Tag Archives: literature

Blemished but Brilliant

Anna Karenina“There was a lot wrong with it and it was flawed in many ways…almost nobody liked the ending.”

Not the words you would expect to hear from the chair of the judges awarding a prestigious literary prize. But that is exactly what Times columnist Matthew Parris said, after he had handed over the £25,000 cheque for the Costa Book of the Year earlier this week.

In the end, Matthew Parris explained, many great books are also flawed in their own way, saying that even Shakespeare’s play The Tempest has a bad ending.

The Today programme asked two distinguished writers, to nominate some great, but flawed, works of literature.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Magnificent, but it does go on… many, many whale-related digressions. Only its terrific drive and characterization carry you along.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. That famous opening, but no one seems to remember the way Dickens goes on to hammer away at every possible subsequent variation on a theme of – it was the tallest, it was the shortest, it was the driest, it was the soggiest, it was the creamiest, it was the grittiest…

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Wonderful book, but possibly marred by all those digressions into agricultural theory and the incident when Vronsky accidentally snaps his horse – a slightly unlikely passage that no one ever seems to remember.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller Great concepts and characters, but the humour does tend to fall into a repeating pattern.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow by Peter Høeg. Again, a fine book – the giant sea worms at the end appearing like a dead weasel on the face of a much-loved friend.

More at BBC News

China Remembers Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. BuckIt is the highest house in all of Zhenjiang, tucked behind bamboo above the Yangtze mist shrouding Cloud Scaling Hill. The former occupants lie buried on two continents: the parents nearby, their famous daughter beneath Pennsylvania farm soil in a grave marked with her Chinese name. She arrived in China as a child of missionaries. Now, steles resembling tombstones front her gray brick childhood home. In English, the epitaph reads, “Here lived Pearl S. Buck, American author, born 1892, died 1973.” The more effusive carving in Chinese cites a Nobel Prize and the praise of a president: “Nixon called her a bridge between the civilizations of East and West.”

Zhenjiang is where author Pearl S. Buck grew up, where she experienced the sweat and toil of everyday Chinese life that dominated so many of her books and came to define China for a generation of Americans.

In Buck, the Chinese chose an unlikely heroine. For decades, her books were banned in China, and Buck was criticized as someone who vilified the Chinese because she depicted poor, illiterate peasants. Near the end of her life, as she longed to see the land of her childhood, the communist government harshly rejected her application for a visa.

The Good EarthIn the United States, interest in Buck dwindled after her death in 1973. Her best-known book, the 1932 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Good Earth,” continues to resonate; Oprah Winfrey picked it as a must-read. But her other titles struggle to find a modern audience. About 14,500 people a year visit her home in Perkasie, Pennsylvania.

In Zhenjiang, where she arrived as the 3-month-old daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck’s reputation is growing. The movement to recognize her started in the late 1980s, during the Reform and Opening period, when a few researchers began to explore the writings of this outspoken Western woman. Today she’s celebrated in Chinese TV specials and serials. A documentary co-produced by the Zhenjiang People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries describes her as “an American writer who told the Chinese stories in a Chinese way in English” — no small compliment in a culture obsessed with its own longevity and accomplishment.

There was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods…Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house, some time, return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth. They worked on, moving together-together-producing the fruit of this earth.

She grew up as a blue-eyed, blond-haired minority, taunted by other children as a “foreign devil,” a discrimination that fueled her later work for racial tolerance. Perhaps most of all, she devoted herself to children, and specifically to the adoption of Asian and Amerasian children, who were believed to be unadoptable in the 1940s.

Buck’s life spanned the Boxer Rebellion, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. She criticized Mao and U.S. policy toward China. Even now, there are people in the United States who consider her a communist. She spoke out early for civil rights and women’s rights — and did lasting damage to her reputation toward the end of her life by taking up with a dancing instructor half her age.

Full story at Detroit Free Press and at New York Times.

The 50 Best Cult Books

Yes, we love lists.

What is a cult book?

We tried and failed to arrive at a definition: books often found in the pockets of murderers; books that you take very seriously when you are 17; books whose readers can be identified to all with the formula ” whacko”; books our children just won’t get…

Cult books include some of the most cringemaking collections of bilge ever collected between hard covers. But they also include many of the key texts of modern feminism; some of the best journalism and memoirs; some of the most entrancing and original novels in the canon.

