Few of them could really be labed "classic," although I'm sure at least one will pop up on our children's summer reading lists. (That is, of course, if they're still teaching reading at our local gub'ment sausage factories when our children finally get there.) Since I first read them as a child, it's hard to say if I love them because they appeal to certain dearly-held sensibilities, or if they actually created them in the first place.
I find myself returning to these stories at the times when the bottom of my world seems to drop out from under my feet and I find myself, arms flailing, reaching for something solid and true around which to wrap my mind. So, I suppose in that sense, they're something of a religion. Of course, I still believe in an Omnipotent and Loving God, it's just that I know he exposes His own to suffering like a doctor breaking the leg of a child only to set it right again. (If He were not ultimately Merciful, what would we do? My books are far more predictible.)
I read them during the mad whirl of my upheaved adolescence, during the unsteady squash-and-cucumber summers I first spent away from home working in a kitchen in North Carolina, after my first real heartbreak, shortly after I was married, when my grandmother died. When I lay awake at night during my first pregnancy, round as a melon and uncomfortable with impending labor, my husband read them to me. It's one of my sweetest memories. I'm reading them now as the uncertainty of the future presses around me like a slew of strangers in a close elevator. Every time I read them, I understand them on a new, if not deeper, level.
From these stories, I've learned the import of purpose, of quotidian pleasure and of animal compantionship. I've learned what it is I aspire to and what it is that brings lasting pleasure. I find myself writing in the voices of the characters I love and making mental narrations that cushion difficult circumstances in bearable frames.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a bar in Connecticut in the uncomfortable position of explaining my relationships with books to some of David's business associates. (A position, it must be said, that he put me in solely for the pleasure of seeing me vexed.) I tried to explain the difference between the deliciously cerebral delight of constructing a 20-plus page article on some obsure aspect of a dusty old text and reading. The first is the clinical, albeit frequently grubby disection of literature. It's the fascination of seeing a beating heart during surgery. The second is the untidy and almost lascivious consumption of literature and the accompanying pleasure brought by the beating of your own heart as you experience the world first hand.
I love them both. I'm a lucky girl.
My short list, in no particular order, is as follows:
The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
All Creatures Great and Small, James Heriot
All Things Bright and Beautiful, James Heriot
All Things Wise and Wonderful, James Heriot
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
Answered Prayers for Owen Meany, John Irving
A Child's Garden of Verses, Robert Louis Stevenson