Desert Island Top Five

I was reading On The Road the day that Robert and I met. He noticed and told me it was his favorite book. I know that sounds like a line, but seven years later I can tell you it really is his favorite book. He asked me how I liked it and I told him I did, a lot. He told me he was surprised because none of the girls he knew that read it liked it. He told me it was a masculine book. I mean, I guess. For a long time most books were written by, for, and about men. I don’t know if this is still the case, statistically speaking. But I was an English major — I didn’t exactly have the option of refusing to read or enjoy the Western canon.

We spent the early months of knowing each other trading paperbacks back and forth: Hemingway, Camus, Delillo, and more Kerouac. He transcribed Neruda into emails. We pushed Bob Dylan up onto a pedestal with our other favorite writers. If you asked me back then about my top five favorite authors, it would be those first four, plus Dostoevsky. Later that year I would add Faulkner to the list. For as long as I can remember, I’ve identified with middle-aged men, stuck in small towns. I always thought this was because my dad raised me on country and folk songs. Now I know it’s because I grew up in a world where the buildings and books and songs were all built by men.

I’m not saying I didn’t read and enjoy books by women. I wrote my thesis on a trio of books by Mexican-American writers, including Under the Feet of Jesus*, by Helena Maria Viramontes. The first time I read Play It as It Lays, by Joan Didion, I spent a week driving around in a daze, but a good daze. But I can’t think of anymore books by women that I adored then without hiking to the bookshelf, which proves my point that I did not seek them out.

I didn’t become aware of my bias until recently, in 2010, when APW selected a book by Elizabeth Gilbert for its book club read for the month. Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame. Eat, Pray, Love was published in 2006, and was in the hands of commuting women everywhere by 2008. The movie came out in August 2010. In October 2010, I had not read it. Not because I don’t read bestsellers (I do, all the time, usually on airplanes). Not because it didn’t look interesting (it did). I didn’t read it because it looked like Chick Lit, and I thought I was too good for it. But when APW announced Gilbert’s more recent book, Committed, as the choice, the site also ran a great post with the subtitle, If Women Like It, It Must Be Stupid, debunking the myth that Gilbert is not a respectable writer. It turns out that Gilbert wrote award-winning novels and stories from a male perspective before she ever got the advance that let her travel the world. She wrote for men’s magazines. She gave a TED talk. She is a real writer. Huh. I didn’t read Eat, Pray, Love, but I did read Committed, and I thought it was great.

Not too long after this, I was reading about James Frey (I have a lot to say about James Frey — that will be a years-belated post later this month, I think) and I learned that between 2004 and 2010, Oprah’s Book Club didn’t include a single author. In 2006, speaking of having his novel  Corrections selected for Oprah’s Book Club, Jonathan Franzen said, “The problem in this case is some of Oprah’s picks. She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight.” I don’t know if these two facts are related, but I think so. And I’m guilty of snubbing Oprah’s Book Club myself, despite not really knowing what books are on the holy list. My Oprah snobbery is the same as my Elizabeth Gilbert snobbery. I read serious books, or at least funny books. I didn’t consciously think that only men could write serious books or funny books, but that little misogynistic thought lived inside me. I don’t know how else to explain the fact that I went from reading Madeleine L’Engle as a girl to not being able to name more than two women authors I love as an adult.

I’ve spent the last two years repenting of my sins. Mostly by reading Barbara Kingsolver. My grandma recommended The Poisonwood Bible to me years ago, and I ignored her, even though my grandma’s recommendations are always sound. Like Eat, Pray, Love, I still haven’t read The Poisonwood Bible. But I have read The Bean Trees, and Homeland, and Animal Dreams, and The Lacuna, and she’s worked her way from being someone I ignore at the library, to a top five desert island favorite author.

I rarely read book reviews on other blogs. But, as further proof of my contrition, I might post an occasional discussion or excerpt from a book I’m reading here. I’ll try to make it interesting. In the meantime, what’s your Desert Island Top Five**?

*These are not Amazon Affiliate links for which I receive any compensation. I don’t even think that’s possible in Illinois. I just wanted to post links to books I love.

**I have never ended a blog post with a question that’s not rhetorical. It feels weird and needy. Please answer me.


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13 Responses to Desert Island Top Five

  1. I managed to only have to take three classic literature classes (one where I read the Illiad, one was the rise of the novel so mostly England and this included two books written by women, and I read The Canterbury Tales for one…I did take a seminar on sonnets that focused mostly on Shakespeare and ee cummings). I took every ethnic literature class I could and that was maybe only a third of the offerrings. It was excellent 🙂

    Paulo Coelho, Max Barry, e.e. cummings, Robert Kirby, Lynda Barry/Marjane Sartrapi… I don’t know if I can narrow it down to five. I could for books but not necessarily authors.

    • Sandy says:

      I actually read way more contemporary and ethnic literature than classics in college — I just took the required classes for my major, during which I read Austen for the first and only time. I picked up on Hemingway, Camus Dostoevsky, and co. in high school. I think I grabbed onto them because that’s when I was forming my identity as a literary type. I haven’t read any of the authors on your list except e.e. cummings. Who/what should I start with?