Cult books are somehow, intangibly, different from simple bestsellers – though many of them are that. The Carpetbaggers was a bestseller; Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a cult.

Cult Books

In compiling our list, we were looking for the sort of book that people wear like a leather jacket or carry around like a totem. The book that rewires your head: that turns you on to psychedelics; makes you want to move to Greece or conjures into being a character who becomes a permanent inhabitant of your mental flophouse.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Sideways fantasy from the Diogenes of American letters, a comic sage who survived the firebombing of Dresden and various familial tragedies to work out his own unique brand of science-fictional satire. Like much of Vonnegut’s stuff, this is savage anger barely masked by urbane anthropological sarcasm. Very much the place to start.

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (1957-60)
The great modern Baroque novel. Made it possible for the middle classes to embrace the Mediterranean. No such Alexandria ever existed, nor did the potboiler thriller plot of space/time exploration, Kaballa, sex, good food and drink (it came out during rationing) or philosophical enquiry. Some beautiful sentences, sure; but lots of them don’t make sense.

A Rebours by JK Huysmans (1884)
Plotless, morality-free salute to decadence. An individual based on its French author lounges about his luxurious home indulging in pursuits such as embedding gemstones in the shell of a tortoise until, loaded down, it expires. Dripping with Baudelairean ennui (and not a little dull itself), A Rebours was a bible for the Symbolists, Oscar Wilde and alienated creative types everywhere.

Baby and Child Care by Dr Benjamin Spock (1946)
Childcare experts go in and out of fashion, but Dr Benjamin Spock remains the daddy of them all. From his reassuring first sentence – “You know more than you think you do” – he revolutionised the way parents thought about their children, asserting the right to cuddle, comfort and follow your instincts. He also tells you how to deal with croup.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf (1991)
The woman who made feminism sexy by being gorgeous and shaving her legs also taught her readers to eat a hearty meal. This book argues that a cult of thinness has desexualised and disempowered women just when, after the acceptance of free love and the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the opposite should have happened. The most important feminist text of the past 20 years.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
In one of the original misery memoirs, Sylvia Plath delivered an intense, semiautobiographical story of growing up at a time when electroshock therapy was used to treat troubled young women. The narrator is a talented writer who arrives in New York with every opportunity before her, but buckles. The Bell Jar became a rallying call for a better understanding of mental illness, creativity and the impact on women of stifling social conventions. Plath killed herself a month after its publication.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Bitterly bouncy military farce, responsible for inventing the dilemma to which it gave its name: you’re only excused war if you’re mad, but wanting an exemption argues that you must be sane. Literary history would be entirely different if Heller had followed his original intention and called it Catch-18: it was changed to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book.

The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
Ur-text of adolescent alienation, beloved of assassins, emos and everyone in between, Gordon Brown included. Complicated teen Holden Caulfield at large in the big city, working out his family and getting drunk. You’ve probably read it, be honest.

The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (1993)
Deep in the South American jungle an intrepid explorer is about to stumble on a sequence of ancient prophecies that could change our way of living, even save the world. If only we didn’t have to buy the other novels in that the series to find out what they were! For a similar effect on the cheap, rent an Indiana-Jonesalike film – Tomb Raider, say – and ask a hippy to whisper nonsense in your ear while you’re watching it.

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (1971)
Blame a burgeoning mistrust of conventional psychiatry for the immediate impact of The Dice Man – a novel whose hero, a disillusioned psychiatrist, vows to make every decision of his life according to the roll of a die. As one might have expected from the times, chance sends him into violence and anarchy, which also explains the book’s enduring appeal.

Chariots of the Gods: Was God An Astronaut? by Erich Von Däniken (1968)
Those Easter Island things, they’re blokes wearing space suits, aren’t they? Er, no. Hugely influential work of mad-eyed fabricated Arch & Anth, responsible for decades of pub pseudoscience as well as for splendid stuff such as The X-Files. Increasingly common at jumble sales these days, though Von Däniken happily got another 25 books out of the idea.

See the next 39 selections and full story at The Telegraph UK

The Fioretti of Saint Francis

Saint FrancisFioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis) is a florilegium – a collection of excerpts – divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of the fabled saint, which was composed at the end of the 14th century.

The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 A.D. The text has been ascribed to Fra. Ugolino da Santa Maria, whose name occurs three times in the Actus.

The text has been the most popular account of his life and relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers.

It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

Wolf of GubbioFioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis.

