Patricia Lockwood's Priestdaddy—her memoir of growing up in the midwest under the misguided parenting of that rarest of creatures: a married Catholic priest—seized hold of both our hearts and our funny bones and wouldn't let go, winning a spot among the Top 20 in our Best Books of the Year list for 2017.
When we asked Lockwood what books were most important to her, she sent us this note below.
When my husband and I moved back in with my parents—the event that sparked Priestdaddy—we took just a carful of belongings with us. My entire library went into storage, except for a short stack of books that fit between my feet, wedged up right against the cat's carrier. In my notes, I wrote,
Now I sometimes wake in the middle of the night with my right hand raised to take a book off the shelf and flip to a quote, but all the quotes are elsewhere. This adds to my feeling of unlearning, of shrinking down and somehow being stuffed back into my childhood. To be stuffed bodily back into your childhood is the greatest displacement I can think of. Where do your boobs go? Somewhere on the floor, over there. Where does your knowledge of Middlemarch end up? I suspect I will never find mine again. Where are your memories of Ingmar Bergman movies, or your ability to make boeuf bourguignon, or your opinions about coffee and whiskey and lube? Gone, lost, scattered. Everything that’s left of you is under five feet tall, and looking out the window at the world that isn’t yours yet.
Still, I had these books.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
I think I brought this one just because of the following paragraph, which I knew would speak to the peculiar scarcity I would experience over the next eight months:
So I went to bed, taking a book with me, and leaving the lamp to burn. In Africa, when you pick up a book worth reading, out of the deadly consignments which good ships are being made to carry out all the way from Europe, you read it as an author would like his book to be read, praying to God that he may have it in him to go on as beautifully as he has begun. Your mind runs, transported, upon a fresh deep green track.
The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
I am an out-and-out Rebecca West fanatic, but I was particularly lucky to have The Fountain Overflows with me because I was writing about music, and it is one of the finest, clearest, bell-ringingest books on music ever written. Its plot is almost too agonized in its forward movement to even be called a plot—it is a book about the drama of the family, it perceives those sudden curtain-raisings behind the scenes of real life, its observations are as whole as notes, it is about what music is about.
Open City by Teju Cole
The city I was in (Kansas City) did not seem real and walking it did not seem possible, so this book was wildly fantastic to me, as fantastic as any fairy tale. Also, I had watched The Muppets Take Manhattan so many times as a child that it was impossible for me not to imagine the protagonist as Kermit, perambulating around town on his little vulnerable legs, thinking about the body and its position in space, the stars above and the fire escape below.
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The Element of Lavishness by Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell
These letters between Sylvia Townsend Warner and her editor William Maxwell are full of small and large aptnesses. "Have you noticed," Warner wrote, "that whenever men want to be impressive they get into women's clothes?" I encountered that line at the exact moment that a certain seminarian (who was living in the rectory at the same time my husband and I were) fairly burst into the room to show my father his new lacy surplice, which he held between thumb and forefinger with as much delicacy as a bride.
Speedboat by Renata Adler
Another name for the 70s ought to be "short books by brutal women." I read this one in bed; all the paragraphs of it were shaped as beds, in fact, of various degrees of singleness, doubleness, kingliness, queenliness. And as I snuggled my toes down under the comforter and tried to ignore the hamburger entreaties of my mother just outside the door, I kept thinking that Renata Adler would murder me if she ever met me. For not being serious enough. She would murder me with her hair. I was not of her class, and yet, she imparted some necessary ingredient of atmosphere to me. She gave me the courage to feel like a spy in my own home.
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
I had ten dollars and so I hied myself to Half-Price Books, which was located in a nearby strip mall that I especially liked because it had a covered wagon in the front, to remind us of our pioneer ancestors. I knew Elif from Twitter and from her dispatches in The New Yorker, so I was prepared for the book's hilarity, thoughtfulness, and unerring deployment of all-caps, but her short chronicle of obsession with a charismatic grad-school classmate whom I pictured exactly as Rasputin made me long for a novel from her—a wish that was recently and most delightfully granted.
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
Dickens, I usually love you, but this one? This one was too horny for me.
The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
I found a copy of this in the basement, in a box of water-damaged submarine novels, and smuggled it upstairs into my cache. Strangely, it was the first time I had ever read a Calvin and Hobbes collection—growing up, I had been a Far Side person to the point of exclusion. I wanted to see cavemen, fifties beehives, broad-backed lab coats, and x-rated amoebas with black bars over their unimaginable genitalia—what did I care what a little boy made a tiger do with his mind? Very foolish of me, as it turned out.
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Medjugorje: The Message by Wayne Weible
It wouldn't be a rectory without a book about Marian apparitions on the bedside table, artfully displayed there for guests to page through in idle moments. If you don't know about Marian apparitions, they're this thing that happens every so often where the Virgin Mary appears as a sky hologram, tells three illiterate children that she loves them, bursts into tears that are also blood, and then explains that a dragon is going to eat the sun in forty-two years. If you're lucky, there'll be an inset of photographs of these children, who do not know how to smile and have the dark, financially-burdened eyebrows of adults, standing in distrustful solidarity by a grotto. In case I'm not being clear, these books absolutely rule. I'll read any book about this that anyone ever writes.
Patricia Lockwood was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and raised in all the worst cities of the Midwest. She is the author of two poetry collections, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black and Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, a New York Times Notable Book; and her memoir, Priestdaddy, is an Amazon Best Book. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The London Review of Books. She lives in Savannah, Georgia.