These days, Thanksgiving sometimes seems to be “That Holiday between Halloween and Christmas.” Or “The Day before Black Friday”- although a number of stores have decided Friday begins on Thursday. Or “The Day of the Macy’s Parade, followed by Endless Football.” Or “The Best Meal of the Year,” when we reach for our chubby-faced Pilgrim salt and pepper shakers and apply liberal – or conservative – amounts of seasoning to our food, then push back from the table, loosen our belts, and pick up the remote.
But these words – thanks giving – still resonate.
Back in 1621, that first Thanksgiving, after a year in which over half of their original number perished from disease and malnutrition, 50 Mayflower Pilgrims sat down with approximately 90 of their Wampanoag neighbors to celebrate the traditional English harvest festival. These 50 settlers, refugees from religious persecution, had not starved, thanks in large part to the kindness of Squanto, a local Indian who had earlier been kidnapped and taken to England. He acted as their interpreter and taught them how to fertilize their soil with dried fish to yield a bounteous corn crop. Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, signed a treaty with the Pilgrims, a treaty that was never broken, and supplemented their food supply for several years.
More than two hundred years later, in 1863, even as the Civil War raged, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national celebration.
Our modern life, easier in so many ways, is still marred by darkness, yet we remain grateful for our lives and hopeful for the future. Today, we the cooks at Readers Unbound serve you a banquet of our own kind – a literary banquet – of the books for which we are most thankful. We invite you to share your own choices.
I am thankful for The Secret Garden, my favorite book when I was a child. Stories about heroic girls were few and far between back then, and this little girl was heroic with her compassion. The book helped me find my path. Also, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning – read this in college, and it also gave me a way of thinking of my own journey. I have been through difficult things, but if I can find meaning in them, I sort of can’t lose.
Roget’s Thesaurus: What would I do without it?
The Name of the Rose (for its intelligent style – I could read it over and over)
The Diary of Anne Frank for its humanity and honesty.
The Emory Seasons cookbook because every recipe is great!
The Episcopal Hymnal, 1982, for its music, most of which is lovely and fun to sing.
I’m most thankful for Serena by Ron Rash, Longman by Amy Greene, and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I chose these three Southern novels because they were immensely helpful teaching and showing me how to use concrete imagery. Longman and Cold Mountain give a lush sense of the natural world, so vivid that, as a reader, I felt I could step right into it. Serena‘s imagery conveys theme (show, don’t tell) similar to Puccini’s use of leitmotifs in Tosca or Madama Butterfly.
- Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell – it was immediately upon finishing that delightful classic in the eighth grade that I first said, “Wow! I so want to write a book someday.”
- Tai-pan, by James Clavell – this book opened my eyes up to the amazing world of historical sagas and Asia, the latter of which was a fascination that I retained for many years.
- The Art of Doubles: Winning Tennis Strategies and Skills, by Pat Blaskower – reading this book made me realize that my secret dreams of becoming a doubles tennis super-star at forty-two may not come to fruition.
- Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark – a wonderfully complete list of writing tips that I have referenced over and over again as I continue my journey as an author.
Deb: My criterion for discerning the difference between “thankful for” books and “favorite” books is the extent to which I depend on them. By this standard, the books I’m thankful for are not the favorites remembered with deep fondness due to pleasure or influence derived at the time of their reading, but the practical ones that currently simplify my life on a regular basis, measured by how often I consult them.
How to Cook Everything, by Mark Bittman. Full of reliably delicious recipes and menus one actually chooses for daily cooking, it also offers multiple ways to adapt each recipe to the ingredients you have on hand, making it my cookbook of choice.
The Sibley, the Stokes, and the Peterson field guides to bird identification, for the support they offer to the great surprise hobby of my retirement, birding.
Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. The clearest, simplest, smallest, yet most comprehensive guide a writer can consult for questions of grammar, word usage, and punctuation. Having worn one paperback version to shreds, I recently acquired the new leather-bound 50th anniversary edition, which is still a tiny easy-to-grab volume that stays on my desktop along with Webster’s Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus.
Almost any book by Annie Dillard, but especially Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which I read from cover to cover at least once a year, for her insightful and funny nature observations. Chapter 2, “Seeing,” inspired me to begin another retirement habit of sitting outside for an hour a day in the simple act of paying attention to the nature around me, at the end of the hour to write briefly about the one most significant thing observed. My life has been forever improved by this habit.
There is a special shelf in my psychic library for books that stretch the imagination. Such books include The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and the Southern Vampire Mysteries (starring a telepathic barmaid named Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris. I mostly turn to them during dark nights of the soul. Their feisty heroines exemplify personal strength, their twisty plots demand my total attention (thus pulling me out of myself), and their moments of quirky humor always manage to put a smile on my face.
Little Golden Books – because I had a stack of these two feet tall and I firmly believe they are what started me on my journey of the love of reading.
The Secret Garden – an elementary school teacher read this aloud to my class, and thus was born my love of gothic. Wuthering Heights anyone?
Bird by Bird – for Anne Lamott’s encouragement to write the truth, no matter how sweet, pretty, mean, or ugly.
I’m thankful for the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor. My 2nd/3rd grade teacher read some of these books aloud to us during homeroom as we camped out by her feet. I already had a love of reading, but these early morning installments of a Lower East Side family at the turn of the 20th century locked it up.
I’m also thankful for a particular copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Garden of Verses, given to me when I was about six by a client of my father’s. She inscribed the inside of the small leather bound volume to me, imploring me to enjoy the poems as much as she had when she was a child.
The Oxford English Dictionary – As Longfellow said, “The love of learning, the sequestered nooks. And all the sweet serenity of books.” That’s the OED for me. And for Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, which introduced me to the background of this majestic work.
The collected works of William Shakespeare – If someone has ever more accurately or more succinctly had the ability to describe human nature and the human condition, I’m unaware of them. And in iambic pentameter no less. The monumental achievement that are Shakespeare’s collected works (yes, written by Shakespeare!) are unparalleled in my view.
There are also several books significant to my relationship with my wife. When we first starting seeing each other, we were living in different states, and we read Anne Ursu’s Spilling Clarence at the same time, on librarian Nancy Pearl’s recommendation. It is a story about memory and forgiveness. When living in the same place, we read Paul Collins’ Sixpence House and Lewis Buzbee’s The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop aloud to each other. I’m thankful for the common language books gave us when we were apart, and the time they allowed us to spend together when we were in the same place.
Finally, I’m thankful for the several hundred large print books my grandmother read in the last few years of her life; books I placed on hold for her from 2,500 miles away that my dad picked up, so that she was able to read, even with increasing macular degeneration.
Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, was the first book I ever read on the craft of writing. There are a lot more of those than there used to be, but I still think this is one of the best.
The Tassajara Cookbook, which brought a little Zen to my kitchen.
The Oxford English Dictionary: all the words!
If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler – Italo Calvino: I read this book when I was 17 or 18, and was blown away. It’s a novel! It’s in the 2nd person! It has sexy parts! It was the funnest, most intellectual thing I’d ever read, and it encouraged me to pursue years of reading through European authors. It also opened my mind to possibilities of plot and character I’d have never considered. In fact, I should re-read it again.
The Engineer of Human Souls – Josef Skvorecky: This is like my comfort book I read every few years. I think it’s a shame that Skvorecky, a Czech expat writing out of Canada, isn’t more widely read. This book has everything: warmth, humor, politics, and heart.
Shades of Gray, by Carolyn Reeder: I read this book in like sixth grade. It’s about an orphan boy who goes to live with his “cowardly” uncle who refused to flight for the South in the Civil War. The book has many great exchanges between the boy and his uncle, and it was the first morally complicated book I remember reading. To this day I think one of the greatest gifts you can give a child (or young adult) is a ability to change their perspective.
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez, telling of the political oppression in the Dominican Republic, during the 1960s, and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, showing the boldness and resilience of people in the face of tyranny, are two books that make me extremely thankful for the freedom in America.
The Nancy Drew mystery series that started my lifelong love of the mystery genre.
Then, to continue, my initial foray into grownup crime–John D. MacDonald and the Travis McGee books–I was so in love with him!
Serious fiction–Jane Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot, just because.
And finally, Traveling Mercies by Ann Lamott, which is a book I read over and over again for its life lessons, and the one I’ve given most often as a gift.
(Art credit: algonquinredux.com)
Now, Dear Reader, it’s your turn. What books are you most thankful for and why?