“Brother Wolf, thou doest much harm in these parts and thou hast done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would make peace between you and the people.”

“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

In agreement the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio.

Meanwhile the townsfolk, having heard of the miracle, gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. He is quoted as saying: “How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?”

Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis, ever the lover of animals, even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again.

These legends exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint’s love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written by the saint in Umbrian Italian shortly before his death in 1226, which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and all of God’s creations personified in their fundamental forms. In Canticle of the Creatures, he wrote: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” His Canticle is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

It is an affirmation of Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, and rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favour of “Lady Poverty”.

Image: Saint Francis instructs the Wolf, Carl Weidemeyer-Worpswede, 1911

A Beautiful Sentence

Beauty, in a sentence, is as difficult to describe as beauty in a painting or a human face. If you are even thinking in these terms – that is, if you are even considering what might constitute strong vigorous, energetic, and clear sentences – you are already far in advance of wherever you were before you were conscious of the sentence as something deserving our deep respect and enraptured attention.

Consider the sentence that begins Samuel Johnson’s brief biography, The Life of Savage.

It has been observed in all ages that the advantages of nature or of fortune have contributed very little to the promotion of happiness; and that those whom the splendour of their rank, or the extent of their capacity, have placed upon the summits of human life, have not often given any just occasion to envy in those who look up to them from a lower station; whether it be that apparent superiority incites great designs, and great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages; or that the general lot of mankind is misery, and the misfortunes of those whose eminence drew upon them an universal attention, have been more carefully recorded, because they were more generally observed, and have in reality only been more conspicuous than others, not more frequent, or more severe.

The quality that this sentence shares with all good sentences is clarity. Between its initial capital letter and its final period are 134 words, ten commas, and three semicolons, and yet the average reader, or at least the reader who has the patience to read and consider every word, will have no trouble understanding what Doctor Johnson is saying.

SentenceDespite its length, the sentence is economical. To remove even one word would make it less lucid and less complete, as Johnson takes an observation so common as to have become a cliché (money and fame don’t by themselves make us happy) and turns it, then turns it again, considering the possible explanations, the reasons why this perception may be true or merely appear to be true. The sentence combines a sort of magisterial authority with an almost offhand wit, in part because of the casual ease with which it tosses off sweeping philosophical generalizations (“great designs are naturally liable to fatal miscarriages”, “the general lot of mankind is misery”) compressed into subordinate clauses, as if the truth of these statements is so obvious to both the writer and the reader that there is no need to pause over these pronouncements, let alone give them sentences of their own.

Possibly the principal reason why the sentence so delights us is that to read it is to take part in the process – the successive qualifications and considerations – of thought itself, of a lively mind at work. Finally, the cadence and rhythm of the sentence are as measured and pleasing as those of poetry or music.

Excerpted from Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer, HarperCollins, 2006

It’s Not You, It’s Your Books

It’s Your BooksSome years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”

We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility.

Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused.” (Members of theatlasphere.com, a dating and fan site for devotees of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” might disagree.)

Judy Heiblum, a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, shudders at the memory of some attempted date-talk about Robert Pirsig’s 1974 cult classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” beloved of searching young men. “When a guy tells me it changed his life, I wish he’d saved us both the embarrassment,”

Let’s face it — this may be a gender issue. Brainy women are probably more sensitive to literary deal breakers than are brainy men. (Rare is the guy who’d throw a pretty girl out of bed for revealing her imperfect taste in books.)
Still, to some reading men, literary taste does matter. “I’ve broken up with girls saying, ‘She doesn’t read, we had nothing to talk about,’” said Christian Lorentzen, an editor at Harper’s.

James Collins, whose new novel, “Beginner’s Greek,” is about a man who falls for a woman he sees reading “The Magic Mountain” on a plane, recalled that after college, he was “infatuated” with a woman who had a copy of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” on her bedside table. “I basically knew nothing about Kundera, but I remember thinking, ‘Uh-oh; trendy, bogus metaphysics, sex involving a bowler hat,’ and I never did think about the person the same way (and nothing ever happened),” he wrote in an e-mail message.

Naming a favorite book or author can be fraught. Go too low, and you risk looking dumb. Go too high, and you risk looking like a bore — or a phony.

But how much of all this agonizing is really about the books? Often, divergent literary taste is a shorthand for other problems or defenses. “I had a boyfriend I was crazy about, and it didn’t work out,” Nora Ephron said. “Twenty-five years later he accused me of not having laughed while reading ‘Candy’ by Terry Southern.

