‘My Essential Books’ is a new feature on the FRVPLD blog, where we talk up our favorite books in the hope that you may give them a chance, or at least appreciate our passion for the titles that have made us who we are.
The Norton Shakespeare (2nd Ed.)
Much more than a book I consider essential, Shakespeare’s collected plays comprise an entire universe. They are home to such vividly realized characters as Sir John Falstaff (“so surfeit-swelled, so old and so profane”), Hamlet (“mad as the sea and wind, when both contend which is the mightier”), Richard III (“that bottled spider”), and Touchstone (“motley fool”). They enact the turbulent succession of kings (“some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; some poisoned by their wives: some sleeping killed; all murdered…”) and, however anachronistically, include the laboring people of 17th-century London in every setting, whether ancient Rome or an enchanted isle. These plays construct wholly fantastical worlds and then deconstruct their scaffolding, leaving “not a rack behind.” In advocating the significance and vitality of Shakespeare’s work, I defer to the American poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote: “The study of all human activity is the delineation of the cresence and ebb of this force, shifting from class to class and location to location—rhythm: the wave and rhythm of Shakespeare watching clowns and kings sliding into nothing.”
The Anatomy of Melancholy – Robert Burton
This undeniably weird and surprisingly influential book defies easy categorization. Is it a medical treatise? Is it a literary commentary? The Anatomy of Melancholy is ostensibly a compendium of ancient and medieval literature on the malady melancholia, the condition we would now define as clinical depression or major depressive disorder. Compiled by 17th-century English scholar Robert Burton, the work was continually amended until his death in 1640, with the stated intent: “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.” Exceeding 1000 pages in some editions, The Anatomy of Melancholy explores the philosophical, spiritual, and material implications of its subject in exhilarating and exacting detail. As the author himself exclaims: “What a glut of books! Who can read them? As already, we shall have a vast chaos and confusion of books; we are oppressed with them; our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning. For my part I am one of the number…I do not deny it.” Burton’s peculiar wit and unparalleled erudition make this book endlessly rewarding, and it provides an invaluable historical perspective on a condition that is often mistakenly believed to be uniquely modern. This may account for its appeal to such disparate devotees as John Keats, Laurence Sterne, Samuel Beckett, Nick Cave, and the collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor, all of whom have referenced The Anatomy of Melancholy in their respective works.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Many of us feel as though we already know the Frankenstein story, thanks in no small part to Boris Karloff’s iconic performance as The Monster in the 1931 film. But the source material extends well beyond the mad scientist, sycophantic lab assistant, pitchfork-wielding villagers, and sparking Tesla coils of the Hollywood production. Mary Shelly began writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus while still a teenager, in the summer of 1816, and in her own words “stepped out of childhood and into life.” Drawing inspiration from gothic literature, natural philosophy, Romanticism, and tales of exploration, she crafted an exciting, contemplative adventure story, and created one of the most enduring outsiders in literature. This unnamed creature—described as a “miserable monster” whose “skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath”—is reviled by everyone he encounters, despite his empathic nature. His unending search for acceptance forms the most compelling section of the novel, and it made a profound impression upon me as a young reader. I still wince when I think of his disconcertingly tragic plea for a companion: “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” The rejection of this proposal precipitates the final cat-and-mouse game which bookends the narrative, wherein Victor Frankenstein and the creature are finally committed to mutual destruction; an unsettling dynamic that in some ways anticipates the literary antagonists of Patricia Highsmith.
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
Published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Wuthering Heights is the sole novel by Emily Brontë, who died the following year at age 30. The book was not well received. An 1848 review of Wuthering Heights concluded: “There is not in the entire dramatis persona a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible. […] Even the female characters excite something of loathing and much of contempt.” Another reviewer was more succinctly disdainful: “Read Jane Eyre is our advice, but burn Wuthering Heights.” These infamously misguided reviews are unkind, but they are also revealing. Ennobling relationships are celebrated in works by Charlotte Brontë and the novels of Jane Austen, but in Wuthering Heights, love is damnation. The novel’s primary characters, Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, never approach the mature parity of Jane Eyre and Rochester, for example. Catherine cruelly avows: “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him.” A more emphatic but no less disturbing pronouncement comes from Heathcliff, who exclaims: “I love my murderer!” Emily Brontë created a devastatingly bleak world on the Yorkshire moors, and it still has the power to incite consternation, pity, and fearful recognition. At least one of the novel’s characters reaches a similar conclusion: “Far rather would I be condemned to a perpetual dwelling in the infernal regions than, even for one night, abide beneath the roof of Wuthering Heights again.”
The Complete Poems – Anne Sexton
Among the innumerable treasures of this collection are poems and individual lines that I consider absolutely essential. I value Sexton’s instantly relatable evocations of childhood: “A thousand doors ago when I was a lonely kid in a big house with four garages and it was summer as long as I could remember, I lay on the lawn at night, clover wrinkling under me, the wise stars bedding over me, my mother's window a funnel of yellow heat running out, my father's window half shut...” I admire her brave, heartbreakingly honest lines on the loss of a parent: “Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator, my first lost keeper, to love or look at later.” But above all, I appreciate the contradictions present in her poems about the witch; a recurrent figure in her work, and a frequent stand-in for the author. The most fully realized of these “witch poems” is simultaneously, and perhaps paradoxically, a cautionary tale and a guide for living. “Her Kind” powerfully invokes the isolation of a misunderstood figure (“lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind”), who has “fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves: whining, rearranging the disaligned.” Yet she declares herself a survivor, even as the flames bite her thighs and her ribs crack as the wheels wind. This tension between survival and destruction was a dominant feature of Anne Sexton’s life, and I am profoundly grateful for her ability to express it in poetry.