My Life in Four Books: Mark Mossman

James Joyce

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

I don’t remember the actual title, but it was an anthology of American Literature that I had the third and fourth quarters of my junior year in high school. 

I was in A-track English. So, we had grammar in the fall, and then literature in the spring. My freshman year the spring course was in Greek Mythology; in my sophomore year it was a course in Shakespeare. Both of those were good, fine, but not in any way moving or important to me.  I barely remember any actual lit—just the teachers and my friends and so on.

The spring of my junior year, though, something clicked, my life changed, and I discovered literature in a very serious way. Our junior year course was in American literature and we read stories and poems out of an anthology, I think the Bedford Guide to American Literature, but I am not sure. I read the entire anthology, way more than was actually assigned for the class.  I remember being enthralled by the short stories in the anthology, like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, for example, or “The Black Cat” by Edgar Allan Poe. I remember reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. I remember “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter.

Even though I didn’t realize this at the time, this anthology was probably the most important book to me in high school simply because through it I started to understand my life through literature.

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

This is hard. I read a ton when I was an undergraduate English major. I want to emphasize that there were many significant moments in my reading.  Those include reading all of Jane Austen one winter break, and reading William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All one spring break; they include the first time I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the first time I read Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the first time I read, for a class with the great Stella Revard, Milton’s Paradise Lost; they include when I bought a copy of T. S. Eliot’s Sacred Wood, and when I struggled, mightily, with Foucault’s Madness and Civilization; they include a constant reading of the Victorian poets, like Tennyson, and William Morris, and both Christina and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (The book of sonnets by D. G. Rossetti, The House of Life, was a prized possession).

The most important book for me, however, was the New Directions paperback of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems. I took this book with me wherever I went.  I read the poems constantly. I begged and then persuaded a professor to do an independent study with me on Dylan Thomas. This book was a touchstone for me without a doubt, and I still read poems from it today. That book represented a posture, I guess, what it meant to be an English major; the poems were also explosive, out-of-control experiences, constant reminders that language is intense and our experience of language is beautiful. So, the book of poems was important because it provided a kind of guide as to what I was and would become in grad school and then at the University.

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

Every morning I read poems from the 1990 Running Press edition of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems. This is a tiny, hard-bound, blue pocket book. It literally fits in a shirt or jeans pocket.  And it is Amy’s book that I think she bought in Amherst, MA, in the 1990s. I have developed a deep love of those poems. Emily Dickinson understood the complexity of our everyday lives more than anyone I have read (other than James Joyce). I honestly think these poems keep me sane on some level, and that is why I read them with a kind of devotion.

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

Probably James Joyce’s Ulysses. If not, it should be. I try to read it once a year, in the spring, before Bloomsday on June 16. Throughout the year I am always thinking about it and reading passages from it. It is, simply, the greatest book ever written. I first read it when I was a junior in college. I had tried to read it on my own and I had failed. I read it in another independent study with a group of fellow undergrads and I think one graduate student named Terry Groce. It was an amazing, life-changing experience. Again, there has been no greater achievement than Ulysses.  I think it comes the closest that any work has come at actually representing what it means and what it feels like to be a human being. It is also an intense political argument against colonialism and the oppressive power of the privileged, while at the same time being a celebration of the capacity for decency, kindness, and good cheer.