I’m not much of a fan of re-reading, possibly because, as a holdover from childhood, I tend to read for story. Once I’ve heard it, I’ve heard it. So I was surprised, while writing this post, to realize there are books I do find myself revisiting from time to time. Which, over a span of 50 reading years, is getting to be an awful lot of times. Mostly they’re collections of stories and poems. It’s as if the musical part of my writing brain has struck a deal with the bossy narrative part. OK, you got your story. So now can I hear it again, just for the music? And like half of a long-married couple, the impatient, let’s-get-on-with-it narrative side says, Oh alright. Wake me when you’re done.
Here, then, are the top five books I never get tired of.
I was a kid in 1960 when the 26-year-old Roth won the National Book Award for this collection, his debut. At the time, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the contents, but when I devoured these stories in high school, lifting the book off a readerly aunt’s shelf, they knocked my knee socks off. Last year, I taught selections to a crop of students who’d never read Roth. How great to see their socks get knocked off too.
Who wouldn’t love this dialogue, from “Eli, The Fanatic”?:
“It’s a matter of zoning,” [said Eli, a lawyer sent by his fellow suburban Jews to get rid of a yeshiva filled with embarrassing postwar refugees that has set up shop in town.]“We didn’t make the laws…”
“But you respect them.”
“They protect us…the community.”
“The law is the law,” Tzuref said.
“And then of course”—Tzuref made a pair of scales in the air with his hands—“The law is not the law. When is the law that is not the law the law?” He jiggled the scales. “And vice versa.”
Malamud, who died in 1986, won praise for both novels and stories (his collection, The Magic Barrel, won the National Book Award in 1959), but it’s the longer works he’s mostly remembered for. Which is a shame because his short fiction is as masterful as anyone’s. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Flannery O’Connor—not known for false modesty—on Malamud: “I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself.” I’ve sometimes wondered if Malamud’s star dimmed when minimalist, take-place-nowhere stories began to dominate the American literary landscape, and critics who seemed almost pathologically averse to expressions of emotion found Malamud’s tormented, long-suffering souls—so many of them Job, recast—too much to take. Luckily for readers, Malamud’s work is showing up on college curricula. And lucky for writers, who can dip anywhere into Malamud’s prose and extract pearls. Here are the opening lines of “Idiots First,” a story in which Man pleads with a cruel and unmerciful God. Every time I finish this story, I don’t feel as if I’ve merely read the Old Testament; I feel as if I was just living inside it.
The thick ticking of the tin clock stopped. Mendel, dozing in the dark, awoke in fright. The pain returned as he listened. He drew on his cold embittered clothing, and wasted minutes sitting at the edge of the bed.
Call me sentimental or hopelessly New England, but everyone knows that’s a surface assessment. Because all literary folks know that Frost is as deep and dark as his snowy woods, only they don’t tell you that in ninth grade when “The Road Not Taken” is taught as an exhortation to withstand peer pressure and trotted out again at graduation to encourage seniors heading to college to major in what they love instead of what their parents want. What high schooler truly understands regret? The nuances of free will? But I’m not faulting anyone, because as long as every young person in America (and, I’ve discovered while teaching overseas, a fair number in the developed world) is introduced to Frost’s poetry, I don’t care how they get it.
Here are the opening lines of “Mending Wall,” in which Frost gives us the smug justifications for boundaries that keep us irreparably and irrevocably apart. Two years ago, I taught this poem at a teacher’s college in Jerusalem, where the issue of a separation wall is neither abstract nor quaint.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
There’s a story behind this choice. The short version is that Ginsberg was my father’s second cousin, related to Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi. We had a slim volume of poems by Louis Ginsberg, Allen’s father, on our bookshelf; my father knew all the relatives mentioned in “Howl” and “Kaddish.” I met Ginsberg only once, when he performed chants at the Westbury Music Fair. I was an awkward and awed teenager. My father brought him a pastrami sandwich after the show at his request, which surprised me. I thought he was a Buddhist and therefore must be vegetarian. Because of the family connection, I memorized portions of “Howl” as soon as I was old enough. I still love it. One of my biggest regrets is that, as an adult, I didn’t seek out Ginsberg before he died. Everyone says he was a warm and generous man.
From the beginning of “Howl”:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the
starry dynamo in the machinery of night…
Narrative, high drama, music: they’ve got it all. How many times have I read aloud portions of “Macbeth” to no one in particular? “Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” When searching for a title for my novel, Wherever You Go, set in Israel and about Jewish extremists amid the Arab-Israeli conflict, I read every one of the tragedies over a weekend. I ended up finding a title from the biblical book of Ruth. But I took this line from Macbeth as an epigraph: “Alas, poor country! Almost afraid to know itself.”