Five (or so) books, assuming that The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird dont count:
Caddie Woodlawn, the orange biographies of famous people as children, and Nancy Drew mysteries, because they inspired me to be a heroically omniscient narrator to my own dumb childhood.
LEtranger, by Albert Camus, which I read in eleventh-grade French class, because it turned me from a sorority girl into an existentialist.
The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard, which I first read in my twenties, because it warned me that love was hard.
Pentimento, by Lillian Hellman, because it enable me to recognize a fraud.
All the Kings Men, by Robert Penn Warren, because it provided the blueprint for writing about the South.
J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families. Lukas’ brilliant book is more than a recreation of racial conflict in 1970s Boston. It’s a sensitive, stunning, wrenching exploration of complex American lives. Common Groundis everything historical writing ought to be.
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time. An extraordinary combination of relentless intelligence and fierce emotion, The Fire Next Time is one of the most moving, challenging works of modern American literature I’ve ever read.
Tracy Kidder, Among Schoolchildren. I’m a huge fan of journalistic books that immerse readers in the everyday experiences — and extraordinary burdens — of ordinary people. I easily could have picked another book in the genre: Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here is a marvelous model of intimate reporting, as is Adriane Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. But Kidder’s book is so finely wrought, so gentle, so damn good, it goes to the top of my list.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Last Fine Time. There are some books that you embrace because they evoke wonderful memories. I read this beautiful book during a snowy Christmas in 1990 — a perfectly happy moment in my life — and whenever I think about its elegant, evocative prose I can’t help but smile. What more can you ask of a book?
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. By training I’m an academic, so I really should include one academic book. I first read Geertz’s collection of essays in graduate school and was immediately enthralled. It was, and remains, an inspiration.
1. TRUMAN CAPOTE, One Christmas (Random House, 1983)
No book has inspired or moved me more than this one, even though it isn’t officially a book, but a story published in slipcase form. Truman Capote’s second autobiographical Christmas tale, One Christmas is, as far as I know, the last piece of his that he lived to see published. Sparely written as a children’s book, it tells of a Christmas that Capote, at age seven or eight, was forced to spend in New Orleans with his estranged father. It explains much about why his life unfolded as it did. Everything I aspire to as a writer is here: One Christmas is as spare, direct, and honest as a children’s story; no word is wasted; the prose sings, albeit sadly, and is as vivid as a film unrolling before your eyes. I read One Christmas each December, when I’m with my family in Westchester, and it always makes me cry.
2. PATRICIA MORRISROE: Mapplethorpe: A Biography (Random House, 1995)
Mapplethorpe is a masterful biography, and it served, in many ways, as the blueprint for the book I wrote about Chet Baker. I’ve read Patricia Morrisroe’s account of Robert Mapplethorpe from cover to cover several times and I’m always riveted. Morrisroe, a longtime writer for New York magazine, took on a dark subject and never shied away from its grimness. Not only is she a brave writer and an extremely elegant one; she also drew me into the story of an artist whom I had never particularly cared about and made me understand why he was so important, how he mirrored his times and changed them. In biography, the bigger picture means everything. What is it about a particular life that makes it important? That is the question! Patricia nailed it. I love a walk on the dark side, and this one (next to Chet Baker’s!) is possibly my favorite.
3. HENRY PLEASANTS: The Great American Popular Singers (Simon & Schuster, 1974)
Singers are one of my great passions, and this book, written by a British classical music authority, made me appreciate popular singing as the eminent art form it is. Pleasants, now gone, wrote about pop music without a trace of pomposity or condescension; to him, Ethel Waters, Peggy Lee, and Billie Holiday were every bit the artistic equals of Lotte Lehmann or Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I could always respond to the feeling in Peggy Lee’s singing, for instance, but Pleasants made me understand what a technical marvel she was, too. He wrote about her, and about Johnny Cash, Bessie Smith, Mildred Bailey, and B.B. King with tremendous affection; to this day I have never read more intelligent commentary on any of them.
