Monday, October 26, 2015

Knopf 100--Day 8

Every now and then a book sings to me. I like a lot of books, but a few rise into a different category, the books that make me happy that I get to work with books everyday. Here are a few of the books that mean the most to me.

25. The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine, originally published in 2008. Part retelling of The Arabian Nights, part history of Lebanon, part family story, all twisting and turning into a narrative that spins into stories within stories within stories. Pigeon wars in the skies of Beirut, hellish imps and the hand of Fatima, and a son returning home to see his dying father--these are just a few of the things I love about The Hakawati. "Hakawati" means "storyteller," the term for the Scheherazade-type entertainers in the tea houses of Lebanon, spinning yarns each afternoon that end with cliffhangers that keep people coming back every day for more. The Hakawati is particularly significant for me because I read it (and then sold it) in the year I started working for Random House and became a focal point of how I could find my place in this job.

26. Wild by Cheryl Strayed, originally published in 2012. Cheryl Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail hit several nerves for me. I have always liked memoirs about strong women. I'm a huge national parks fan and particularly love the Sierra Nevada mountains. Strayed's memoir is about struggling with the devastating loss of her mother to cancer and the downward spiral that death created. I read Wild before it was published (like most books, we read them in advance), while on a plane in April, 2011, on my way to Yosemite National Park. At the time my mother was dying from terminal cancer. While my relationship with my mother differed from Strayed's, my mother was an English teacher and did foster my love of books. This book became a marker for that period of my life.

27. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, originally published in 1963. I didn't expect to be a History major in college. I expected to be an English major and successfully channel my love of books and lack of career aspirations into....little. I expected to die young, but well-read. There was an American History professor at my university, though, that was the finest teacher I've encountered. She inspired me and challenged me and scared me and called bullshit when I was being an asshole, and because her classes were so great, I ended up with a double major. One of the works she introduced to me was Hofstadter's classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (she introduced me to a lot of great books, but they aren't all on the Knopf list). Hofstadter looked at the rise of "practical" American life and with it the dying of philosophy, looking at the effects in culture, education, politics, and business. For his efforts, this book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964. I think about this book quite a bit, particularly when watching election cycles play out. The smartest person doesn't win an election most of the time; it's the guy who is "relatable." Didn't Americans want to have a beer with George W. Bush, folksy former playboy? Didn't Rick Perry run an "oops" campaign? Yeah.

28. The Trial by Franz Kafka, originally published in 1937. Okay, so as much as I loved the history classes I took in college, that's how much I hated the foreign language requirement. I could passably translate on paper the German I slogged through for four semesters, but the speaking part still gives me nightmares. Sprechen Sie Deutsch? NEIN. (I don't even know anymore if that's proper German grammar.) Anyway, in the third and fourth semesters we began reading texts that were pulled from actual German books. The one I remember most vividly was a section of The Trial by Franz Kafka. There was this guy at this door and he couldn't go through the door or wouldn't? Try making sense of this story when you aren't even sure you know the words. I went back and read the English translation of the novel to figure out what the hell was happening. Kafka's work is one of those classics you should read in order to understand the futility of bureaucracy and also so you sound intelligent in parties...not that I attend parties.

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