A question about important books

This month’s Booklist had an essay talking about reader’s advisory, and at the end of it, it posed an interesting question. Someone is looking at the library’s copy right now, so I will just paraphrase. What would your response be if an older patron came in and said, “I am in the declining years of my life, and I am tired of reading dreck. I want to read beautifully written books that will help me reflect on the years of my life. What are some books that you recommend?”

I can’t think of anything. Well, that’s not true. I can’t think of anything that doesn’t kind of sound pretentious. I have read a lot about the morality in The Brothers Karamazov, so I might recommend that. And War and Peace and Anna Karenina. But those answers sound awfully pretentious. And why do I automatically revert to old Russian novels when I think of deep, important, and beautifully written? The only one of those three that I have actually read is Anna Karenina. I do hope to re-read it one day (who was the genius who let me read Anna Karenina at the age of 13?) and I own a copy of The Brothers Karamazov. I suppose I am waiting for inspiration to suddenly hit or the book to read itself. (Or maybe I am just afraid to start it.)

Some of my favorite books – the Pride and Prejudices and the Gaudy Nights – they have a lot to say about truth and relationships and human motivation, but they still seem to be on the lighter side of things. I don’t read so that I can impress people with my monumental reading list. I read more for escapism, to immerse myself in a story, but “story as truth” has also been a huge influence in the way I learn and see the world. I read to learn and for enjoyment. I carry bits and pieces of the books I’ve read around with me – I call people kindred spirits because of Anne, and I think of Mary Russell when I see a challenge involving bees on The Amazing Race. Trees hit by lightning make me think of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. I see girls interact here at the library, and I wonder which one is the Queen Bee. I think of my favorite rabbit when I see butterflies, and he’s in there with Encyclopedia Brown and Hester Prynne and that last silk dress. Even “story as truth” was stolen from Madeleine L’Engle.

And yet, I seem to believe that none of that is “important” enough to recommend. It’s changed me, it’s changed the way I look at life, but it doesn’t seem good enough for other people.

If I found out right now that I didn’t have much longer left to live, I might reread Anna Karenina. But I would also see if I could get J.K. Rowling to tell me how the Harry Potter series is going to end, and I’d try to read so many of the books that are on my list – recommendations from friends and things I’m curious about. And I’d reread The Velveteen Rabbit and The Lord of the Rings one last time. I might not revisit Bridget Jones, but that doesn’t mean I wasted time reading her, because, thanks to her, I know how many calories are in a banana. And she made me laugh. Not all books are created equal, that’s certainly true. But it’s hard to say which ones are the most important.

How would you answer the question?

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