Today, it’s all about books we love. We’re sharing ours. Will you share yours?
At Automattic, we have a plethora of book lovers. We love to read and we love to share. And today, we’re going to share books we’ve loved with you, in the hopes that you’ll return the favor and share your favorite books with us in the comments.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Joan Didion allows us into her year after her husband, Gregory Dunne, died. I read this book once or twice a year, and it always brings tears, though I know the outcome. It’s not a romanticized love story, it’s a real love story, and it’s about those incredible, raw, numbing, forgetful moments you find yourself emerged in as grief washes over you.
My favorite passage:
Was it about faith or was it about grief?
Were faith and grief the same thing?
Were we unusually dependent on one another the summer we swam and watched Tenko and went to dinner at Morton’s?
Or were we unusually lucky?
I can only hope to be as unusually lucky as they were.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I don’t remember when I first read this book; the story has always been a close companion. It’s a story of family, and all families are crazy, right? It’s a story of telling the story as you want it told, which is what we all do at some point or another. The loves are complicated and the deaths are fantastical.
My favorite passage:
It was then that she realized that the yellow butterflies preceded the appearances of Mauricio Babilonia.
I can’t imagine anything dreamier than being preceded by butterflies. Heaven.
* * *
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I didn’t find out about this book until grad school, when a professor tried to describe what magical realism was. Intrigued, I dove in and was captivated from the start. The distinct but overlapping members of the sprawling Buendia family from the Colonel, his wife Ursula, to the seventeen Aurelianos make this other, charm-infused, world real.
The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
(And that’s just the first page!)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
I read this book first when I was maybe 21 or 22. I hadn’t read much at that point that began in media res, and riddling through the story alongside Vonnegut’s own voice was such a bizarre experience, I was smitten. I loved it so much that I ended up writing my thesis on it, later on. The slowly building apprehension over what it is that has unstuck Billy Pilgrim from time; waiting for the other shoe to drop, the inevitable “tock” that follows every “tick” of the clock, all in Vonnegut’s devastatingly casual voice, is what keeps me coming back to this book time and again.
Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.
* * *
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx
My Uncle Syd, who sends me random books at random times, gave me this book in 1999, and I’ve read it almost every winter since. Set in Newfoundland — wild, isolated, and raw — The Shipping News sates my deep craving for characters of the cold every time December rolls around. Proulx is a master sentence-crafter, and with each reading, I fall deeper in love with her verbs, her humor, her Newfoundland sea, and Wavey Prowse: the Tall and Quiet woman.
The idea of the north was taking him. He needed something to brace against.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I don’t know why I do it to myself, reading this book over and over again, willing it to end differently each time, and sobbing all over again when it doesn’t, but I cannot resist Lonesome Dove. I’m a sucker for frontier literature, and Lonesome Dove not only delivers on the harsh earthiness of the pioneer life, but McMurtry makes me want to spend every waking moment of my life on the plains with his characters. I scan the Texas horizon, I sleep by the campfire, I eat Gus’ biscuits, I giggle at the dialogue. I cry, hard and deep, and I ache with the poignancy of this book.
‘My main skills are talking and cooking biscuits,’ Augustus said. ‘And getting drunk on the porch.’
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
I am a Hemingway fan. It is difficult for me to choose between his works to pick a favorite, and this slot was a close three-way tie between The Sun Also Rises, The Garden of Eden, and A Movable Feast. I ultimately selected this one because it incorporates everything I love about Hemingway: lean sentences, masculinity, precise word choice, empty space that must be filled by the reader, and (and this is the real reason) my favorite scene in all of literature — when the characters go fishing, and they chill their wine in an Alpine stream. Something about that scene gets me, and I can’t get enough of it.
I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.
* * *
Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
Humans tell themselves many stories about their place in the world. For example, we think we are unique and somehow apart from all other species, and that we are exempt from the laws of nature. But we enact this story to our peril. If we view the Earth and nature as enemies, something to wage war with and to be conquered, “one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now.”
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
A truly remarkable collection of essays by one of the best writers to ever live. Have you ever wanted to read a 62-page review of an academic grammar usage guide? Wallace will make you not want to stop reading it. It’s essays like these, when Wallace is at his very best, using his rich literary talent and winking sense of humor to bring to light the absurd realities of life that we’ve never noticed before.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
This is one of the saddest books I have ever read. Using all sorts of first-hand accounts and written records, we can see how time and time again American Indians had their land, their dignity, and ultimately their lives taken from them by ever-expanding white settlers. Most of history, as we know, is written by the victors, so books like this are precious few. This should be required reading for every U.S. citizen.
