Books of personal significance
On Facebook, a friend invited me to post 10 books of personal significance ... without any explanation. How does one choose just 10 books out of several decades of being an avid reader? Not an easy task, but a challenge is a challenge so off I went ...
Here are my choices; this time with a bit of explanation.
The Collector by John Fowles was the first novel in English that I read in it's entirety without a dictionary! I read other books in English beforehand, but always with a dictionary. This felt like such a feet! For the first time in my life, I felt I understood English. I became a reader in a third language.
I went on to read other novels by Fowles -- The French Lieutenant's Woman, A Maggot, The Magus-- and enjoyed them enormously, but The Collector still holds a special place in my mind and heart.
I wonder if other non-native English speakers have a particular affinity to their first English language novel.
Before I mastered English, I read lots of books by American authors in translation. James Baldwin was one of my favorite authors. His books were mandatory reading in my high school in communist Poland.
Baldwin's voice is timeless and very appropriate for today's struggles of Back people and the Black Lives Matter movement.
If you have not seen it yet, watch “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary about James Baldwin told entirely in his voice. Baldwin's writings from 1979 form the basis of the script for this documentary.
Many movies are based on novels. I usually try to read the novel before I see the movie. I like envisioning the protagonists using my own imagination, not the Hollywood take on what they should look like or how they should behave. This time, however, I made an exception and saw the movie first and read the book second.
Although it was years ago, I am still not sure if I would have imagined Oprah Winfrey as Sofia or Whoopie Goldberg as Celie. Reading the book it was hard to unsee the powerful images and people depicted in the movie.
This year marks the 35 anniversary of the film's release. And while some criticize the movie for turning Alice Walker's complex and nuanced book into simple entertainment, others stress that both the book and the move continue to reverberate in the African American community. In April of this year, IndieWire moderated a discussion with seven African American woman scholars and artists to explore the legacy of the film. You can read it here.
As a teenager, I was fascinated with Carson McCullers books. I was particularly drawn to her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. It fit the mood of an unpopular high schooler who preferred reading in isolation to parties and teen escapades.
And of course being born and living in a totalitarian regime for 30 years, I understood Orwell's 1984 in so many different ways that Western readers couldn't.
Although the first Polish translation of 1984 was published in 1953 in Paris. The book was banned in communist Poland. Those who could get their hands on the Parisian translation copied excerpts and whole chapters to read the book in hiding. As a young assistant professor teaching anthropology in Poznan, I had no access to the translated book but thanks to the robust library at the US Consulate in Poznan, I had an English version of the novel. I translated excerpts for a small group of my students whom I trusted not to share the fact that we were studying the book with any outsiders. I still remember some of the discussions we had.
I read poetry mainly in English. Somehow the emotional connection is not the same when I read poetry in English. I don't know why.... that's just the way it is.
One of my favorite Polish poets is Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski. He was part of the young generation of Polish poets, of whom several perished in the Warsaw Uprising and during the German occupation of Poland.
For Polish speakers, here are Anna Romantowska and Krzysztof Kolberg reading a selection of Baczynski's poems.
American adolescents had Holden Caulfield created by J.D. Salinger. In Eastern Europe female adolescents had Kriszti, the heroine of The Mask Ball by the Hungarian author Magda Szabó.
I also read a lot of books about writing. Flaherty's The Elements of Story is the one I return to over and over again... for inspiration, for affirmation, and simply for information.
If you are a writer -- academic like me or novelist -- read it, you will not regret it.
Two final books. Jeżycjada is a series of books by Małgorzata Musierowicz. Its name derives from the name of a neighborhood in my hometown of Poznań, Jeżyce. I was born and lived in that neighborhood for the first 30 years of my life. Reading and re-reading these books is pure nostalgia!
The very first book we read was In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. It is a story about Shirley Temple Wong who came from China to America with a heart full of dreams. Her new home is Brooklyn, New York. Shirley doesn't know any English, so it's hard to make friends. Then a miracle happens: baseball! It's 1947, and Jackie Robinson, star of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is a superstar. All of a sudden Shirley is playing stickball with her class and following Jackie as he leads the Brooklyn Dodgers to victory after victory. With her sports hero smashing assumptions and records on the ball field, Shirley begins to feel that America can become her real home.
The girls loved the book! We not only discussed every aspect of it, but also ordered Chinese to enjoy as we talked.
PS I teach a course entitled Accented Narratives: Migrants in Film, Literature, and Culture. While I obviously assign novels and ethnographies that I like and admire, I have not included them here. It seems that the books that were significant for me, I read earlier in my life. Not sure if this makes me jaded...