Billy Collins' 6 favorite books
The nation's most popular poet recommends works by William Wordsworth, Vladimir Nabokov, and more
New and Selected Poems by Charles Simic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30). Simic acolytes like me will find the breadth of this hefty volume irresistible. Newcomers will meet one of the clearest yet most bizarre and mysterious poets of our time. These poems leave me with feelings of stunned admiration and jealousy.
The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard (Beacon, $16). In this classic work of French phenomenology, Bachelard examines the symbolic and emotional meanings of such spaces as attics, drawers, closets, and nests. The book moves us easily back and forth from deep theory to everyday experience. The hiding places of childhood are seen as incubators for the imagination, and you might never look at an elevator the same way again.
The Prelude by William Wordsworth (Norton, $26). Wordsworth's grand poem, an "autobiographical epic," broke new literary ground. Milton would have considered the subject small potatoes, but The Prelude, shown here in three different editions, elegantly dramatizes the loss of childhood innocence and the gaining of maturity.
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Japanese Death Poems (Tuttle, $17). For centuries, Zen monks and haiku writers have put their final words into tiny three-line poems. Death has long been a favorite minor chord in poetry, and in each of these little exhalations, it rings with wearily beautiful, unmistakable finality.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $16). Nabokov demonstrated how brilliantly ironic prose could lift a perverse longing to the level of great literature. Humbert puts himself on trial, turning his reader into jury member, as he describes his pursuit of a nymphet, his flight from justice, and the menace of his rival.
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes (Mariner, $18). This is one of the best titles to drop when asked what you're currently reading, and also a revealing, radical study of our divided brains. According to Jaynes, people who hear voices (be they mystics or schizophrenics) may just be listening to one side of the brain talking to the other on a delayed loop. Something to think about next time you find yourself thinking out loud, or just thinking period.