* * *
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I’d like to list all of Robinson’s first three novels, but that would be tiresome, so here is the first one (although Gilead is better). I firmly believe that Marilynne Robinson is our greatest living writer (possibly tied with Alice Munro). Her writing is beautiful, original, and graceful. Just read the first chapter of Housekeeping: I ask you, would you ever in a million years have thought to describe a lake the way Robinson does? And yet if anyone has ever described a lake more perfectly, I don’t know about it.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt
I find that most of the time when a novel is described as “a cult classic beloved by writers,” it turns out to be impressive, but a total snore. Not so The Last Samurai! This is a clever and unusual book about a boy’s search for his father, his deeply antisocial mother, and learning many languages. It’s also great fun from the first page to the last, and although it prefers ideas to people, it still manages to be heartwarming in its way!
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
This novel was so important in my formative years, and although as a wiser, older feminist, I am now absolutely horrified by just about everyone in the book (and equally horrified by how blissfully unaware of their horribleness I was at 13), I will always have a soft spot for sober, plain Jane and her stubborn adherence to her own (often poor) decisions.
* * *
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
This was my first favorite story and I credit author Margery Williams with unlocking my imagination (and also with the vast collection of stuffed animals I amassed as a kid, any one of which might have been rendered real). My first grade teacher read it aloud to the class when I was about five years old and I remembered being captivated by the central question: What does it mean to be Real?
The Skin Horse, the sage of the nursery toys, explains it this way to the Velveteen Rabbit:
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
That Skin Horse. So wise.
(PS – My teacher gave me a copy of this book as a gift and I still have it on my shelf).
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
I’m a sucker for strong, vibrant characters set in turbulent or historically significant or interesting times, and Scarlett O’Hara certainly fits that description. She’s a character that you can despise, pity, and root for, all at once. Aside from that, at its heart, GWTW is a story of survival and an examination of what separates survivors from those who are crushed by catastrophe. The author, Margaret Mitchell, calls this quality gumption, in itself a charmingly Southern-flavored word.
This quote sums up the evolution of the former southern belle:
Somewhere, on the long road that wound through those four years, the girl with her sachet & dancing slippers had slipped away & there was left a woman with sharp green eyes, who counted pennies & turned her hands to many menial tasks, a woman to whom nothing was left from the wreckage except the indestructible red earth on which she stood.
Or, as Rhett Butler would say,
Anyone as selfish and determined as you are is never helpless.
On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
OK, so I’m cheating a bit here by listing a combo for my third pick, but it’s impossible to choose between these two. Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are must-reads for any aspiring writer or anyone looking for insight on the creative process as told by two fabulously irreverent and entertaining people.
Possibly the most well-known quote from King is this one from On Writing:
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
But this one speaks to my soul more:
Books are a uniquely portable magic.
Lamott captures the essence of why I continue to pursue story writing:
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve thought that there was something noble and mysterious about writing, about the people who could do it well, who could create a world as if they were little gods or sorcerers.
* * *
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
This is a beautiful book set in war-torn Chechnya. It explores families made but not chosen: from failed doctor Akhmed and his orphan charge Havaa, to Sonja and Natasha, two sisters — one brilliant, one beautiful — who struggle to express love for one another, to six formerly domestic, now feral dogs whose pack leader, Khassan, is a taciturn former university professor and father of the local informer.
This is a community of people “whittled by the deprivations” of war, corroded by betrayal, guilt, guilt by association, and shame, yet somehow humanity survives. This book had me sobbing for grief and joy. I have many favorite passages in this book. Here’s one of them:
She flipped through the book and found answers to questions no sane person would ever ask. The definition of a foot. The average length of a femur. Nothing for insanity by grief, or insanity by loneliness, or insanity by reading reference books.
Only one entry supplied an adequate definition, and she circled it with red ink, and referred to it nightly. Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.
A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, A Tale For The Time Being rocketed to the top of my all-time favorite books list after two consecutive reads. It’s rich and deep, yet accessible. East / West, past/present, the relationship between the writer and reader, quantum theory, reflection, memory, regret, shame, cruelty, brutality, and pacifism are just some of the ground Ruth Ozeki covers in this stellar novel that left me thinking differently about how I perceive the world. The twin protagonists, Naoko (Nao) Yasutani and Ruth, a blocked writer, are in the language of quantum theory, entangled particles — two things that share the same characteristics. Bravery, heroism, and the examined life take on new meaning viewed through the lens of this book.
Two favorite passages:
A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.
Finally I achieved my goal and resolved my childhood obsession with now because that’s what a drum does. When you beat a drum, you create NOW, when silence becomes a sound so enormous and alive it feels like you’re breathing in the clouds and the sky, and your heart is the rain and the thunder. Jiko says that this is an example of the time being. Sound and no-sound. Thunder and silence.
Over to you: tell us all about your favorite books — which would you recommend?