Top Shelf Books

For those who are keeping score at home, these are the people who take up the most space on the top shelf in my hallway.

A Belgian priest named Louis Evely published a book in the sixties called That Man Is You, a book given to me to read as part of a discipleship class when I was in high school. Whatever influence Father Evely had on my spiritual journey, his most powerful influence on me came from the blank-verse style he used to write the book. I do not write in that form anymore, but the blank verse taught me how to take sentences and paragraphs apart, how to break them into separate pieces and see how they fit together to make writing that can be heard when someone reads the page.

Some of Frederick Buechner’s books are on the shelf. Now and Then, one of the deeply moving autobiographical books he has written, taught me a seminal truth. “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is,” he writes. “In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it.” For better or for worse, I have spent a lifetime doing that, and doing so on paper in the hope that others might come to listen to their lives as well.

Three by Annie Dillard—The Writing Life, An American Childhood, and Teaching a Stone to Talk—taught me to write as directly as I can, though I do not always live up to the challenge. She taught me to connect one story to the next until a whole comes forth.

Letters to a Young Poet is there, a tiny volume containing half the correspondence between the early-twentieth-century Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and a poet-to-be. The latter kept the letters from the great man, not the other way round, and those letters later found their way into publication. Whenever I want to turn in my pen and my poetic license, I read Rilke’s letters, get a good night’s sleep, and get up in the morning and go back to scribbling.

John Le Carré and Graham Greene are two legendary British novelists. Many people know the former because of the fictional spymaster George Smiley, a character portrayed by Sir Alec Guinness on PBS. Mr. Greene’s work runs from crime to intrigue to war to satire. I started out reading both of these writers as “entertainments,” Mr. Greene’s term, and finally came to realize they were both teaching me to look for light in the midst of the darkness that seems all around us.

My journey in the direction of learning to pray eventually led me to Thomas Merton. I do not go anywhere without a copy of Thoughts in Solitude. Sometimes kindly picking me up when I am discouraged, sometimes gently reminding me that this work is not life and death, he always reminds me that I am only making sentences here. Not life and death by any stretch.

Darkness Visible, the slim book written by William Styron about his struggles with depression helped save my life. I first read it when I was in a psychiatric ward. I recommend the book to writers because so many of us struggle with this particular disease whether or not we know it, admit it, or deal with it. Styron helped me do all three. And with great power he taught me that if you are going to write a memoir, it is only right to tell the whole truth and nothing but.

Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War began its life as an assignment to write a short popular history of the war. Over twenty years it became his life’s work and thousands of pages long. He takes an old story with an ending we already know and retells it so compellingly that we are deeply engaged in the story again. Not a bad model for anyone who writes about religion from time to time as I do, writing based on a Story most of my readers know by heart.

Doris Grumbach’s memoirs teach me to pay more attention to the daily in my life, attention to the seemingly inconsequential, attention to which things actually receive my time and my energy and my art.

The twenty-one novels Patrick O’Brian wrote about the Napoleonic War adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, caught my eye and ear a few years ago. About the fourth time through them, I realized that even though the Aubrey novels had been categorized as adventure, they were really books about a friendship between two men. I read them every year now. If I cannot learn to be a better writer, I hope to learn to be a better friend.


from “Dancing on the Head of a Pen” by Robert Benson