Saturday, February 14, 2009

Can't Resist a List (Part one of an occasional series)

     Not long ago, two well-known publications came out with Best Novel lists and some bloggers counted up how many of the listed books they had read. Time Magazine had a list of the All-Time 100 Novels, and The Guardian newspaper in Britain went all-out with a multi-part, annotated series on The 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read (chosen by book section staff and other literary critics). 
     I can't resist measuring myself against lists like these, so for even more fun (I can hear my kids saying, "Mommy, you're such a dork!") I searched out some other book lists both general and specific. I'll be reporting my scores and thoughts from time to time, starting today. If you know of some lists I don't mention, let me know about them. I'm especially interested in finding lists of regional books; I located Western lists of fiction and non-fiction from the San Francisco Chronicle, and a fine list of Southern books from Agee Films, but I haven't found a Midwestern, Great Plains, New England or Texas list yet.  At some point I may discuss mystery and detective fiction lists, but since I own a whole book full of these and read a lot of this genre, that may be a bit too much.
     TIME's All-Time 100 Novels were selected by their critics, Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo. Right away the designation "All-Time" becomes suspect when the subhead makes clear that the 100 are selected from English-language books published since 1923 (the year TIME made its debut).  Some, though by no means all, of the books were reviewed in TIME when they were published, and links to the reviews are helpfully provided.
     I've read only 30 out of the 100 books. (By the way, I think it's really more like 113 books, since Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy and Anthony Powell's 12-volume A Dance to the Music of Time are counted as one book each - that would up my score to 32).  I found this list somewhat idiosyncratic, as one might expect given the small number of selectors. The seven authors represented by more than one book (two each) are Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, V.S. Pynchon, Philip Roth, Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf. Wondering what these authors had in common, I came up with: except for Orwell and Waugh, they are authors I've read relatively little of and have not much interest in pursuing.  I don't know what that says about me or the list.
     There were several authors with whom I was not familiar, who appear to be science fiction or graphic novelists. There are two books written for children in the list. I wouldn't quibble with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but really -- are they saying that Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is a better novel than E. B. White's Charlotte's Web or Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter?
          I figure that with luck and the availability of audio books in case my eyesight goes, I have about 25 more years of reading time left to me. There are several books on the TIME list that I would certainly consider spending some of that time on, and quite a few others that I don't even care to dip into, especially the ones which are depressing or extremely experimental in literary form. If I count up authors rather than specific books, my score goes up to 42, and I doubt that it will ever top 50 from this list.  However, if I were younger and had more time, I will say that one would get a fairly good picture of 20th (and a bit of 21st) century fiction and life in the U.S. and Britain by reading all these books, even though some are set in the past and some in the future. I was surprised, though, by the apparent dearth of books dealing with the Second World War. As best I could tell from the titles with which I was familiar, Catch-22, Atonement, Slaughterhouse-Five, The Painted Bird, and perhaps The Sheltering Sky were the only ones that dealt with those very important years.
     A note on how I count books I've read: I have to have finished the book, not just started reading it and put it aside. I have to recall clearly that I've read the book (for example, I'm not counting Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust because I can't recall for certain that I've read it and not just read about it). And seeing the movie or a television production or play doesn't count! Unfortunately, I only started really keeping track of the books I read a couple of years ago, so before that I have to rely on memory.
      Next time, you can read my thoughts and "score" on the Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. Or must they? I hope readers will check out the lists and let me know their thoughts, scores and disagreements.

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