My Life in Four Books: William Thompson

1) What book was most important to you in high school? Why?

Not a book per se, but a play and a poem. The poem was a short one that inspired me to read more poetry: Emerson’s “Brahma.” Its use of paradox, “I am the doubter and the doubt,” and its final rebellious challenge, “But thou, meek lover of the good! / Find me, and turn thy back on heaven” led me to read the English Romantics and American Transcendentalists. The play was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and again the use of paradox, satire, absurdity, and insouciant artificiality invited me into a world where art and life commingled.

2)  What book was most important to you when you were an undergraduate English major? Why?

Njal’s Saga—its use of deadpan irony as a way of dealing with the world’s violent absurdity was attractive to me. Also, and not unrelatedly, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, which introduced me to a world where irony, wit, and beauty made life bearable, while badly skewing my vision of gay life, making it more exotic than it really is. Even so, I have read the book many, many times. Also, the poetry of Adrienne Rich, particularly the collection The Dream of a Common Language, was important to me. I read and re-read it. Also Swinburne, the New Directions Le Fleurs du Mal, and James M. Cain, and Borges, a favorite.

3) What book is most important to you now? Why? 

There are so many lovely books. At this moment, I am reading, and invigorated by, the correspondence of Harold Laski and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The fact that Holmes at nearly eighty years old would read Aeschylus in Greek is inspiring. I still read and re-read Derrida. He greatly widened my sense of how things work, not only in literature, but in any system. Robert Pfaller’s On the Pleasure Principle in Culture: Illusions Without Owners is a key text for me. I also admire Craig Dworkin’s criticism. Right now I am reading his Radium of the Word. Also, I have been reading the Hebrew Bible, which is one shock after another. Two novels I enjoyed recently were Philip Hensher’s A Small Revolution in Germany and Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through.

4) What book have you reread the most often in your life?  Why?

Cavafy’s Collected Poems, the Rae Dalven translation. The poems are wise, brutal, joyous, ironic, funny, melancholy, erotic, smart, hopeless, defiant, curious, strange, and perfect. The Dalven translation has great notes and was the translation, the voice, I fell in love with—though I own multiple translations of this work and enjoy them, too. One looks forward to a “new” Cavafy.