4. ALDO BUSI: Uses and Abuses (Faber & Faber, 1995)
Aldo Busi is basically unknown in the U.S., but not in his native Italy, where Busi (now 58) has been an intimidatingly smart provocateur for years. An essay writer and novelist, he was also, for a long time, one of the only out homosexual public figures in Italy (now I think there are a couple more). In 1999 he co-hosted a controversial edition of the Italian TV series Ciao Darwin; in it, a bullpen of bravely out Italian men (I told you, that’s rare over there) competed against a bullpen of straight guys in various intellectual and silly games. (The gay guys won.) I’m told that the show, which I have, was deemed offensive and kept in the can for months. I wish I could read his work in Italian, but even in English translation I am dazzled by the essays in Busi’s above-mentioned book. I love an arrogant intellectual, and that’s what you get as Busi travels throughout Europe, focusing his laser eye on the local cultures, quirks, and injustices and stopping along the way to visit people I admire, including one of my fascinations, Zizi Jeanmaire. Man, can this guy write!
5. FLEUR COWLES, editor: The Best of Flair (Harper Collins, 1999)
I’ll never forget my excitement one Sunday morning when, at the flea market on Columbus Avenue, I came upon a stack of nearly all twelve issues of Flair magazine, a publishing milestone and short-lived connoisseur’s delight that dates back to 1950-51. I bought two issues, took them home, started to inspect them more carefully, and ran back to buy the others — which had been sold. With extreme persistence I went on to acquire them all, plus the 1953 hardbound Flair Annual. Flair was a commercial bomb that is now recognized as an artistic triumph, as well as the ultimate in chic. Fleur Cowles, its editor, created an arts-and-culture magazine that gathered the creme de la creme of journalists, fiction writers, illustrators, and critics, and tied their work in the most delightful ribbons I’ve ever seen. Every issue is full of die-cuts, foldouts, peek-a-boo panels, inserts, and an array of paper stocks. The content is superbly edited and the presentation is pure class. Alas, the thing cost a fortune and lost a fortune. Decades hence, Fleur Cowles, who is in her nineties and lives in London, is recognized as the visionary she was. She helped make me the snob I am. God bless her!
I am humbled that you would like to know of five books that “mean a lot” to me.
The first one that comes to my mind, without a doubt, is The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. This book is very important to me, because it deals with the subject matter of the meaning of life in a way that I found to be easy to understand.
Coelho presents a charming story of this little boy searching for his treasure, but actually it’s an allegory, conveying a depth of purpose and understanding, which I found to be incredible. You and I are constantly making decisions everyday which determine the path that our lives are taking. In doing so, sometimes we find ourselves placing our dreams on hold (sometimes forever) because of life’s compromises.
One of the main ideas I got from this book is that when you are making decisions in life that are in accord with your destiny, that everything in the universe seems to be conspiring to help you. On the other hand, if you are constantly compromising your dreams and aspirations because of practicalities, etc., then it can feel like the universe is conspiring against you. Without the running the risk of sound cliché, basically, one should never compromise their dreams and always follow their heart. I’ve found this to be of the utmost importance to me in craving out my own path in life (musical and otherwise)
The second book that I would say means a lot to me is by Theodore Zeldin. It is entitled An Intimate History of Humanity. Basically, he presents a variety of different situations and compares them among similar situations all throughout the recorded history of man, ranging from love & sexuality to power & loneliness. The way that we understand the world is greatly affected by our knowledge of human history and our own personal experience in our lives.
For me, there are all of the thoughts which I have attained from personal growth in situations which have been particular to me alone and then there are all of the other thoughts and ideas attained from reading about other people’s experiences. I think Zeldin’s idea is that when one increases their own awareness to that of all of humanity, that their capacity to think and feel is not only greater, but more accurate.
This book means a lot to me, because I find that increasing one’s awareness is of particular importance to artists, especially musicians. No successful artist has ever lived in a cultural vacuum. Most of the great artists and musicians that I know are constantly looking for new sources of inspiration, whether they be from museums, CDs, concerts, books, film, politics, etc. Zeldin’s constantly studying and comparing the differences between like subjects in humanity spanning all known times in an endless search for the middle ground in human existence; the common denominator; clarity amidst the chaos of life. I believe that this not only ties into music, but everything we do in our lives.
Three other books that I feel are important to me are Man’s Search For Meaning, by Victor E. Frankl, for his experience-based insights on finding his will to live in the most desperate of situations- as prisoner of the Holocaust; Stomping The Blues, by Albert Murray, for helping me to better understand the blues and music in general through his insights of the culture surrounding the music; and The Unanswered Question, a six-part transcript of Leonard Bernstein’s Lectures at Harvard University, for his amazing and easy-to-understand insights into music on the 20th century and his ability to raise important points of interest, of which I still think about to this day.