Literary Website of the Month

For a timeless perspective on the love of books, read The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury, written in 1345. It was said of de Bury, the Bishop of Durham, "that he had more books, as was commonly reported, than all the other English bishops put together. He had a separate library in each of his residences, and wherever he was residing, so many books lay about his bed-chamber, that it was hardly possible to stand or move without treading upon them."

The Philobiblon of Richard de Bury.


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For the Love of Books

A monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why most of us are involved in it. This month's column looks at the difficulty of having to choose just three books for grown-up Show & Tell.

I host a monthly salon for writers, artists, and other creative people. Prompted by a painting project in my library, which involved removing and then reshelving about a thousand books, I set this month's topic for everyone to pick three of their own books for show and tell. As soon as the invitations hit the street, I began to get calls, questions and whining. Do you mean our three favorite books of all times? Or just this year's crop? Fiction only? There's no way I can pick just three!

How to choose? There are the books that influenced us as children, when we were first becoming readers-The Secret Garden, perhaps, or Harold and the Purple Crayon. Or, to go even further back, the first books we had read to us, the books where we worked out letters and sounds, where we memorized the stories and traced the illustrations with loving fingers. Once we were confirmed readers, there were the juvenile classics: Heidi, the Bobsey Twins and Nancy Drew, Tom Sawyer and the Hardy Boys.

Sometime in our early teens we discovered the novelists. Until I read Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again I had not realized that books were actually written by someone who sat down at a desk and made up stories from thin air, writing them out on a lined tablet or typed them on a manual typewriter. As those long, dull summer vacations of adolescence passed, I read The Great Gatsby, An American Tragedy, A Farewell to Arms with a newfound respect for the craft.

Often, the memory of reading and the activities of my life are inexorably intertwined: curling up in the porch swing on a rainy summer afternoon with W. Somerset Maugham [there's a novelist's name if ever there was one!], scratching at my chicken pox and weeping as sweet Beth lay dying in Little Women.

We can mark our progress through school by the books we read and reported on-Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath. In ninth grade, Helene Rice Davis awakened our sense of drama with her flowing capes and intense renditions of King Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table.

We fumbled our way into carnal knowledge via Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth [page 42 described an exposed breast] and Lady Chatterly's Lover [never on any school reading list but found inside my parents night stand]. The junior high literati soon transmitted the steamy page numbers like a football countdown-33, 47, 52, score.

Then there were the seminal ones that influenced us as teens, as we were taking our first tentative steps toward thought independent of our parents, our teachers, priests and scout leaders: The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Walden, Leaves of Grass, the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

Sometime toward the end of adolescence we discovered books that showed us possibilities of life that we hadn't dreamed of-Marshall McLuhan, for example, or Ram Dass-or opened up world we had never seen-Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man or James Baldwin's Another Country.

For those of us who majored in the love of books, the poets showed us what language could do-e.e. cummings laying words down on the page as deliberately as brush strokes, Allen Ginsberg fashioning a social revolution through verse. Alice Walker and Maya Angelou taking African-American experience and transcending race, gender, class, and culture.

There were the socially significant books we carried in our arms during brooding, existential college days: Satre and Marx, Ayn Rand and Chairman Mao. Taking a whole new tack toward selecting three books is the list of books we'd take with us to a desert island if we knew we couldn't get FedEx deliveries from Perhaps we'd reread the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Whitman or Shakespeare, the philosophy of Lao-Tzu. Or read for the first time War and Peace or Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Many would choose the Bible either as a familiar companion or as a discovery, as testament of faith or exemplar of great literature.

The classicists who believe in a gold standard of literature-or those of us who would like to demonstrate our good taste-would select "the three best books of all time": Dante's Inferno, perhaps or Milton's Paradise Lost. The Iliad, Crime and Punishment, or Anna Karenina.

And we haven't even touched on the history books, philosophy, the turning points of science. Plays. The fantasies of Jules Verne. Class sci-fi. And although I probably wouldn't put them on any lists of greatest books or even take them to a desert island with me, I can still be sentimental about beach reading, airplane books that accompanied me across the country or across an ocean, escapist fiction that dulled for a short time the fear and pain of sitting a deathbed vigil: Sidney Sheldon, Jacqueline Susann, John O'Hara, the sweeping epics of Michener and Clavell, the mysteries of Sue Grafton, Sarah Paretsky, John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen.

I have ten books right now on my shelf, sorted into three piles for the salon. How to distill these down to three? I selected them intuitively, almost like dousing; my hand hovered before them on the shelf, then was drawn to each one in turn. These ten cluster into three categories. The first shows me how wonderfully language can be used, how metaphors can be built, how careful observation can become rhapsodic writing. Gifts from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, is still as relevant today as when it was first written in the 50s. Video Night in Kathmandu by Pico Iyer, which I bought, quite frankly, because I loved the title and I had read many of Iyer's essays in Time magazine. That book in itself is a stand-in for his entire body of non-fiction work. And High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver, probably the first book of essays I read voluntarily.

My second pile is also non-fiction: The Boys of My Youth by Jo Anne Beard, who showed me how beautifully you could write the truth about your life and have it read like short stories. The Amateur by Wendy Lesser, somewhere between memoir and personal essay. And Talking Back by bell hooks, who pulled me into writing and thinking that is radically feminist and rigorously intellectual, carefully crafted in both logic and language.

My third pile marks recent turning points of my own thought: In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander, Women's Ways of Knowing, Twentieth-Century Mind by Marsha Sinetar, and Social Creativity [Volume 1 of four]. I have always been a good student, in the sense of reading, absorbing, and then feeding back the "right" answers. These books pulled that rug out from under me, overturning popular notions and forcing me to deconstruct received wisdom.

How would you select three books-or even ten? How would you sort your favorite books into piles? What books would you take to a desert island? Save from a raging fire? Hope your great-great grandchildren will read with as much pleasure as you once did?

C. J. Metschke is a Florida-based writer with a special interest in book arts. Contact her by email.