A Selection

Mary Jo Bang

This is hard. As in difficult. Because to recommend a book is to privilege the pleasure of reading one book over the unique pleasure of reading another. Add to that the egocentrism of believing that what gives me particular pleasure must necessarily give the same or similar to someone else. What thick thinking. And yet we do it. So I'll preface this by saying that if you were me, you'd seriously like the following books. One or more may actually transform your notions, if not of life, at least of writing. They will become like friends who tell good stories. I am always the one I was before these books and the one I am after these books. I am that history of reading.

1) Happy Days, a play by Samuel Beckett. Beckett is best not paraphrased because it ends out sounding reductive and unambiguous when, for all of what sometimes looks like broad strokes, his work is always teetering on some icy precipice of nuance. Beckett is practically synecdotal for what we could call "the tragicomic heroics of simple persistence."  But that ignores the invention of the various ways of saying it and then saying it again newly and unlike ever said. Later, after reading and re-reading I saw the play produced in New York City. I think it was 1996. I remember everything vividly except the year's ninety number. Irene Worth was Winnie, and she was all I had always imagined Winnie to be. And now there is a film of the play available from Insight Media ( or 800-233-9910), and in that film Irene Worth plays Winnie so you could see what I saw, although Worth will be younger than when I saw her. It is $179, which is too steep for most of us, but one might get a school library to purchase it, or even a local public library if one wasn't associated with a school. Or if in an urban center and there were an art/film video store nearby, perhaps they could be persuaded to purchase it. It's worth a try, is it not? Or invite all of your friends to chip in the amount they would ordinarily pay for a ticket to see a regular Hollywood film and then buy the film and loan it to them for a viewing. Or invite them over for a viewing. With the promise of Diet Coke and Milk Duds. And if none of these approaches work, just read the play. Which is what I want you to do anyway. Even if you saw the film, or the play, you would want to read it. And not once but over and over, over a lifetime. Of course this is if you were me.

2) Ulysses by James Joyce. An impossibly broad spine with



at the top, and at the bottom: BODLEY HEAD, and along the long length of the spine an off-white bow. I love to hold that deep-emerald- green-elegant thick book in my hands, and now that I've read it whole, to open it the way I used to—to here and then to there—and read again but now knowing the entirety and reading against that instead of against some inherited notion about what the book was, which is the way I once read it. I read it whole, and at the same time I read Stuart Gilbert's book James Joyce's Ulysses, which takes you, the reader, through chapter by chapter and shows how Joyce was rewriting in the most literal way the story of the Iliad and embedding the epic in a day in the life of one Leopold Bloom, the everyman who lives fretfully behind each of our facades. Fascinating. Although if you grow to love this book the way it's possible to, you may eventually go searching for other critical overviews of Joyce's project and obsessively ponder the ever-multiplying interpretations of the book's every word and act.

3) James Joyce by Richard Ellmann. I love literary biographies and have read many. And that genre of writing is like any other, with its pinnacles of excellence and troughs of low-low mediocrity. This one exceeded my best-expected pleasure. Joyce's drama is monumentally tragic and incredibly rich. And there must have been tremendous satisfaction for him in the texture of it even when all else was a forest of horrors (his own blindness and his daughter's insanity as a beginning). And then there is what is outside the story, which is the telling of it. Which is to say the book is terribly well written. And this, then, is the pleasure to be had from reading Ellmann's prose.

4) Giacomo by James Joyce. Since I'm on this road, I can't resist adding this tiny book. Sixteen pages of text plus facsimile pages, a few notes, and a brief introduction by Richard Ellmann (see above). If you have read Ulysses and Ellmann's biography, you will want to read this "page-for-page transcription in type" of the contents of a handwritten notebook Joyce left with his brother, Stanislaus, when he left Trieste in 1915. It is the story of an English teacher's erotic preoccupation with a girl student, written at a time when Joyce was teaching English privately. The story is strange and creepy but at the same time lovely. Like overhearing Humbert Humbert argue with himself, if he had argued, which he didn't really. Not for long without devising a reprise for any reluctance. And in this version, Joyce's version, there is none of Lolita's unhappy ending because there is never Lolita's empty beginning. And as readers, we're both glad and sad about that. Because we want a story after all, any story, even if it turns out to be a heartbreaking and horrifying one.

Yikes, I've reached my word limit. And with so many books that might have been number 5). Like: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks; Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift; Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov; Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession by Janet Malcolm; The Fortuneteller: A Jest by Mac Wellman; The Dream of the Red Chamber (translated from the German version of Dr. Franz Kuhn by Florence and Isabel McHugh); The Flower Beneath the Foot by Ronald Fairbanks; all the novels of Henry Green (Loving, Living, Concluding, Back, Nothing, Doting, Blindness, Party Going, and Caught). Yikes again! I've neglected poetry. Here are my top two: The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath and The Collected Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. All these for their proximity to perfection, each in the task it sets itself to do.