Some people just prefer to compartmentalize. Ariel Levy says that when she wants to talk about books, she goes to her book group. Compatibility in reading taste is a “luxury” and kind of irrelevant.

Marco Roth, an editor at the magazine n+1, said: “I think sometimes it’s better if books are just books. It’s part of the romantic tragedy of our age that our partners must be seen as compatible on every level.” Besides, he added, “sometimes people can end up liking the same things for vastly different reasons, and they build up these whole private fantasy lives around the meaning of these supposedly shared books, only to discover, too late, that the other person had a different fantasy completely.”

Excerpted from The New York Time Sunday Book Review article by Rachel Donadio, March 30, 2008.

Canada’s Melancholy Bard

Poet, musician, novelist, ladies’ man, monk, actor… Leonard Norman Cohen, one of Canada’s most influential cultural icons was born on Sept. 21, 1934 in Montreal. Whether from a mountaintop at a Buddhist retreat in California, on the Greek island of Hydra or strolling along the streets of his beloved ville d’amour, the melancholy bard of popular music has delighted fans worldwide with his poetry, novels and music.

Leonard CohenLeonard Cohen’s towering songbook fits no category save its own, but they finally found a house big enough to hold him. Cohen’s overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came during Monday night’s ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York.

Between the inductions of Madonna, John Mellencamp, the Ventures, Gamble & Huff and Little Walter, Lou Reed took the podium to offer a generous tribute to his fellow rock poet.

Reed mentioned William S. Burroughs and Cohen as contemporaries, citing Naked Lunch and Beautiful Losers, and saying “one of them got more attention. I was always surprised by that.” Reed then quoted lavishly from the Cohen oeuvre from typewritten remarks, from First We Take Manhattan, Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, Anthem and Cohen’s latest work Book of Longing. It was, appropriately, a most writerly induction for Montreal’s greatest living artist.

Cohen pronounced the induction “such and unlikely event” and “not a distinction I coveted,” while joking that music critic Jon Landau once said “I have seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and he is not Leonard Cohen.” Then came the perfect recital of Tower of Song before Damien Rice serenaded the hall with Hallelujah.

The evening was doubly celebratory for Montrealers as it was accompanied by the announcement of Cohen’s first live dates in Montreal in 15 years, with three shows at Place des Arts – June 23, 24 and 25 – as part of this year’s Montreal International Jazz Festival. There is also talk of an album.

Details at Montreal Gazette

CBC Digital Archives

Leonard Cohen website

Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret

The lighting is bordello red, but the librarians insist that their X-rated exhibition is serious.

Hell at the Library, Eros in Secret, which opened at the National Library in Paris last month, offers a peek at its secret archive of erotic art, putting on display more than 350 sexually explicit literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, photographs, film clips, even calling cards and cardboard pop-ups.

Croix Rouge metro station

Visitors to the library can listen to a modern-day recording of an 18th-century “dialogue” during sex and watch a six-minute excerpt from a grainy black-and-white silent pornography film made in 1921.

The handwritten manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Les Infortunes de la Vertu (The Misfortunes of Virtue) is under glass here, as are 17th-century French engravings of “erotic postures”; English “flagellation novels” exported to France in the late 19th century; Japanese prints; Man Ray photographs; and a police report from 1900 that compiles the addresses of Paris’s houses of prostitution and what they charged.

To avoid complaints that a publicly supported institution is corrupting the country’s youth, no one under 16 is admitted.

“In an era where sexual images are a product for popular consumption, the library has decided to lift the veil on this world of imagination and fantasy,” Bruno Racine, the library director, said in an interview. “The library is a very serious institution, and the project was done with gravity. But we also perhaps are different from what you think — and there is humor here too.”

The items, on display through March 22, are drawn from a permanent collection created in the 1830s when the library isolated works considered “contrary to good morals.” They were put in a locked section with its own card catalog and given the name L’Enfer — hell. Many pieces have been consigned there over the years by the police for safeguarding, perhaps, and posterity.

The exhibition (and its 464-page catalog) comes at a time when France is struggling with a variety of societal issues: the limits of privacy for its public figures, censorship and the definition of good taste. A one-day scholarly conference at the library about the exhibition included a debate on the meaning of modern-day censorship. Library curators acknowledge that public morality is shifting.

