Words on Books readers and listeners have sent in their answers to a group of interesting questions about books. Last week, I had time to report what books you have on your nightstand, and mention a few favorite first lines.
This week, I’ve mixed and matched the remaining most interesting replies to questions usually posed to “Book Brahmins” by the Shelf Awareness newsletter.
Here are some of your responses.
Your top five authors... At least a hundred authors were named. Surprisingly, very few were mentioned more than once. You have very wide-ranging taste, you WOBers, you. Four persons rated Charles Dickens an all-time favorite. Barbara Kingsolver received three mentions. There were two votes each for Ursula LeGuin, Jane Austen, and Michael Chabon.
If I were Michael Chabon I’d faint from the company I’m keeping.
Book you've faked reading... Many people refused to answer this one. One person said, “How odd to imagine...” another “Oh golly, how embarrassing!” Another said, “I wouldn’t know where to begin.” Paul Takushi said, “As a bookseller, there are WAY too many to mention.” Elizabeth Morrison: “I know I have done this...”
A note from Michael Grady: “I had to write a report in 9th grade about an epic. I chose the heroic Celtic tale about Cuchulain, but just couldn't get it up to read it. We had to produce a written report and answer a set of prescribed questions. I eventually went to the “Encyclopedia Americana,” read the synopsis, and fashioned a report based on what I found there. The old English schoolmarm read my paper out loud as an example of what she wanted. My friends were later outraged when I told them I hadn't actually read the book. Perhaps it was my handwriting that was so exemplary...”
Book you're an evangelist for... John Fremont named “‘God Is Not Great,’ by Christopher Hitchens and asked, ‘Can one be an evangelical for atheism?’” Other readers recommended: “By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept” by Elizabeth Smart, “The Book of Ebenezer le Page” by G.B. Edwards; “The Trial of Socrates” by I. F. Stone; “Shadow Country” by Peter Matthiessen; “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin was named twice; There were many others.
Book you've bought for the cover... Joel Crockett purchased a hardcover copy of “Workin' Man Blues” by Gerald Haslam because “My dad, uncles, an aunt and grandparents are on the cover.”
Final question: A book that changed your life... "Marjorie Morningstar" by Herman Wouk and “The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith were two surprising answers. Charles Grady wrote, “For me, Hugo's ‘Les Miserables’ was a life-changer; it made me a liberal in a conservative family and ultra-conservative town.”
Paul McHugh named “Visions of Cody” by Jack Kerouac. Russ Harvey named “Catch-22" and added, “My 7th grade biology teacher busted me reading it behind my text book. I just couldn't put it down. I knew then that life would never be fair but would frequently be funny.” Katy Tahja named “The Secret Garden” and said, “I was a handicapped child of the 1950's... there were NO other books about a handicapped kid.”
Other books that have changed lives: “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass. “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins. “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” by Richard Farina. “The Greeks” by H.D.F, Kitto. “The Critical Path” by Buckminster Fuller.
Thanks to everyone who responded, and to those who gave it some thought but never sent in answers, thanks to you as well. It was an interesting experiment, and you may have noticed by quoting everyone else I never had to answer these questions myself.
I would say, if you asked, that “The Boy’s First Book of Electricity” did not change my life, exactly, but definitely alerted me to the amazing Army Surplus Store on Market Street.
My best friend and I rigged up a telegraph line, complete with clicking keypads, between our bedroom windows. The fact we never did get a signal to pass down the tiny copper wires may have had something to do with resistance of materials, but I’ll never know, because “The Boy’s First Book of Electricity” did not turn me into an engineer.
It was a total failure on that score, but it was fun to build electric things. I do remember that.
The newsletter that started all this...
The complete list of favorite authors: Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Phillip Roth, TC Boyle, Tom Wolfe, Alexander McCall Smith, Agatha Christie, Wendell Berry, Stephanie Cowell, Michael Chabon Ursula Hegi, Colin Cotterill, Rudolfo Anaya, Barbara Kingsolver, William S. Burroughs (“He and John LeCarre and C.S. Forester are not ‘Great’" but their soothing celebrations of the eternal alienated loner and outsider send me back to their words over and over,” said Michael Grady). Richard Feynmann, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Anthony Trollope, Peter Matthiessen, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, John C. Gardner, John Irving, Eric Larson, Simon Winchester, Brian Greene, John Updike, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Terry Pratchett, Chris Moore. “Today. I have always felt that this is not a fair question.” Bertolt Brecht, Charles Dickens, Ursula Le Guin, MFK Fisher, Emily Dickinson... “this pantheon is mutable, save for Brecht,” Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Malcolm Lowry, Yeats, George R. Stewart, Ivan Doig, Sarah Andrews, Peter Bowen, Gretel Ehrlich, Robert Heinlein, Robert Pirsig, Ursula LeGuin, Alan Watts, Jim Dodge, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Kingsolver, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Dave Barry, Raymond Chandler, Michael Chabon, James Salter, John Irving, John LeCarre, William Langewische, Malcolm Gladwell, Gene Yang, Bill Bryson, Cormac McCarthy, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, Rachel Ingalls, Rainer Maria Rilke, Dante Alghieri, Barbara Kingsolver, James Thurber, E.B. White, Geraldine Brooks, Marcel Proust, Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes, Heinrich Böll, Thomas Mann. Whew.
Questions I should have asked:
Your favorite book when you were 60.
Book you couldn’t finish (in fact, you threw it across the room).
Book you stole.
Book you stopped someone from stealing.
Book you had no idea what the author was trying to say.
Book in a language you don’t read.
Book with unexpected blank pages, pages printed upside down, backwards, missing, on fire.
Book you dreamed about last night.
Book you totally forgot once you put it down.
Book you recommended to someone knowing they’d hate it but you recommended it anyway.
Book you faked reading, but actually you did read it.
Book (or author) you’d never, ever, read, especially if anyone could see you doing it.