The Only List That Matters, a guest post by Francisco X. Stork
A lifetime ago, when I was a sophomore at Jesuit High School in El Paso, Brother Murphy, the school’s librarian, handed me a three-page, single-spaced list of books. I was sitting on one of the long oak tables at the end of the library, my usual place, when he placed the list next to me and said, “You need to read these if you ever want to be a writer of consequence.” He was gone before I could say anything. I don’t know how he found out I wanted to be a writer since that was a secret I guarded carefully. Maybe he figured it out by the type of books I was checking out: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings.
Brother Murphy was always kind but not given to give in to superfluous talk. He never mentioned the list again even when he saw that I was checking out books in the alphabetical order he had listed them. First Antigone then on to Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote. By the time I graduated, I was ten books away from Zorba the Greek, the last book on the list.
It was a very comprehensive list which included books that later surprised me by their inclusion. Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra was there and so was Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence, books which I couldn’t imagine Brother Murphy’s superiors in Rome ever approving. The more books I read, the more it seemed as if Brother Murphy had tailored the list to my specific author-soul specifications. Many years later, when I wrote about a young woman having a mental breakdown, I finally understood why Brother Murphy had included Franny & Zooey and not Catcher in the Rye. But to be honest, there were also a couple of books in there where I think Brother Murphy overestimated my abilities. One of these days, dear Brother, I will finally read James Joyce’s Ulysses all the way through.
What does it mean for a young aspiring writer to have a life-long lover of books take the care and time to create a reading list specifically for him? What happens to a boy full of self-doubt when a revered adult believes in the validity of his dream without diminishing the effort required to get there? The gift of that list was both an affirmation of my fledgling vocation as a writer and a challenge to be a writer “of consequence,” to write the kind of books that could be included in the list.
Fast forward some thirty years. I’m in the basement of my house staring at a shelf of books. Books that I haven’t opened since I started working as a lawyer some twenty years before. I am drowning in a depression caused by an overwhelming sense of time wasted, of talent dissipated of aspirations never realized. What happened to the high school sophomore who wanted to dedicate his life to writing? He thought he could go to law school, get a high-pressure job and write at night or on weekends. But the years went by and with each year came a deeper sadness, a longer distance from the young man’s fire.
Instinctively, I reach for one of the books on Brother Murphy’s list, one I have not opened since high school: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. There around page fifty is the list, wrinkled and smudged, folded four times. Most of the books have a checkmark next to them. A few have a checkmark and an asterisk. I take the book and the cell-like-room I call my office, also in the basement. I close the door, and I begin to write a story about a very smart young man growing up in the housing projects of El Paso. I can almost feel Brother Murphy’s hand on my shoulder, his voice both gentle and firm: “Write something of consequence.”
I am sixty-eight years old now. On the Hook, the novel coming out in May 2021, is a re-visioning of the story I started writing in the basement of my house almost thirty years ago. It is my ninth novel. There are many lists where my books have never appeared. Lists of the books most sold in the past week or month or year, for example. Still, I am sure that Brother Murphy does not hold that against me. Over the years I have slowly come to understand what he meant by “a “writer of consequence” and it does involve having my books make it on to a list.
We all carry powerful invisible lists in our hearts. Sometimes we share those lists with others and sometimes we keep them secretly inside and guard them carefully for the warmth and meaning they give us. One of my dearest lists is of the characters from novels that are and will forever be real for me. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Raskalnikov, Aureliano Buendía, Frodo and Sam, Death in The Book Thief are just a few in the list. In my own private interpretation of Brother Murphy’s words, the consequence I aspire as a writer is to have my characters live and remain forever a source of life in the hearts of my readers.
I have another list that originated with Brother Murphy. It consists of the list of librarians who have been moved by my work and who have seen to it that my books are read by the young people who can most benefit from them. I don’t know all the names of the librarians on this very long list, but I would like to live long enough to thank each one of them. The men and women on this list give me standards to uphold and they remind me to write with consequence. They, in turn, carry in their hearts a list of the books that will help a young person live and grow. That’s the only list that matters.
Meet the author
Francisco X. Stork emigrated from Mexico at the age of nine with his mother and his adoptive father. He is the author of nine novels including: Marcelo in the Real World, recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors, which received the Elizabeth Walden Award, The Memory of Light, recipient of the Tomás Rivera Award, Disappeared, which received the Young Adult Award from the Texas Institute of Letters and was a Walter Dean Myers Award Honor Book and Illegal, recipient of the In the Margins Award and the Young Adult Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. On the Hook published in May of 2021 received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.
Facebook: Francisco Stork
About On the Hook
“You know I’m coming. You’re dead already.”
Hector has always minded his own business, working hard to make his way to a better life someday. He’s the chess team champion, helps the family with his job at the grocery, and teaches his little sister to shoot hoops overhand.
Until Joey singles him out. Joey, whose older brother, Chavo, is head of the Discípulos gang, tells Hector that he’s going to kill him: maybe not today, or tomorrow, but someday. And Hector, frozen with fear, does nothing. From that day forward, Hector’s death is hanging over his head every time he leaves the house. He tries to fade into the shadows — to drop off Joey’s radar — to become no one.
But when a fight between Chavo and Hector’s brother Fili escalates, Hector is left with no choice but to take a stand.
The violent confrontation will take Hector places he never expected, including a reform school where he has to live side-by-side with his enemy, Joey. It’s up to Hector to choose whether he’s going to lose himself to revenge or get back to the hard work of living.
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 05/18/2021
Age Range: 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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