Our books today are five for which I give thanks, and in selecting just five I was inspired by the wonderful young people over in the world of BookTube, where a “tag” along these lines is making the rounds.
For those of you not hep to the lingo, in the world of BookTube, a “tag” is some sort of thematic Easter-egg hunt through your personal library. Somebody thinks up a theme for such a library-hunt (this one, as so many of the best ones are, was thought up by Lainey over at GingerReadsLainey, a wonderful channel you should all be watching) and then “tags” a few other BookTubers to join in the fun – and of course you don’t have to wait to be tagged, you can just tag yourself: BookTube is all about friendly inclusion.
It’s a lucky thing you don’t need to wait to be tagged, because in the normal course of events I myself never would be – since I’m roughly four times as old as the average vlogger, I don’t have a BookTube channel. But this one I didn’t want to resist, especially since “five books you’re grateful for” need not necessarily be – indeed, intriguingly is not – simply your five favorite books.
No, sometimes there’s a difference, and I think a part of it can be chalked up to ceremony. After all, sometimes we tend to exalt our favorite books; they become not just treasured experiences but the focus of actual ceremonies, not things to be picked up lightly. We’re grateful for them, certainly, but they don’t excite quite the same kind of simple gratitude as do the kinds of books I’ve been watching BookTubers hold up for this tag. The “grateful” take here seems to touch more on the fact that these five books can be grabbed at any time off the shelf, with a certainty that they’ll please, with a certainty that the time is right.
So here are five books I’m grateful for!
The Praise of Folly by Erasmus – I’m using the 1941 translation Hoyt Hopewell Hudson did for the Modern Library here (in his Introduction, he flat-out states that the crappiness of an earlier translation prompted him to make one of his own), but really, as hopelessly snooty as it sounds to say it, the only way to get the full Moriae Encomium experience is to read the author’s original and utterly inimitable quicksilver Latin as it pours pitch-perfect scorn and satire on the clerical and moral abuses of its day. But even in English, the glory of this little snark-fest comes through pretty clearly – more than enough, in fact, for when I just need a quick pick-me-up against the rampant hypocrisy and stupidity of the grosser world. Nobody ever saw those stupidities more clearly than Erasmus, and few people ever wrote about them with a better combination of sarcasm and compassion.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I picked the old Wordsworth Classic of this sparkling novel, the one with Victorian painter Marcus Stone’s The Stolen Kiss on the cover, although I pretty much always have at least half a dozen different editions of Austen’s 1813 immortal classic on hand. And I’m grateful for the book because it provides that rarest of reading pleasures: intelligent escapist fiction. The sheer pace of the narrative is so masterfully achieved that I don’t think I’ve ever picked up the novel – intent on the diversion that it so reliably offers – without ending up reading it through. This can be very bad for the day’s deadlines, but it’s always very good for the soul to be back again in the company of Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy, and to watch as they astonish, dismay, and finally find each other. In fact, just including the book on this list is inclining me to read it one more time …
The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf – This old Harvest paperback is an annotated edition of the first series of “Common Reader” collected book-essays by Woolf; I presume there’s a matching annotated edition of the second series out there in the world’s used bookstores somewhere, although I’ve never seen it – and dammit, I shouldn’t have to hunt for it, since the two series ought to have been combined long, long since into a pleasingly substantial Penguin Classic. In these essays – including such classics as “Rambling Round Evelyn,” “On Not Knowing Greek,” “The Elizabethan Lumber Room,” and the sublime “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” Woolf writes bookish prose as well as it can be written, and that has always proved a completely refreshing tonic for me, even in the long wilderness years when I wasn’t actually writing bookish prose for the reading public myself. Watching her take up some book or author, toy with some ideas about it, put it down, wander around it, then take it up again and sieve through it with perfect clarity and overwhelming eloquence … it should be daunting, since nobody else can do it so well, but it always ends up being invigorating instead.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien – This one-volume edition of his famous, genre-defining fantasy trilogy is that rarity of rarities: a movie-cover edition that’s actually prettier than most normal editions. This nice fat volume was created to accompany Peter Jackson’s great trilogy of movies, but it has French flaps, inset maps, raised cover-lettering and is in every way a tempting thing to pull down off the shelf when the urge is strong to retreat for a time into guaranteed purity. If Pride and Prejudice is bad for daily deadlines, The Lord of the Rings is downright lethal to them, being so much longer. Usually I can content myself with re-reading just one beloved chapter or other (most often “The Council of Elrond,” I admit), but at least once a year the whole thing just grabs me and won’t let go, and I emerge hours later very behind on all my work but also very happy – very grateful, in fact.
The Metamorphoses of Ovid – Here again, as with Erasmus, I’m picturing a favorite English-language translation – in this case the 1960 one done by poet and critic Horace Gregory, still to my mind the best translation of the book. I love this little white paperback and have given countless copies to would-be readers over the decades, but as great as it is, it still doesn’t quite manage to capture the full range of Ovid’s incredible Latin, the full play of his genius over the course of long, shimmering sentences and segments. I opened our little “tag” this time around by mentioning that “grateful” books need not be actual favorites, and yet here I’m ending my list with my single favorite book of them all, but there’s no contradiction: I would never dream of putting Ovid on a pedestal, and the only ritual I require in order to take him down and start re-reading him is the need for his cool, rippling humor and eruptive imagery.
I’m intensely grateful that all of these books exist in the world – each has formed me, probably in ways I myself don’t fully see. I didn’t actually re-read any of them during this year’s Thanksgiving (I was absorbed instead in a new book on the Italian Renaissance), but I know they’re patiently waiting for whenever I need them – and I’m very grateful for that.
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