War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy-I was 23 years old and working at a health food store in North Miami when I began reading this one summer-and it took me the whole summer to read it. My boss, Mike Schwartz loved to torture his customers. He would ask them when they came in if they had ever read War and Peace. Inevitably they said they had. Then he would ask “What war was it?” To a man, they didn’t know. He’d complete the embarrassment by turning to me, the lowly juice maker and ask for a summary of where I was in the book, and how many times Napoleon had been mentioned in the last chapter.
I had read it once before. In college. I was a philosophy major and had completed all the requirements for a dual major in classical civilizations except for Greek or Latin. I recall being bowled over by the story of the book’s writing, how a Roman Consul, facing his own impending execution, had penned this little book before he died. This is the classic bridge between the ancient world and the Christian Middle Ages. And it did console me.
I was particularly moved by Boethius’ retelling of the story of Orpheus, the musician who descended into hell to save his wife from death, but lost her at the last moment when he disobeyed Hades’ order not to look back at his wife as he was rising out of hell, no matter what. When his wife, terrified, cried out for him, he looked back at her and lost her. What a human thing to do! As a fellow widower, I shared his grief.
This wonderful book, read in my youth, transformed the way I saw reality. And when you are a refugee lawyer for the men and women who sweat their lives for the banana and coffee interests, you understand that magical realism isn’t a literary device, it is a mirror of a world the comfortable will never inhabit.
And he gave us that annoying advertising phrase “the paradigm shifts”.
Collected Poems by William Butler Yeats-I think that if you were an Irish American boy of my generation at some point a literate relative would present you with a collection of Yeats. The blend of the fantastic and the real, the romantic and the practical politics of revolution let us know that the world was far more complex than what was revealed to us by the nuns at our parish schools.
Two of my favorite lines are from Yeats:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.
And, of course, Yeats is identified with Sligo, where my people are from.
This page is a work in progress, I’ll add more books as I have time. Let me know what your three favorite books are.