Friday, September 11, 2009

Most Important Book Ever

It's rare to see a book reviewer declare that the book being reviewed is the most important one of the reviewer's career. But that's what Carolyn See concludes in her review of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: "Half the Sky is a call to arms, a call for help, a call for contributions, but also a call for volunteers. It asks us to open our eyes to this enormous humanitarian issue. It does so with exquisitely crafted prose and sensationally interesting material. It provides us with a list of individual hospitals, schools and small charities so that we can contribute to, or at least inform ourselves about, this largely unknown world. I really do think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed. I may be wrong, but I don't think so."

Wow. The most important book ever. O.K., O.K., she qualifies: one of the most important. Still, I'll spend the rest of the day quantifying the books I've read. Which one would be the most important one ever?

Immediately, Our Bodies, Ourselves comes to mind. I discovered it in my college's library during my freshman year. It felt like a dangerous book to me. It talked so openly about sex and female bodies. It talked calmly about all the things that could go wrong and how one might right those things. It approached the human body from a health and wellness perspective. It had pictures. It had that 70's sense of earnestness and honesty that was immediately appealing. At first, I only read the book when nobody else was in the library--I didn't want to be caught reading it. As the year progressed, I grew in maturity to the point where I was able to actually check the book out of the library and read it openly.

I might list one of the books I read in my teens that convinced me to become vegetarian. Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet changed the way I thought about the issue of world hunger--and it taught me how to cook. But there were so many books that taught me to cook and taught me to think about the moral implications of food that it would be hard to list just one.

I could go on and on: books that taught me to be an athlete, books that taught me about spirituality in all its forms, books that taught me how to be a poet, how to be a literary critic (The Madwoman in the Attic is the most important book of literary criticism I ever read--no question), how to be an English teacher.

But a book that a literary critic (and talented author herself) says is the most important ever? I'll add it to the list. The excerpt in The New York Times magazine several weeks ago had me leaning that way. And I'll likely listen to the authors as they appeared on the Diane Rehm show yesterday (which means we can all hear the show; go here and scroll down).

I'm impressed with the authors' ability to remain hopeful in the midst of these horrific stories. Hope is a commodity we can all use, especially on this day which is an anniversary day of multiple horrors (the coup that led to Pinochet's rule in Chile in 1973, the most devastating hurricane to hit Hawaii in 1992, the terrorist attacks of 2001). I like the idea of having this day become a day of service, but for many of us, it's a work day. Still, we can carve out a bit of that spirit of service by reading books that remind us of the resilience of the human spirit.

No comments: