My good friend, Jill, posted a "meme" on facebook that interested me because I couldn't fulfill its terms. She asked that everyone whom she had linked to her space as a friend cite 15 meaningful books that really influenced us in life. She came up with 15 and explained her thinking to me:
"The request is supposed to be for the 15 books that have been most influential on you, not necessarily your favorite. As an example, I think of Austen's Persuasion again and again, when I see a person that is surrounded by weak-minded people that exercise control over them (thinking of my friend Dan's work situation here). Of course when confronted with over-arching government interference I think of 1984. 1984 is not a favorite book of mine, but one I think of frequently.
My problem was it's hard for me to come up with 15 books that really influenced me. I immediately had two: Austen's Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park. The whole outlook of Mansfield Park has helped reinforced my attitude of mind towards experience and Fanny Price has helped me feel better about myself, for I too have felt and still feel the way she does before closed doors; I too intensely dislike ridicule of others, live within and on myself, have been an outsider. Just the other day in Davies's modernized depiction of Elinor Dashwood (played by Hattie Morahan) in the 2008 S&S, there is a scene where she tells her mother, Mrs Dashwood, not to write Edward, not to beg him to come to them or write to them: if he doesn't want to come for whatever reason, they are better off living with it. They cannot make him come nor do they know why he is not.
Then we see her enduring on as she shops, walks on the cobb, draws, reads. It gives me strength to watch her to do thia and accept.
But what else? not Trollope. No book in Trollope has directly influenced the way I actually think or live, nor has any character made me want to emulate her and it's rare I recognize myself in any of the women (some exceptions where I do include Miss Emily Forester in "Journey to Panama," the alcoholic scholar in "The Spotted Dog", Alice Vavasour in Can You Forgive Her?). . Perhaps Johnson's Ramblers Adventurers Idlers once upon a time. Yes. I used to read them nightly when I ws 28 and I have in recent times turned to them for thoughts to strengthen and help me through a crisis. I remember in one he writes words which mean never want from others what you cannot have as a natural right or without clawing it; it is not safe and not good for your tranquillity, virtue, or sanity. He shows how you may be more than emotionally tortured by wishing or hoping and then acting intensely for what you cannot have (this connects back to Elinor Dashwood's comment above) One is influenced by what one's character is ready for: my temperament is that the hoped aroused which is crushed hurts more than not having it; I prefer to base myself on experience (Johnson calls this the stability of truth) rather than any romantic dream.
I'm not sure Richardson's Clarissa actually influenced me -- much as it has been a book that I have reread so many times and spent 5 years of my life explicating in 800 pages (1/3 on women's romance and 1/3 on reverie as the creative state for making novels and getting readers to live in them). The revealing thing about Clarissa and these older books is often I prefer the modern version of the character to the original. I've disliked Richardson's Anna Howe strongly (for her density, coldness, obtuse betrayals of Clary), but Nokes and Barron's strong and kind one, how I love her. Similarly I prefer Fay Weldon's minor characters in Austen's P&P (Weldon's Mary Bennet, Kitty, Anne De Bourgh).
Bachelard's Poetics of Reverie taught me much and more about art and creativity than anything I've read but Trollopes Autography and Henry James's Notebooks and prefaces to his novels.
Jill says that as she thinks about "over-arching government interference" (which by the way doesn't exist; we don't have any help from government for real and it's only when we want the few things from government the state says we can have do we encounter individuals and then Johnson's statement is the relevant one), she thnks, she says, of 1984; well, the vision of humankind I found in Primo Levi's If this be man and La tregua (translation difficult, it means truce or afterwards) would be that for me.
Then her friend, Herman, made a suggestion. He widened the meaning of influence:
"It's funny; when I posed this to Herman, he said it would be a more useful question to ask him what his 15 most influential musical pieces were. I agreed and he promised to think about it."
If I could widen the meaning to include the 15 most influential works of literary art on my sense of what art is and how I relate to it, and if useful means helping me in general to get through life by providing beauty, kindness, consoling and strengthening truths that don't skirt the cruelties and injustices that shape life, what I go for to get through my days, then I would have trouble limiting the list to 15. Also I have to be able to state one of the items as a general category:
1) Sense and Sensibility
2) Mansfield Park
3) Johnson's Ramblers, Idlers, and Adventurers
4) Richardson's Clarissa (recently further explicated by Diderot's La Religieuse, and Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery)
5) Many of Trollope's novels and his Autobiography, "The Pandragon," "A Walk in a Wood"
6) Many deep-feeling musing women's poems: they can be comic as well as overtly emotional; they must be beautiful; Anthony Hecht's Venetian Vespers, Empson's villanelles (the whole of "Missing Dates" and lines like "Much afraid went over the river singing, though none knew what she sang"); and quite a number of 18th century & 19th century poems by men, Pope's Horatian poems, Cowper, romantic poetry (among which I list Austen's Persuasion)
8) Primo Levi's If this be man and La Tregua
9) Elsa Morante's Storia
10) 18th and early 19th century women's letters and memoirs (from Julie de Lespinasse and Madame du Deffand to Elizabeth Grant Smith and Fanny Burney, Oliphant's autobiography to George Sand's memoirs); and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Teheran
11) Modern women's autobiographies (e.g, Bobbie Ann Mason's Clear Springs, Marge Piercy's Sleeping with Cats, Reviving Ophelia)
12) 20th century women's novels of sensibility (can be comic), which I read regularly at night when I can find them. So many I can't list them all. And books on these by writers like Alison Light and Nicola Beauman. A. S. Byatt's Possession; Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, most recently Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth
13) Deep feeling reverie 20th century novels by men, including poltical ones: J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country, Graham Swift's Last Orders, Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of time, Paul Scott's Raj Quartet and Staying On, Kazuo Ishiguro's When we Were Orphans, The Remains of the Day; E. M. Forster, Colm Toibin, plays too: Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia
14) Bachelard's books of and about poetics; Henry James's Notebooks and prefaces to his novels; movie criticism like the essays in Imitations of Life, ed. M. Landry and Home Is Where the Heart Is, C Gledhill, and of course Didier's L'Ecriture-Femme and Lois Tyson's Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide (the last the most influential of books for me)
15) Many scattered passages in Shakespeare's plays
I also love pictures, especially older picturesque meditative ones (Poussin), rococo genre art (Watteau), and maintain an active feeling for Ronald Colman as emboding a type of wonderful nobility.