When I said on Facebook yesterday that Dandelion Wine was one of the ten best books in the world, one comment was, not quite unexpectedly, “this is an invitation for you to list the remaining 9”.
I guess what I meant is not so much “the best in the world”, but the most formative for me: books that made a lasting impressions, books that I keep going back to (or not, but still books that made me what I am). All of these I read before I was sixteen. The list has remained unchanged for the past forty-four years. I have read some excellent books since then, but none has changed my life. Perhaps books can only cnange your life when you are young.
I have already explained Dandelion Wine, and the rest I will explain briefly, perhaps to elaborate on later.
Winnie-the-Pooh. The best book in the world. Has something for everyone, explains everything and reveals new dimensions of each re-reading. I can't tell how many times I have read it.
The Little Prince. Also has everything, and while Pooh can be read by a child as a funny book, The little prince is profoundly sad. Not because the little prince dies, but because “the prince tamed the Fox, and now it was time to say goodbye”.
The Master and Margarita. I wish I could explain why this book changed everything for everyone in Russia, young and old, when it was first published. It has so many layers, humorous and sublime, and so much of it has become part of the Russian language. I think this is the only book that we read aloud in my family. And because it was published in two instalments in a literary journal, we had to wait a whole month for the second part. I re-read it at least once a year.
Cat's Cradle. Explains everything, and ends without hope. We got all our wisdom from it. Like The Master and Margarita, it was cross-generational. It was my father's great favourite. I re-read it just a few months ago, it's still brilliant.
Doctor Zhivago. When I first read it, age fifteen, it was a romantic story, not romantic as in the horrible movie version, but mysteriously and disturbingly erotic. It is also brilliantly crafted, with a chain of incredible serendipities, when a tiny detail in the beginning becomes decisive three hundred pages later; a prefect example of dramatic irony when readers know more than any characters and would so much like to warn them! And of course it is the tragedy of Russian intellectuals destroyed by communism, which I recognised from my family history. When I re-read it later, I saw other things as well, the philosophical layer. But after that, it suddenly became very ideological and intentional. I re-read it every other year, but it does not get better.
Joseph and His Brothers. Breath-taking book. My grandmother used to re-read it every year. I re-read it perhaps every five years, and it gets better every time. I was too young when I first read it, but even then it changed my world.
Eugen Onegin. It's of course the Russian national epic and impossible to translate, even if you are Vladimir Nabokov. I can still recite long bits of it. The status of school classic couldn't kill it for us. When we were young, it was very romantic, but when I started to re-read it about twenty years ago, I saw beyond the plot, and it's ironic and funny. And all about dreams.
Anna Karenina. Another school classic that turned out to be something else. Among other things, it used stream of consciousness long, long before Joyce. Such a rich book. I re-read it every three-four years.
Finally, I cannot omit Scarlet Sails, a book nobody outside Russia will have heard of, but for many generations of Russian girls it ruined our first, and perhaps second and third, relationships because it set up a pattern of perfect love that had very little to do with reality. In Russian, rather than “a prince on a white horse” you say “a prince under red sails”, but it adds up to the same. The only right way to fall in love. I re-read it a couple of years ago, and it is a good story if you don't take it seriously.
Now I have provided you with summer reading.