My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 2 #46, June 27, 1997


Having told you last week what books I would save were I in the world of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, I invited you to tell me what books you would save. And I've got to tell you, if you and I were in charge of the canon of books the educated person should know, it would be very different from the current one.

I am not entirely surprised to report that Henry James did not make the cut, because anyone whose sentences routinely contain four dependent clauses is absolutely unrecitable. Books that are to be memorized and told aloud have to have rhythm, movement, recognizable human speech patterns. As my friend Craig said, memorably, "I would choose a book that invites recitation around the campfires outside the caves of the resistance movement. Dickens, Twain, Poe, something for the human voice." Twain's writing, especially Huckleberry Finn, was a frequent choice, partly because, as Bill said "it survives narration--it's true to genuine human speech."

But Twain was also chosen because of the believable characters, and what Bill called the "description of real life as it was lived at a specific time and place, literature as history and culture, too." For much the same reason, Mark chose Steinbeck's Cannery Row, a loving, detailed, truthful picture of a down-at-heels neighborhood that teems with love and death and drunken laughter as "something that celebrates life and reminds us how fleeting it is." The unexpected choice of one of my favorite humor writers was George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, because "moreso than any other author, Orwell can put you in the moment." And, perhaps, remind you of the power of language to make transient experience permanent?

Let's go back for a moment to those members of the resistance, sitting around the campfire. One of the questions I asked was "who are you remembering these books for--for yourself, the world, your children?" And the interesting answer Dan gave was "It's about preserving the literature I'd like to see as the driving force behind the society I inhabit." His choices were Edward Abbey's work (perhaps Desert Solitaire or one of his journals) and The Fountainhead. My son, for similar reasons, chose David Brin's The Postman, about a world after nuclear catastrophe, in which myth is as much a requirement for survival as courage and cooperation. John chose Fahrenheit 451 itself, as both history and remedy for a sick society.

Perhaps it is because you all would be resisters in this appalling society that several of you wanted to keep To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean liked the "quiet heroism...[of a] character dedicated to doing a job he believes in," which is to say, doing the right thing when your entire society is wrong. Gary said this book "turned things on inside me that I didn't know were there."

One of our priests chose to save a screenplay, " Johnny Got His Gun" because, "written as a protest against oppression and tyranny, its lessons would be needed..." And Paul thought the most useful thing he could memorize was "a book that could be used to free people." The book he chose was the autobiography of escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass--proof that determined people could wrest freedom from their oppressors. Martha wanted to save The Handmaid's Tale because it made her realize that she cared "enough about the freedoms built into the structure of this government that I would stand up unarmed in front of teenagers with machine guns to defend it."

Some books were chosen to remind people that life doesn't have to be this way, to tell them about "what once was, as well as what could be again." That's why Nancy chose Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine, a book "about a time when things were simpler, when people valued each other before things; a time when just being alive was enough to make for a wonderful day."

. Many of you chose to preserve something either for yourself or your children or both, which may be why the largest single category of books you saved was children's books. Gary told me a wonderful story about raising this question in a car full of computer professionals, who proceeded to jointly reconstruct the entire text of Green Eggs and Ham. (Has their been any author in this century, I wonder, as treasured as Dr. Seuss?) Also mentioned repeatedly were The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which Kim said "probably shaped me, or told me what I was even though I didn't know it yet, more than any other book" Also mentioned with great fondness were The Secret Garden, The Rainbow Goblins, The Phantom Toolbooth, and The Polar Express.

For some of us, bound up in that special children's book was the cozy remembered intimacy of being cuddled and loved while being read to. Judi said, "I have fond memories of my dad reading these stories to my sister and me when we were little, and then my reading them to my own children." Had I chosen to preserve any of the Oz books, which we had a complete set of, that would have been part of the reason--my mom read them to us, then passed them to my sister to read to her kids, who passed them back to me to read to my son; I passed them back to my brother to read to his grandchildren. Yeats was right, you know-- "How but in custom and in ceremony are innocence and beauty born?"

Perhaps, too, saving a treasured children's book means saving the childlike in ourselves, in a world grown bleak. Fantasy can also serve that purpose. George, one of several who chose Lord of the Rings, explained that "stories of courage and magic would be needed to inspire and delight." He also chose science fiction, because it "serves a role to encourage a sense of wonder about the world."

Of course, between you, all the great religious texts were saved. The teenage daughter of one of my friends said she wanted to preserve the Bible and the Koran, because they would help to make her a better person. Pat chose to preserve Emerson's essays, and Mark chose to save Walden for its reminder that we can live richly by living simply. Others found philosophical comfort in some less obvious places--Peter, for instance, chose Callahan's Cross Time Saloon because here he first encountered the notion that "shared pain diminishes; shared joy increases."

Books about bravery, heroism, adventure, and death, historical or fictional, abounded. Between you, you agreed to save The Odyssey, A Farewell To Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front (Kurt thought it important for us never to forget that war is hell), Bruce Catton's Centennial History of the Civil War ("it is all there," said Phil, "especially great heroism and greater tragedy"). Charlie chose classics that were also jolly good adventure stories, The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes and Don Quixote--"Let others save those [important ideas]," he said. "When they were starved for diversion, escape and entertainment, they'd come to me."

I asked if anybody would save any of the basic how-to books, and I am pleased to tell you that Ted volunteered to commit to memory three medical books. Not only will he be able to set our broken bones and perform appendectomies, but, since none of the rest of you saved law books, nobody will be able to sue him for malpractice.

