Whenever someone asks me about my favorite books I always think of an old joke: This guy’s reading the New York City phone book and someone asks him what he thinks of it. “The plot’s kind of thin, but the cast of characters is amazing,” he replies. Okay, the jokes kind of dated now because hardly anyone uses phone books anymore. Still there’s a lot to be said about the effectiveness of the printed word on the page, which brings me to the first of my three favorite books.
My first choice would have to be Webster’s Dictionary. I’ve spent countless hours throughout my life grabbing one version or another of the dictionary and looking up a word. In my youth I developed a habit of folding down a page of a book I was reading if it contained a word I didn’t know. I would then go back and copy down these words and look them up in the dictionary. At one time I kept a handwritten notebook with the definition of each of these newly discovered words. This helped to build my vocabulary, which my grandfather once told me was one of the things that distinguishes modern man from his primitive ancestors. If you look at all the things a dictionary offers you, spelling, pronunciation, parts of speech, definitions, examples, etc., is it any wonder that it’s my number one pick? Think of all the ingenuity that has gone into the dictionary and how it’s evolved over the years since Dr. Johnson first came up with the idea.
My second choice was a bit more difficult to choose. After all, the dictionary is a tough act to follow. I suppose I could have cheated and gone with another reference book like Roget’s Thesaurus or Bartlett’s Book of Quotations, but they’re both cut from the same cloth as the dictionary, so I’ll take things in a different direction.
One of the first books I can remember reading on my own was King of the Wind by Margaret Henry. It was way back in fifth grade and one of my classmates was murdered. The teacher bought a copy of the book, wrote a dedication to our deceased class member in the inside cover, and set aside about ten minutes at the end of each day reading the story aloud to us. She then donated the book to the school library. Why she chose this book I have no idea since none of us had ever seen a horse. But the story captured my imagination. The following year I took the book out and reread it on my own. It brings back a lot of old memories every time I think of it, but mostly how touched I was by my teacher’s thoughtfulness. I still remember her crying as she cleaned out the dead student’s desk. It brought the cold, hard reality of the world into focus for me at that tender age when I thought the good guys always won and good would always triumph over evil. At least the book had a happy ending. At least I think it did.
It’s getting close to the finish line since this list was to contain only three books. I have so many “favorite” novels that trying choose one is virtually impossible. Perhaps I should make it a book that really influenced me as a writer. If that were the case, I could go with James Dickey’s Deliverance, which has been one of the most influential novels I ever read. Of course I could just as easily say Darker Than Amber by John D. McDonald. It was the first McGee book that I read and McDonald remains my all-time favorite writer. I’m getting into dangerous waters here because I’m starting to go with personal favorites and there are so many.
I remember the thrill of reading The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep when I discovered the hard boiled school of mystery fiction. And I was enthralled when I read Ross McDonald’s The Chill in his Lew Archer series. I still remember the excitement of Sara Paretsky’s opening paragraph of Indemnity Only, the first V. I. Warshawski novel that describes V.I. on Lake Shore Drive passing people on the beach of Lake Michigan in my home town of Chicago. And Sue Grafton’s immensely likeable Kinsey Milhone, whom I first met in A is for Alibi, showed me how a likeable protagonist can make a series sing. Or I could talk about reading one of the best opening lines ever in Another Life by my brother, Andrew Vachss: "Revenge is like any other religion: There’s always a lot more preaching than there is practicing."
There are so many more . . . and I completely forgot to mention my treasured volume of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Ah, that’s the rub. And that’s why it’s precisely why it’s so difficult to put a numerical cap on one’s favorite list of anything. It’s all a matter of degrees. So, in an effort not to tempt fate and place an unfair limit on myself, I guess I’ll leave that third spot open-ended on my list of my favorite three books list. This way I can also insert the one I’m currently reading or remembering.