My five favorite books. In no particular order. Sort of.
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger. The order for the rest of the list is debatable. Not this one. This will always be my favorite book. I named my first son Holden, for Christ’s sake. I read Catcher for the first time in England, outside Syd Barrett’s house, after I hunted the madcap down when I was eighteen, and I’ve read it every year since. Most people who like this book will say how his attitude changes as he grows older, matures and develops more sophisticated world views. Not me. I still think Holden is right. This place is filled with goddamn phony bastards.
Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham. The problem with lists like this is that my memory is shit, and unless I am re-reading a book every year like Catcher in the Rye, which I can practically quote by heart like my brother and I used to do with the first third of The Breakfast Club, I have a hard time recalling particulars. But I remember emotions. After I put this book down, having read it in two days, I got the chills. Never happened before with a book. And it hasn’t happened since.
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut. I could’ve also put Kerouac here, and like with Jack, just about any book of his. For me, guys like Vonnegut and Kerouac’s greatness comprises a body of work more than any one single effort. But I think the former translates better to old(er) age, and this book in particular captures best the disillusion of the American Dream, and outrage toward institutional subjugation. Plus, I’ve written one poem and two songs about this book. So it goes.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. I know. One of these things ain’t like the others; and believe me I shudder attaching myself, in any way, to oversexed teenage vampires. But as is often the case with popular perception, people get it wrong (just check out how many dumbasses use “Every Breath You Take” as their wedding song). The heart of this novel isn’t its enduring (and often misunderstood) love story; it is revenge. Heathcliff is a bad man. But he is not without a heavy set of steel balls. Born into a lower status and abused most of his life, Healthcliff exacts his revenge on all those who did him wrong, no matter how many times he has to cut off his own nose to do it. Which really encapsulates my life philosophy. Some say forgiveness is the higher road; that it takes inner strength and makes you a better person. Fuck that. I’ve tried forgiveness, and it doesn’t make your heart any lighter. It makes you a chump, and all it means is a crime has gone unpunished.
Tough call to wrap this up. Really like War and Peace (yes, I’m fucking serious. It’s a great fucking book). Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I already mentioned Kerouac, and probably his best is The Subterraneans. Also really like everything by Chandler. Oh, and can’t forget Fight Club. But if I have to choose, I’m going with High Fidelity, Nick Hornby. Which is weird, since I actually think the movie is better than the book, which isn’t a knock on the novel; the film is a study in the power of editing (a hobby of mine). Still, the book is brilliant, and its commentary on guys and the girls they love (and who crush them by the way they rub their feet when trying to fall asleep) spot-on. Wry, self-deprecating, unflinchingly honest. All that good stuff. And if I am making an All-Time, Top Five List, really, how can I not include it?
Joe Clifford is the producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA.
His work has appeared in Big Bridge, the Connecticut Review, Drunken Boat, Fringe, Opium, Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Word Riot, and Underground Voices, among others.
A collection of his short stories, Choice Cuts, and his noir novel, Wake the Undertaker, will be published by Snubnose Press, 2012.
The rest of Joe’s writing can be found at www.joeclifford.com.
Joe has been to jail but never prison.