Which five books would you put in a library if it only had room for five books?

I have been arguing with myself, as I do often, and it’s an argument I never win. Several trips to Austin ago, Stephen Woodfin and I were talking about whether or not the classics were as important to the generations of today as novels written during the past twenty years.

The Bible and its stories
The Bible and its stories

And that started me thinking.

If I had to build a library with only five books, which ones would I choose?

Without hardly even thinking, I listed these:

* The Bible, from which all great stories and style originated.

* William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, although I wouldn’t argue with either Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. It’s just that the library would not be a place of literary learning without some of Shakespeare’s words tucked inside the shelves.

* The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner just because I love the rhythm of Faulkner’s phraseology and the way he can twist and contort his sentences and paragraphs to create any mood he wants.

* For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, written when he was a writer and not just a celebrity who was paid more than he was worth by editors who wanted to be associated with the Hemingway name. Only vintage Hemingway could write: There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.

Carl Sandburg
Carl Sandburg

* Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln. I know these are four books, but they tell the single story of a single great man, so I’m willing to cheat a little. Sandburg wrote history the way it should be written – with the soul of a historian and the heart of a poet.

I don’t know if these books are all as great as I think they are, or if I have simply been brainwashed over the years by English teachers, literary professors, and book critics. It’s probably a little of both.

If I had not selected those books, I feel I would have sinned against all that that is good and honorable in the world. I might even be shot. And on my tombstone, they would have written: “Here Lies a Man Who Has No Idea what Great Literature is.”

And they’d probably be right.

I think, however, given a chance to think it over in the light of another day, I’d probably open the door to my library with these books:

* Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. I know Salinger only had one decent book in him, and this was it. And I know that the self-anointed rulers of literary circles tend to ridicule and make snide remarks about the journey into manhood of Holden Caufield. But Catcher in the Rye was the first book I ever read that made be believe characters were actually living, breathing people, and I worried about them even after the book had ended.

* Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It’s not a novel. It’s not science fiction. It is literature the way good, old-fashioned, genuine literature is supposed to be written. I have tried to steal or emulate Bradbury’s style and his feel for creating a scene. I have failed and miserably. He’s the only one who can tie it all together the way he does and paint an image or thought that has a haunting quality imbedded into a memory that settles in and refuses to leave.

url-2* On the Beach by Nevil Shute. It was a story told in a calm, gentle and understated way, yet every page was absolutely terrifying. A deadly nuclear cloud was spreading across the earth. Hope was fading. Hope was gone. I sat in my college library reading the novel, and the thought struck me: Why should I even go to my next class. The end of the world is on its way. No one has ever written more powerfully than that.

* The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler. I’ve heard it before. No one really takes Chandler seriously, and he’s never been ranked among the world’s elite novelists. Raymond Chandler wrote pulp fiction, for God’s sake. He wrote dime novels. But his dialogue is the stuff of legend. His stories grab you by the nape of the neck and drag you at breakneck speed from beginning to end. And his phrases are exquisite. Who else could write: From thirty feet away, she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away, she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.

* Feast Day of Fools by James Lee Burke. You may not think he belongs in the library of great writers. If you think you’re right, you haven’t read James Lee Burke. Too many remember back when he was simply a mystery writer who created an fascinating tough-guy detective in the Louisiana Cajun Country named Dave Robicheaux. Those were good books. But Burke wasn’t satisfied to simply be the writer of good books. His most recent novels have a literary quality that often escaped the masters. He writes the way Faulkner thought he wrote and the way Hemingway always wanted to write.

My selection may not be great books.

Then again, maybe they are. They have meant something to me over the years.

I know one thing for certain. If I only had time left to read five books, these are the five I would read.

You probably have your own choices. You should.

That’s what makes the written word so wonderful, so amusing, so intriguing.

There are books for everyone.

What are yours?

You can learn more about the books and novels of Caleb Pirtle III by visiting his Amazon Author Page.

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