In 1995 in The New York Review of Books, Brad Leithauser was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to adulate his favorite book ever in the pages of one of the widest-read and most respected literary periodicals in the nation.
Leithauser left little doubt as to the place this book held in his heart:
There are good books and there are great books and there may be a book that is something still more: it is the book of your life. If you’re quite lucky, you may at some point chance upon a novel which inspires so close a kinship that questions of evaluation (Is this book better than merely good? Is it some sort of classic?) become a niggling irrelevance. Luck has everything to do with it. For the sensation I’m describing has its roots in a poignant, tantalizing feeling that this marvelous new addition to your existence, this indelible Presence, has arrived by serendipity.
I dare to say that anyone who is reading this and had read long and closely enough knows exactly the sensation Leithauser describes. His description is lovely, but it is also superfluous–true bibliophiles know just what Leithauser means. I certainly do. From the moment I had read this far in Leithauser’s essay, I knew exactly which book I would devote this honor to.
So which book is the book of Leithauser’s life?
And the book of my own life? I remember vividly my initial encounter with it. I finished its last chapters one late afternoon in Rome, seated in an all-but-deserted café. Outside a storm had abruptly blown in and a chill autumn rain was lashing the streets, and I read as though furtively, hunched over the pages. I did this for two reasons. The light had turned dim. And I didn’t want anyone happening to glance my way to notice I was weeping.
The novel was Halldor Laxness’s Independent People.
This is all great, but what comes next is pure genius. How does Leithauser continue to pay homage to Independent People to this day?
Independent People is not hard to come by in the States. When it was published here, in 1946, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club Main Selection, and copies regularly turn up in usedbook stores. Provided the price is ten dollars or less, I snap them up whenever I come across them. They make an ideal present—though some explanation may be in order when, arriving at someone’s house for dinner, you hand your host not a bottle of wine but a dusty, almost fifty-year-old book, translated from Icelandic, about sheep farmers. At one point, I’d accumulated more than twenty copies; I rarely have on hand fewer than ten.
Ever since I read my own favorite book in the world, I’d had an idea, even an urge, to evangelize for it. For me, the book sustained a combination of stylistic pleasure, pure comedy, memorable characters that I loved to follow, intellectual elaboration, and plain old plot over an almost miraculously long duration. As long as the book was (and it is long), it still ended far too soon. It was the kind of book that actually inspired thoughts along the lines of "savor this, because you’ll only get to read it for the first time once."
There are books you respect, books that so impress you with their erudition that you go back through them a second and third time and find more and more there to the point that you work yourself into a frenzy. This book is great! But there are other books that on the very first pass through just seem to be wired into your brain. A second and third pass reveals even more, but you don’t really need them; that first time through was so overwhelming that it is the only proof you need of the book’s magnitude.
I’d enjoyed this book so thoroughly, and found its observations about life–especially life in America–so profound that it left me fired with a desire to exhort as many people as I could to read it too. Not for my own benefit, but for the book, for the author, most of all for the readers themselves, whom I believed would find so much to love in this book I loved so much.
I wanted to exhort, but how? I’m not the type of person who goes up to a person I somewhat know and just starts railing to them about books. I’m not even the kind of person who would usually do this, uninvited, to close friends.
That’s why Leithauser’s idea strikes me as ideal. I can simply pick this book up at usedbook stores–they usually have at least one copy on hand–and make stacks of them to give away as gifts. Leithauser’s admission that "some explanation may be in order" makes the perfect opportunity for me to spill my guts to the unsuspecting recipients.
I bring this up now because Christmastime is undoubtedly the height of my book-giving and -receiving for my year. I imagine that is probably is for a lot of you as well. It’s the one time of year that I feel correct in giving good books as gifts, even to people I wouldn’t normally think to give books to. This contrasts with the rest of the year, where I tend to be quite careful about giving books to people unless I’m absolutely sure they will end up reading them. I hate the idea of a book given for a birthday or some other occasion placed high up on a shelf and left to sit there forever.
This is why Leithauser’s idea so appeals to me: the audacity of sauntering in–apropos of nothing–and slapping a book into somebody’s hand (complete with explanation of how said book was the greatest reading experience of your life) might just be enough to get anyone to read your book. Imagine if someone came to your next party, gave you a copy of, say, White Noise, and explained that they had brought it to you because it is the greatest book they’ve ever read. That might carry more cache than even that paperback given you by your best friend for Christmas.
So, this Christmas, I’d like to pass along the idea that book-giving need not be a once-a-year occasion. Look deep into your own shelves and think about what’s your own favorite book ever and start giving it away. If you live in a moderate-sized city on up, you can probably even find all the copies you’ll ever need in your local usedbook store. If not, there’s always our two major online retailers, both of which tend to have a steady supply of cheap classics.
As for the book that I’ll give away from now on, readers of this blog should know it well. It is, of course, Infinite Jest.