  2. Some English programs are more inclusive. I only had a few classes that focused exclusively on the work of middle aged western European male authors.

    I could easily pick five books, but while I might really like one book I might not like the rest of the author’s books. Jennifer Government (Max Barry) is one of my favorite books, I lend it out all the time, and his other stuff is fine. I really only like Franny and Zoey (J.D. Salinger) or Treason (Orson Scott Card) whereas I love every single book by Paulo Coelho. I really like Elna Baker’s memoir but she’s really only written one book. So, here’s my list of authors: Paulo Coelho, e.e. cummings, Robert Kirby, Lynda Barry, Marjane Sartrapi. (I also really like reading Bending the Rules.)

  3. Also, I’d like to strike the first comment.

  4. UK Yankee says:

    Yikes, I feel very under-read. (Is that a word?)

    Two years ago I gave myself a goal to read as many classics from some librarian recommended list as I could, and I discovered ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, and yes, ‘Christy’, among many others. I should probably do something like that again, because I missed so many good ones, I know.

    As for a desert island list – anything by Marian Keyes (technically probably chick lit, but hilarious and well-written, non-formulaic, and Irish, which somehow makes it legit), anything by P.J. O’Rourke, plus ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Persuasion’, and yeah, probably ‘Eat Pray Love’. (Try it, you’ll be surprised!)

    • Sandy says:

      I’m not as snobby as I used to be, especially now that I have a kindle and can devour a book in a shorter period of time (without anyone seeing the cover). I will certainly give Keyes a try. I’m not willfully avoiding Eat Pray Love. I just assumed I’d read it at some point (I have a tendency to give into bestsellers at the airport), and that time hasn’t come yet. I did see the movie, though, and I did not love it.

  5. MEI says:

    I also mostly read and enjoyed books by white men — and felt kind of weird about it. But Toni Morrison would make my desert island top five, I think. Margaret Atwood might as well, though more due to the fact that I’ve only read one of her novels — it was genius — and I’d like to read the rest. F. Scott Fitzgerald would make it. Henry James would probably make it because I love his prose, and he was incredibly prolific so I’d have a lot to work through on that desert island (is that cheating?). And Charles Dickens would make it.

    I’d have trouble leaving behind Ian McEwan and Cormac McCarthy, and I wonder if I left them out because they’re contemporary-ish rather than on merit/the depth of my adoration.

    Also, did you read Franzen’s piece on Edith Wharton in the New Yorker? He seems to maybe have an … ahem … problem with women authors.

  6. Pingback: As Happy As Anyone Needs To Be | Bending the Rules

  7. Melanie says:

    I think the Oprah comment is a little unfair because since 2004 she significantly decreased the number of books she recommends. Going from 8 per year to just 1-3 seems like it is an unfair comparison even if it is true that she didn’t recommend any female authors.

    I never really thought about the gender of authors that I’ve read when I pick up a book.

    I don’t often like to reread books but if I were to recommend a few I’d definitely say Middlesex, The Time Traveler’s Wife (I never saw the movie), and The Opposite of Fate (a book of short stories). I have gotten away from reading books because they’re labeled as classic and reading more because I’m interested in the story. With that being said, I have a ton of classics that I’d still love to read.

    • Sandy says:

      That is a good point about Oprah’s book club that I missed.

      I never realized or felt weird about the fact that I enjoy books written by men, until I realized I was consciously avoiding certain books written or liked by women. That’s where the problem is for me. I also feel like I didn’t really finish this blog post. I should have gone on to say that I can still relate to books by men and women, but my world expanded when I started reading contemporary literature by women, because I identify with it on another level. Nobody writes about abortion the way Didion does in Play It as It Lays. I never realized the tragedy of miscarriage until I read Kingsolver’s book, Animal Dreams. Classics are often classics because they demonstrate an incredible understanding of humanity. But maybe more books written by women should be classics.

      Also, Middlesex is totally on my to-read list. I recently finished The Marriage Plot, and loved it.

  8. Maggie Carlise says:

    Five! That’s hard. But I think (at least at this particular moment!) I’d have to go with:
    1. Anything by Margaret Atwood. (If I have to pick one, I suppose Oryx and Crake. Maybe the Blind Assassin.)
    2. The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley (and I’m not a particular fan of fantasy, or of Marion Zimmer Bradley. This book is just fascinating, in and of itself.)
    3. Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. (This isn’t fiction. I’m not exactly sure how to classify it…and I was a bookseller for a lot of years!! This one just defies category in many ways. Part memoir, part essay. Beautiful book.)
    4. Anything by Jane Austen (maybe Persuasion, if I had to pick one.)
    5. House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton.

    I’ve always actively sought out literature/fiction that explored women’s experience(s). I don’t know why exactly. It’s not through any concerted, conscious feminist agenda. I’ve just always been really interested in women’s history – and perhaps connect more easily, and on a different level, with women’s writing.

    At least, that’s true in literature. I love that you put Bob Dylan with your favorite writers, Sandy! Some of my very favorite songwriters and poets are male. But I don’t connect to male writers of literature in the same way. I don’t know why.

    Now I’m wondering why!! I might have to think about this more, and write a blog post of my own about it!

    Great topic!!! Thanks!

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