In Search of Story
I like endless lists of books as much as the next biblio-mad obsessed reader, but I always have a ridiculously hard time coming up with my own versions. I’ve written in the past about what it means when I say a liked a book, but my criteria for what makes a book “good” or even “great” are endlessly shifting and relative. I am no more capable of saying that Roberto Bolano is a better writer than Toni Morrison than I am of saying that Veal Saltimbucco is a better dish than Massaman Curry or a pint of Carolina Pulled-Pork Barbecue from Jackson’s Big Oak BBQ down the street. It’s all food. It’s all good. It’s all interesting.
So I have tried, and failed once again to come up with a list of the best books I read this year. I also tried, and failed to come up with a list of “favorite books” or “most significant books.” I felt like one of those parents who says to their eighteen children “We don’t have favorites, we love you each for who you are.” Which is an admirable stance for a parent but a frustrating one for a writer with a deadline.
Then I happened to notice a regularly occurring feature in Newsweek magazine, where authors were asked about the five most important books they had ever read. “Aha,” I thought. “I can do that.” Books, after all, are important to me. I spend quite a lot of time telling people this. Much of my internal, intellectual and philosophical life has been built from what I read in books.
So what would be my self-portrait in books? It would be hard to pick just five, of course. But if I were, it would be the books that were most important to my understanding of the nature of story. Somewhere along the line, and thanks largely to some of the books below, I came to the conviction that no matter what your spiritual beliefs, your moral imperatives, your justifications, ethical lines, politics, tastes, and cultural preferences—none of it would be possible if we couldn’t talk to each other, tell each other our stories. Story, I decided, is how we create reality. Understanding how we create story, then, was my endlessly fascinating obsession—a good trait, I think, in a self-educated book critic. So here are the books that are my most important books. Because I love how they tell the story.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte: There is a moment in Jane Eyre when Jane, estranged from Rochester and living in exile with her cousins, hears his voice calling her out of the dark. She must decide at that moment whether to stay where she is, or return to Rochester’s side, even though she would be returning to a man who almost entrapped her into a bigamous marriage. Critics often cite this as one of the more over-wrought passages in a book that doesn’t want for heady, florid and often gothic prose. But I was riveted. The implications of Jane’s choice burst over me in a sudden, cold wash—did she stay in a place where she was respectable, if unhappy, or return to the man she still loved? Jane Eyre’s dilemma made me realize for the first time in years of reading that “story” wasn’t just about the plot. What happens has meaning. Great stories were always trying to tell you something.
Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell: There are four novels in Lawrence Durrell’s famous Alexandrian Quartet—Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. The author intended them to be read in that order. Justine is a rather straightforward, if fraught, story about a love affair between a young writer and a dark beauty who is married to a very jealous, powerful man. It is the stuff of a hundred ballads. The following books all tell the same story, but from different points of view. I happened to read Balthazar first, which is a little like stepping into the middle of a conversation without having heard how it began. “Oh no,” says Balthazar to the young man, “she wasn’t in love with you at all,” and proceeds to cast an entirely different interpretation on the events of the first book. The novel is directly responsible for my blinding epiphany that the same story could be told in many different ways. That different people could babble the same story at the same time, and it would seem like many different stories. Truth, it turns out, is entirely relative.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell: Have you ever heard people in your book club talk about how “place is a character in this book” and wonder what they hell they meant? Joseph Mitchell taught me what it meant. His book—a writerly portrait of New York City—is as much about the buildings and streets, the piers, fishing boats and river banks, the markets and parks and old brownstones and streetcars and dingy bars as it is about the people sitting inside drinking watered-down beer or haggling with each other over fish at four a.m. at the docks. Up in the Old Hotel is one of the most beautiful books ever written, but it could have been written without ever mentioning a single person and it would still be a story. Somehow, Mitchell makes even buildings and stones and oily black fishing boats speak.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Whenever anyone asks me what I think is the most perfect novel, I say Gatsby. It took me twenty-odd years to appreciate it just how perfect it was. Because, you know, I’m a little slow on the uptake on some things. But I can’t find a single passage in this book that seems extraneous, or casual, or ugly. In fact, the language is so beautifully precise that if the book weren’t so obviously a novel, I’d call it poetry. It has the same economy of language, the same sense that every word is significant.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith: I have a fondness for books about little girls who love to read, so naturally I was destined to see young Francie Nolan as a kindred spirit. Francie spends much of her youth either reading her way through the library, or writing about her own life, and this first instilled in me the idea that everyone’s life is a story we tell to ourselves, every day. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also responsible for my conviction that Shakespeare was the most important author in who ever lived. Francie’s mother reads a page of the Bible and a Shakespeare to her every day, even though she doesn’t have a clue what is going on, because “even if you don’t understand it, the beauty of the language gets into you.” And A Tree Grows in Brooklyn also gave me this motto to live by: tell what really happened, but write what you think should have happened.
Which may well be the best piece of advice ever given to a young woman head over heels in love with Story.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities early when as a young child she asked her parents if she could exchange the jewelry a well-meaning relative had given her for Christmas for a dictionary instead. She supported her college career with a part-time job in a bookstore, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that her college career and attending scholarships and financial aid loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. She has been in the book business for over twenty years. Currently she works for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. Nicki has been a book reviewer for several magazines, her local public radio station and local television stations. She was one of the founders of The Cape Fear Crime Festival, currently serves as President of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Writers Network, and as Managing Editor of BiblioBuffet. Plus, she blogs at Will Read for Food. She manages all this by the grace of a very patient partner and the loving support of varying numbers of dogs and cats. Contact Nicki.