combat, he becomes the ideal knight. Lancelot believes completely in chivalry and King Arthur’s new rule of law. He travels to Camelot and becomes Arthur’s favorite knight as well as best friend. I think we have all felt ill made from time to time. As someone who has stood well over six feet tall from the fifth grade I think I have always felt that way. I always looked different and that is okay, but hard to explain to a child that was a foot taller than any of his classmates. It didn’t help that I was also a big kid. Regular readers will know my struggles to lose weight and that didn’t start in middle age. I could feel every ounce of Lancelot’s pain as he moved through the story. I also felt his joy. Lancelot overcomes everything to be the ideal knight. What else could the reader do but push through whatever pain they have to persevere? It is a lesson that I find myself needed from time to time in life.
The final book in the collection deals with the tragedy. Camelot must come to its inevitable end. The cruel beauty of the story is that everyone has been trapped by their own character from the beginning. Arthur will always be the noble and trusting soul that he is. He created many of the laws that will force his hand and cannot break his own laws just because he has the Might to do so. Lancelot has one tragic weakness and that causes his betrayal of his best friend. The Orkney’s are still a slave to their upbringing and familial ties. They must hate Arthur as a king no matter how much they have come to love him as a man. Mordred hates his father and must act against him. The tale will never change, but what makes it worth the read is the craftsmanship of White, showing that the characters are human and they have been bound into their actions by who they are, not because the story has to end in the way that it does. The middle aged man that I have become is falling in love with this book, not because of the ending, but in spite of it. There is much good left in Camelot throughout the book and much is accomplished. Arthur grows old with dignity and never gives up his dream. Those around him love him despite what is happening. There is hope left among the ruins of the ending as we are reminded why the book is called The Once and Future King. Hope is all that’s left, but it’s enough at the end.
While this isn’t meant to be a book review I feel like I would be selling the work short without talking about the themes. They are a large part of why it is my favorite book. White wrote much of the story during World War Two. He gives voice to his hatred of the Nazi Party through some of Merlyn’s anachronisms. White wanted to write the story partially to explain his conscientious objector role in the war, and to show how he could hate Hitler and his war without directly fighting it. The first theme and the central tenant of the book is Might does not make Right. Arthur struggles with Might throughout the story, fighting against it, trying to channel it, and then trying to regulate it. He eventually establishes the rule of law to supplant the rule of the fist. White uses some of the animals to push home his anti-communism thoughts, particularly with the warlike group think ants. The whole section is an indictment of the communist system. There is another section when young Wart becomes a goose and that is the beginning of the pacifist ideal that White weaves into the story. Later in the second book Merlyn is talking to Arthur about why you should, if ever, fight a war. He asks if it is ever even necessary. There is also a direct parable to Hitler and the difference between how Hitler tried to reform the world versus the way that Jesus did. I might not agree with every lesson or theme, but I can remember that this is the first book I ever read that I consciously understood why the author wrote what he did and that the author was trying to teach the reader something important. That was mind blowing for a twelve year old boy.
Now that I have talked endlessly about my favorite book, what is yours?
I wish I had an answer for your question, but I am one of those bibliophiles that has a really difficult time choosing.
I love this line: “She was a saint among the stacks.” I had a local librarian like that growing up, too, and it seems that she inspired me in much the same way that yours did you. I felt that there was something magical about her just in her book knowledge. Book knowledge that I wanted to have, too. I’m still striving to catch up to her.
Friends’ reading lists have been on my mind, as in, what are the favorite novels of my friends? So, I got insight on you…Soon, I may be compelled to write my own book-related post. It just seems natural as a writer and reader to do so.
This post left me with an overall sense of understanding, of head-nodding, of feeling like you were saying some of what I think about reading.
I had this idea percolating for quite a while. It was almost one that I was holding back for a week that I needed something quick and inspiration was low. I don’t write ahead anywhere near enough, but I do try to think ahead, if that makes sense.
I often have the same trouble, and try to combat it a little by thinking ahead. Sometimes, if I think of a topic I want to write about, I start a draft for it. Because of that — banking drafts — I actually have most of November figured out. A first month for this!
Great post, Joe! It sounds like writing this was effortless, like your fingers were struggling to keep up with the thoughts coming out of your head.
I enjoy reading, but not quite as much as you. I struggle to find the time to read and only get through 5-10 books a year lately. I always struggle with the question of “what is your favorite book?” Or favorite anything.
I like books that change the way I think, that go against the grain. I think Freakonomics is my favorite for that. It’s an economist’s view of some very interesting questions. They use real data to answer questions. Things like, can you really get rich as a drug dealer?
Another great book that I loved is Moneyball. That one changed the whole way that baseball GMs put value on a player. Instead of looking at the old stats of HR, RBI, and Avg, they looked at On-Base Percentage. It sounds so out of the box at first, but it really works. Get on base more, score more runs, and win more games. How simple?! I can’t believe no one did that before the Oakland A’s made it work.
Anyway, great post. You should do another post with your favorite books list, or favorites of 2013. You’ve got great insight.
Thanks Brian! I am thinking about writing more about books for a friends web site. I might do some more here as well. I like your idea about a best of 2013. think I need to read Freakonomics. A lot of people have been talking about it recently, that is always one way I chose a new book.