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May 26, 2012

What books would you recommend for a young reader?

Daily Star

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"There are no truths, only stories."

_ Simon Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo poet

What then, would be on that short list of books you might pass along to young people to help them prepare for life, and how do you decide what titles to include and which to omit?

David Bachner, apart-time Oneonta resident and a former Hartwick College administrator who years ago had asked a friend to compile a reading list for his teenage daughter, recently spent much time thinking about what books he himself would include on such a list.

And just as I did, he too struggled with the task of "paring down the possibilities from a long lifetime of avid reading (with too many books required by well-meaning but uninspired educators, a smaller number encouraged by genuine teachers, and still others that were self-selected)," and deciding which criteria to use in making his choices.

Bachner, 68, said it would be hard to neglect "books from and about the great religious traditions -- not for their theologies, necessarily, so much as the basis they provide for understanding comparative worldviews and cultural differences." He mentioned classics from the Buddhist, Jewish, Taoist, Christian and Muslim traditions as examples.

But the former dean of Global Studies and founding director of the Sondhi Limthongkul Center for Interdependence at Hartwick College also said he understood that someone his age might have trouble piquing the interest of teens with religious classics.

"What would turn a young person off more than some old guy recommending the books" from the old religious traditions, he asked.

Likewise for "the great works that reflect our deepest myths -- Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," "Beowulf," Cervantes' "Don Quixote," and Lady Murasaki's "The Tale of Genji," for example." They "will captivate any reader who has the patience to get past the first few pages, but their length and language can be intimidating."

More modern classics from the 19th and 20th centuries certainly are more accessible to young people, but Bachner noted that writers such as Dostoevsky, Joyce and Kafka "take work, and just hearing the authors' names, usually associated with curricular requirements, can frighten away students."

So, after conceding that works of some of his favorite philosophers could be too "daunting and impenetrable," Bachner said he was back where he started, asking, "what should I be thinking of in making my recommendations?"

Perhaps Simon Ortiz was right about "no truths, only stories," for Bachner, who in addition to Hartwick has taught at American University, the Stanford Institute for Intercultural Communication, the Portland Institute for Intercultural Communication and Sookmyung University (Seoul, Korea), concluded that, first and foremost, the books on his list should be engaging stories.

Of course, fiction provides the best vehicle for engagement, and so Bachner decided his five reading-list selections would be novels that "in addition to providing an enjoyable read, should be enlightening. They should touch us, move us, even change us."

He said "the novels that accomplish this best take a Socratic approach: they provoke self-reflection and comparison; they cause us to examine critically our shaping traditions; they help liberate the mind from habit and custom. Most importantly, I think, they excite our capacity to empathize, to imagine others' realities, both in their similarities to and differences from our own reality."

Taking those factors into account, Bachner, who was named a Hartwick College dean emeritus in 2006, offered the following books for his reading list.

"¢ "The Asiatics," Frederic Prokosch's story of a young American who hitchhikes his way across Asia, from Beirut to the southern border of China.

"¢ "Narcissus and Goldmund," Hermann Hesse's novel about the life-long relationship between two friends who are pretty much polar opposites in temperament and lifestyle.

"¢ "The Razor's Edge," W. Somerset Maugham's chronicling of the life of Larry Darrell, from his near-death in World War I, his subsequent experiences in France, Germany, India and America, to his eventual decision to give up a modest inheritance to lead an anonymous existence as a blue-collar worker.

"¢ "A Painter of Our Time," John Berger's story of the exiled Hungarian artist Janos Lavin.

"¢ "My Name Is Asher Lev," Chaim Potok's gripping, poignant, and, for me, ultimately inspirational tale of Asher Lev, a Hasidic Jew in New York City.

Bachner said he would caution a young person that his selections are older works and therefore do not address "complex issues of our day, such as gender and race."

And he would conclude by telling our hypothetical teenager to "be open to others' reading preferences, but make sure not to let those get in the way of reading what you want. You'll find your own pattern and rhythm, and your accumulating list of books will be the more meaningful because it is yours."

In future columns, we'll hear from other local people who will share what books they would slip to a young person to help her or him to be "in the know."

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at