Reading all the reader responses to my question about the books, poems, and stories that have meant the most to you has been such a rewarding experience. My reading list certainly has grown even more unmanageable. What I’ve appreciated the most, in addition to the gratitude for books on display, are the anecdotes that have accompanied many of your suggestions. Not only can a story or poem be a consolation, but they remain connected to what we were going through when we read them – and perhaps even shaped how we perceived and understood what was happening. Thank you all for sharing. Here’s more of your responses, with this reader reminding us of a recent classic:
I nominate David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon commencement address. Though a commencement speech, I encountered it as essay. I’ve been rather amazed at how it has stuck with me. “This is water. This is water,” has become a personal mantra, a constant reminder to practice mindfulness.
I’m late to the thread (as usual!), but I’ll throw on the pile anyway – Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin. Its theme, and the famous passage that reflects it, is undoubtedly dark, but in a way I have always found liberating rather than depressing:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
At a time when I was always looking for an answer, a solution, a neat narrative to tie everything together – I read this book and realized that I could (obviously) be wrong, that there are no answers, no fix, no solution to magically make things whole, to return to whatever came before. Understanding that that’s not possible helped me, in its own way, face forward.
By the way, I didn’t actually see Angelus Novus until years later, in Jerusalem. To say it wasn’t what I was expecting would be putting it mildly.
Another reader writes: