39 and Holding: A Life in Books

If you steeled your nerves to ask my grandmother her age, she’d lower her chin, raise her eyes, and then offer the same six-syllable answer regardless of her mood or your relationship to her: “Thirty-nine and holding.”

And so, on my fortieth birthday – as I prepare to do my own holding – I thought it a fitting homage to Grandma Lillian to list thirty-nine books that have made my literary life thus far.

These are not necessarily my favorite books.  I daresay I can’t recall the plots of some, nor if I enjoyed others.  But these are the titles that shaped my reading life and made me a reader in the first place.  And what more could you want – on your birthday or any day – than the gift of curiosity?

The Monster at the End of This Book : You bet your bippy I turned that page!

The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery : This picture book is about a group of animal friends and has the only kind of mystery I care about: “Who ate all of the food?”

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark :The illustrations in these books made the night light my best friend.

Say Cheese and Die : Goosebumps was my gateway drug to literature.  I’ve been overdosing ever since.

It : And you thought you had problems in middle school.  

The Hobbit : For one summer before sixth grade, I lived in Middle Earth and changed my name to Brando Tappins.

Maximum Bob : Elmore Leonard could write you directions to the bathroom and there’d still be a surprise ending.

McNally’s Secret : Succession has nothing on Lawrence Sanders when it comes to the bad deeds of rich people.

Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery : My uncle gave me this on my thirteenth birthday to inspire me to become a doctor, but these gorgeous essays instead made me fall in love with language.  He’s never forgiven himself.

Jane Eyre : I read this over the summer before eighth grade and now I always search people’s attics when I visit them.

The Portable Shakespeare : All of life pressed between two covers.

Their Eyes Were Watching God : Hurston knew words and she knew how to make them slip and shake and rise off the page.

I Know This Much is True : I loaned this book to my high school chemistry teacher.  She returned it three months later with a torn jacket and strands of her hair between the pages.  I can’t hear the word “amino acid” without shuddering.  

A Walk on the Wild Side : You can’t know America without looking at its underbelly.

A Lesson Before Dying : While napping in my car after class, I left this book on my passenger seat.  I awoke to the sound of a policewoman tapping on the window.  She said someone saw an unconscious teen in a car next to a book about dying.  She told me I had so much to live for.  I’ve left my books under the seat ever since.

Mrs. Dalloway : She should not have bought those flowers herself.

Handling Sin : A comic masterpiece about a quest, a midlife crisis, and the clueless man who is about to have both.

Invisible Man : If you run long enough, you end up where you started.

Lolita : Not the book you think it is. Well, maybe a little.

The Principles of Uncertainty : Kalman gives you a whimsically illustrated tour of the secrets to living well. (Yes, cake is involved.)

Cloudsplitter : Eight hundred thundering pages of fire, brimstone, and John Brown’s soul marching on.  My forearms never looked so good.

Last Words of the Executed: Sometimes all a person can give you is a handful of words.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor : Catholicism Made Uneasy.

The Canning Season : It’s not only food we’re preserving in this sweet and sly children’s book.

Dancer from the Dance : An achingly beautiful book about fabulous and horrible times.  Read this in a room with a disco ball.

The Last Shtetl : More Yiddish than you can shake a schmuck at.

I Am Not Sidney Poitier : A barbed look at who the world wants black men to be.

The Naked Civil Servant : If I believed in heroes, Crisp would be one of them.  Or at least taking one to bed.

Swimming to Cambodia : This monologue about life, death, Hollywood, and the search for a perfect moment introduced me to the unexpected pleasures of listening to a person’s unrestrained thoughts for hours on end who wasn’t my grandfather.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle : Nobody makes you dread relatives like Shirley Jackson.

The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters with Strangers : Sometimes you wanna go where nobody knows your name. 

God’s Fool : A fictionalized look at the “original” Siamese twins and the man who tears them apart.

Color Me Flo: My Hard Life and Good Times : Whenever you’re unsure, just go with the Flo.

The Lives of the Monster Dogs : I read this for a book club and hated it so much that part of me still thinks it isn’t real and just something I made up in a nightmare.

D.V. : Get the best gossip from 60 years ago about people long dead.

Music of the Swamp : I read this at the height of the pandemic lockdown.  I laughed so hard at one scene I couldn’t stop coughing and thought for sure I had contracted COVID from a book.  

Spoon River Anthology : You don’t have to be alive to spill some tea.

The Murderer’s Ape : A magical odyssey that will make you fall in love with a typewriting primate.

A Month in Siena : Learn about love and loss through art.

Deacon King Kong : The best gallery is the peanut gallery.  

Something I’ve learned in my “thirty-nine and holding” years is that life is like a library book: you have to check it out to get something from it. 

That’s a thought worth holding on to.  At any age.