President Nicolas Sarkozy himself is blurring the lines of public permissibility. His decision to revel in, rather than hide, his love affair with Carla Bruni, a model-turned-pop-singer, is, he said at a news conference last week, a break with the past and a sign that “France is moving forward.”

However, Ségolène Royal, the Socialist defeated by Mr. Sarkozy in last May’s presidential election, is calling for more decorum and discretion in public life. “Nicolas Sarkozy has chosen to turn private events in his life into public events, like Louis XIV: You have the king’s breakfast, the king’s lunch, the king’s bedtime, the king’s mistresses,” she said in a radio interview on Monday.

Even Simone de Beauvoir’s backside is not off limits from exposure and analysis these days. The decision by the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur two weeks ago to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of that feminist literary figure with a nude photo of her (taken from the back in 1952) has been sharply criticized and just as sharply defended.

Florence Montreynaud, a historian and feminist author who runs an anti-sexism organization, protested the photo by offering the magazine’s director, Jean Daniel, a choice: apologize or bare his own bottom. She also said the magazine should publish the bare buttocks of Jean-Paul Sartre, Beauvoir’s long-time partner.

The fact that the cellulite on Beauvoir’s thighs and buttocks was airbrushed away added to the indignity. The media columnist for the newspaper Libération, Daniel Schneidermann, wrote: “The photo has even been retouched — the buttocks of Beauvoir — with makeup, to make them lose some kilos, some rolls of fat and to take off 10 years.”

The Paris metro system constructed a teaser for the show on its No. 10 line. Commuters passing by the closed Croix Rouge station get the most fleeting of glimpses of erotic engravings lighted up in shocking pink and partly hidden behind fluttering black curtain strips.

The newspaper Le Monde has run ads for the show (with a shocking-pink X) on its front page. The literary review Le Magazine Littéraire devoted its December cover to the subject, with scholarly essays on sex and aging, the last taboo of pedophilia and whether excessive public display of sex has made it boring.

Still, with France’s tough laws against pornography and one of the most aggressive law-enforcement campaigns against child pornography in Europe, the library has taken care to avoid falling afoul of the law. . . .

New York Times, January 16, 2008

The 50 Greatest Books

Huckleberry FinnThis week, Canada’s Globe and Mail began a new literary series, the 50 Greatest Books.

Over the coming year, an international panel chosen by The Globe and Mail will select the 50 Greatest Books ever written. Each week, a single work will be discussed by an expert or a writer passionate about the work in question.

As columnist Martin Levin explains, “I know, it’s an entirely presumptuous label, and no doubt we’ll leave off dozens that readers feel belong. So why not simply 50 Great Books?”

In part, because the G&M wants readers to engage in the discussion through its forum for outraged advocates or critics, clever ripostes and tut-tutting over obvious oversights — and in part because in making distinctions, the G&M implicitly rejects the postmodern view that won’t allow privileging Anna Karenina over the James Bond books.

A great book is adjudged a great book over time by virtue of offering things — astonishing ideas, unforgettable characters, imaginative sublimity, glorious prose — that cannot be got elsewhere, and that tell us something new about the human (or other) condition.

The 50 will not be ranked in order. Just choosing them is adventurous enough. The entries will be derived from discussions among members of the panel. Their carefully guarded identities will be revealed only at the end of the series, when readers will be invited to engage with them more directly. Each entry will be written by someone with knowledge, usually extensive knowledge, of the book in question.

We realize the abounding questions as to establishing criteria. One juror has raised several important points, perhaps the central of which is how to mediate between a book’s literary or intellectual qualities and its importance. Given that the King James Bible (not the Hebrew or Greek versions) is both poetically magnificent and of unsurpassed significance, I find it hard to imagine its absence. But what about the Koran, clearly almost unparalleled in its influence, though perhaps not in literary value. But it may be to readers of Arabic, which raises another issue: How does one judge a work (as pure work) in a foreign language?

Never mind works in Japanese or Arabic. Our juror cites Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. There is common agreement among German speakers that the writing is beautiful, but can a jury of English-speakers tell? A case that blends both translation and “importance” is Rousseau’s The Social Contract. The book has had incalculable influence, informing the work of Kant, Hume, Tolstoy and of almost every post-Rousseau French writer. Our juror suggests, though, that as a work marrying literature to ideas, most English-speakers might opt for The Confessions.