Some of you chose to save some other important nonfiction. I liked Kurt's choice of Downs' Books That Changed the World. He said it would be a useful reminder, in this society, of the power books had once had to change ideas, and thus everything else. A historian chose to preserve Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian Wars, to remind people of how to write history. A Victorian literature professor, who I had assumed would save Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens, reasoned that there would be no lack of people willing to save the important books, but was "worried about lit that sits on a border, that isn't always seen as lit." So, he chose to become the journals of Samuel Pepys, Lewis and Clark, and Virginia Woolf. (Moral--don't ever think you know someone well enough to predict his behavior.) A theologian, also assuming that others would preserve the classic works, wanted to preserve "works that challenge us to continue growing as scholars;" her choices included Karl Rahner's book The Trinity.

I wondered whether anything trivial but pleasurable would be preserved, and the answer is yes. Joe would memorize Dave Barry Slept Here, and Christine, after memorizing the Bible, would memorize one of Danielle Steele's books, because "I think I would want to have some mindless entertainment from time to time." Were I to choose something of the sort, I would probably choose a romance by Mary Stewart or Elizabeth Peters, not just for the entertainment, but because the relationship between the hero and heroine is warm, amusing, and respectful--the same things several of us valued in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps we have some residual fear that in this primitive outlaw existence of rebellion against the state, men might relapse into a Me Tarzan You Jane state of mind. (Peter, being equally worried that this society would encourage women to be pretty, bubble-headed Barbie-dolls, thought he might also save M.M. Kaye's The Ordinary Princess.)

Now, the whole issue of saving books from the bookburners could be moot, because of the internet. Books might survive here forever simply because it is so difficult to kill a web site--close one site down and determined people will mount it elsewhere. Indeed, as Kurt suggested, one could also save books on computer disks labeled Fiscal Year Statistics 1987-88, and they would be safe from prying eyes forever.

But it's nice to know there are so many volunteers in what Drake calls "a conspiracy of goodness [that] could manage to save much if not all of literature." In fact, though we are choosing to preserve certain complete works, most of us also carry fragments of books and poems and stories and psalms around with us as well. We will not let these words die, not when we have children to pass them down to, and a new world waiting to be put in place with them, after we overthrow the wordless, mindless society of Fahrenheit 451

The Complete List:

Edward Abbey. Desert Solitaire
Jorge Amado. Gabriella, Clove and Cinnamon
Rudolfo Anaya. Bless Me, Ultima
Piers Anthony. Blue Adept
Frederick Artz. The Mind of the Middle Ages
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale
Jane Austen. Emma, and Pride and Prejudice
Richard Bach. The Bridge across Forever
Iain Banks. The Wasp Factory
Dave Barry. Dave Barry Slept Here
L. Frank Baum,. The Wizard of Oz
the Bible., with special mention of Genesis, the Gospel of John
Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine and Fahrenheit 451
David Brin. The Postman
Charlotte Bronte. Jane Eyre
Frances Hodgson Burnett. The Secret Garden
Orson Scott Card. Ender's Game
Anne Carr. Transforming Grace
Bruce Catton. The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat
Miguel de Cervantes. Don Quixote
Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness
Douglas Coupland. Microserfs
Dante. the Commedia
Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frerick Douglass
Robert B. Downs. Books That Changed the World
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes
Dumas. The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Three Musketeers
David Eddings. The Belgariad series and the Mallorean series
Ralph Waldo Emerson. The Essays
John Fowles. The Magus
Matthew Fox. Original Blessing
Carlos Fuentes. The Death of Artemio Cruz
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera, and One Hndred Years of Solitude
the Bhagavad Gita
William Goldman. The Princess Bride
Kenneth Grahame. The Wind in the Willows
Robert Heinlein. The Number of the Beast.
Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms
Herman Hesse. Demian
Homer. The Odyssey
John Irving. A Prayer for Owen Meany
Norton Juster. The Phantom Tollbooth
M.M. Kaye. The Ordinary Princess
Ken Kesey. Sometimes a Great Notion
W.P. Kinsella. Shoeless Joe
The Koran
Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird
Ursula LeGuin. The Dispossessed
C.S. Lewis. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Meriweather Lewis and William Clark. The journals.
Thomas Mann. The Magic Mountain
A.A. Milne. Winnie the Pooh, When We Were Very Young. Now We Are Six
John Milton. Paradise Lost
Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon
Robert C. O'Brien. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
George Orwell. 1984 and Down and Out in Paris and London
Alan Paton. Cry, the Beloved Country
Samuel Pepys. his diaries.
Karl Rahner. The Trinity
Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead
Eric Maria Remarque. All Quiet on the Western Front
Ul de Rico. Rainbow Goblins
Spider Robinson. Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon
Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow
Sandra Schneiders. The Revelatory Text
Sir Walter Scott. Ivanhoe
Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel). The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, Horton Hatches the Egg
Jane Smiley. A Thousand Acres
Betsy Smith. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Dodie Smith. I Capture the Castle
Solzhenitsyn. Cancer Ward
Susan Sontag. The Volcano Lover
John Steinbeck. Cannery Row
Robert Louis Stevenson. Kidnapped
Jonathan Swift. "A Modest Proposal."
Henry David Thoreau. Walden
Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian Wars
J.R.R. Tolkien. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (all three volumes)
Tristan et Iseut
Mark Twain. The Diaries of Adam and Eve, Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
John Updike. In the Beauty of the Lillies
Chris Van Allsburg. The Polar Express
Judith Viorst. If I Were in Charge of the World
Voltaire. Candide
Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse, and her journals
Patricia C. Wrede. Dealing with Dragons
Something by Poe, Dickens, Neal Stephenson, Danielle Steele, Mary Stewart, Elizabeth Peters.

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