Is it a cheat to cite the Complete Works of Shakespeare, which contain at very minimum a half-dozen works of genius? Or do we simply opt for King Lear or Hamlet? Is it the collected works of T. S. Eliot, or Four Quartets? Or neither? If we think Emily Dickinson deserving, how is it possible to single out an individual work?

And how are we to estimate texts that were once of overwhelming scientific influence: Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Vesalius? Since science proceeds by falsifiability, it is in the very nature of the scientific text to be superseded. Newton’s Principia Mathematica may be almost unread now, but our world is inconceivable without it.

So many issues, so many books.

First entry: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Read Huckleberry Finn online

Providence of a Sparrow

Providence of a SparrowEven in the weak winter light seeping into the room, his colors astonish me. Russet brown and tan, silver, black, white and gray. … His are the shades of subtle intimation, the perfection of understated tones.

One day, a baby sparrow plummeted 25 feet from a nest tucked in the eaves of a Southeast Portland home and landed in a clump of dying irises.

This would have been an entirely unremarkable event had the home’s owner, a man named Chris Chester, not discovered the baby bird in his flower beds, naked-winged and helpless – a limp, clammy thing not much bigger than Chris’ thumb.

At first he was hesitant to pick it up, his “compassion having been hobbled by childhood memories of failed bird rescues. … I remembered shoeboxes with plucked-up grass as padding, inappropriate offerings of bread and worms. The tiny, inevitable corpse come morning.”

But eventually, he took it in his hands and carried it into his home.

Maybe, in the end, we are drawn to vulnerable things because we recognize in them our own frailty – that deep down we are all somehow broken, flightless, naked in a heap. When he found this particular vulnerable thing, Chris was 41, and in his own words, as depressed as he had ever been, living “below sea level,” struggling to get things done.

Chris had always dreamed of writing a book. He would say that he just knew it was what he was meant to do, and he would try in fits and starts – he’d written poetry for years, even frequented open-mike nights around town many years ago – but he could never get far. “He just couldn’t focus,” his ex-wife, Rebecca Lester, says. He doubted. He fretted. He silenced himself with terrible writer’s block.

And then, down tumbled the sparrow.

When it became clear the bird would survive, Chris named him B. Just B. Just Be. One of Chris’ favorite things to do was to cradle B in his cupped hand, feel his warmth.

In the days following Chris’ death everyone agreed that this was one of the happiest times in Chris’ life. It was as if he had finally found the words for everything he ever wanted to say.

Chris ChesterI offer B my right shoulder after I walk inside. He puffs and stretches, glances at the papers in my hand before hopping down. We’ve gone through this routine innumerable times, yet I ponder each repetition as the steps unfold, knowing that I’ll one day be desperate to recall all B-related things. Every day I vow and every day fail to take nothing for granted regarding those tricks time plays on complacency.

B pulled Chris outside of himself, and in doing so, he gave him something to write about: this crazy life he was living – living – with a bird flying around in the background, seed husks crunching underfoot.

But that was just the starting point.

Really, what B gave Chris was the chance to write about finding meaning and wonder in the smallest things. About the joy of finding something, anything, that can keep you focused on the moment and away from your more destructive forces: the doubts and worries and fears that keep us from being present in our own lives, that keep us from risking our feelings, even if that means experiencing the ache of loss.

One night, you accompany Rebecca as she goes to fetch Chris’ birds, and move them to her house.

Rebecca is pale and shaky, and she keeps repeating, alternately “I can’t believe he’s gone,” and “It’s so hard to be here.”

It’s clear by the state of his house that Chris had suffered both physically and existentially in his last year. That, as his nephew put it, it had become more and more like a birdhouse Chris was simply visiting. The pain of his last few years is almost palpable.

And yet, while Rebecca is upstairs preparing the birds, and you are wandering through the rooms downstairs, studying his collection of books and marveling at the mind they reflect, you spot a small rectangle of paper lying on one of the bookshelves.

Just a few minutes before, you had ventured upstairs to be introduced to the birds, and as the rest of the flock careened and spun around the room, one brave sparrow landed briefly on your open palm. And you imagined you could feel the weight of every tiny bone, every feather.

You are reminded of that moment as you pick up the piece of paper and realize that it is Chris’ name tag from the Oregon Book Awards, the dark fibers of his jacket still stuck to the back – and you know you are holding something incredibly fragile in your hands.

Sparrow Man