Saturday, November 22, 2014

My 5-Year Reading Plan: The Essentials List

This is the one where I expose myself as a two-faced liar.

For far too long, I've stood at the fringes of conversation at parties, nodding along as if I've actually read Ulysses (or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or The Phantom Tollbooth, or whatever).  I've gone to book festivals and looked fellow authors in the eye--without blinking--and wordlessly pretended I've read their books.  I have prevaricated, fumbled, mumbled and bumbled my way through this reading life, chanting a mantra to myself and others, "No, I haven't read that--yet."  Or, "Someday soon, I intend to pull it off the shelf."  Or that stalwart stand-by: "It's in my TBR pile."

The time has come, my friends, to topple that To-Be-Read stack and stop fooling myself that I'll eventually get around to tackling my literary bucket list.  "Someday" is today.  Or, more accurately, January 1.

Starting in 2015, I, David Abrams, being of sound mind and semi-healthy body, hereby resolve to begin a five-year reading plan in which I finish as many books on my "someday I'll get around to it" list.  I've spent the better part of this week going through my bookshelves, my e-books, and my To-Be-Read stack (mine is so long, I keep it stored in a Word document on my computer.  Nineteen single-spaced pages).  I've picked, I've culled, I've winnowed.  The list is now down to a barely-manageable 200 books.  It's an eclectic list, with representatives from not only the standard canon, but more-recent books which I've added to the TBR roster in the past few months.  So, you'll find Balzac rubbing elbows with Sean Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho (this year's winner of the PEN/Robert W. Birmingham Prize) and Tao Lin neighboring Sinclair Lewis.

Will I finish them all in five years?  Probably not.  Will I eventually abandon this scheme (like I did The Biography Project) and continue my regular habit of reading the next Bright, Shiny New Thing which comes my way?  Perhaps (but I hope not).

I'll admit I'm driven partly by a deadline of mortality.  I'm on the downhill side of 50 and the clock is ticking.  I mean, do I really want to die without having read Everything Is Illuminated?  Do I want the coffin to close, wishing I'd had a taste of Trollope?  Bottom line: I want to finish the bucket list before I kick the bucket.

But I'm also motivated by a sense of excitement--like an explorer who's heard about the jungle all his life and is now about to step behind the curtain of leaves.  After assembling the 200-volume list, my anticipation has grown even further.  The cream of literature's crop awaits me!

I still haven't decided how I'll approach the list: will I do it alphabetically or will I cherry pick at random?  Or will it be a combination of the two?  I'm leaning toward the latter.  In addition, I'm not going to completely set aside the "regular" To-Be-Read roll call.  There are just too many intriguing titles on that 19-page list (and more new books arriving every week) for me to kid myself that I won't be tempted to read the new Stephen King or crack open that debut novel by the next promising young writer.  So, the plan is to dip back into the long-standing TBR pool every third book or so.  That way, I can read both Portnoy's Complaint and the Most-Buzzed-About Book of 2017.

At the risk of embarrassing myself ("What?!  You've never read A Separate Peace?!"), I'm going to post The List here, baring my breast for the slings and arrows of your mockery and tsk-tsks.  But I also hope it will spur you to take a look at your own Someday-I'll-Read-That roster and that you, too, will organize your own reading plan.

To all the still-living authors on here (many of whom are my friends, Facebook and otherwise), I'm coming clean: No, I haven't read your book....but I've always wanted to.  If I've ever lied to you--either directly or by inference--I apologize.  (And if you don't see your name on here, it probably just means it's on the other TBR list.)  Bear in mind that I only got around to reading Anthony Doerr, Lolita, and Donna Tartt this year after they'd been decade-long residents of the neglected and undusted Someday Shelf.

To my fellow readers out there: I'm open to suggestions for alternate books by these authors.  I'm pretty solid on most of my choices (Bird by Bird, for instance), but if you think there's a better book than the one I have listed, please feel free to let me know.

One other thing to note: There are a few authors on here whose books I have read (hello, James Joyce) but want to read another more seminal work in their oeuvre (I'm lookin' at you, Ulysses).  I've marked those authors with an asterisk.

The Essentials List
Abbott, Megan: The Fever
Atwood, Margaret: Alias Grace
Atkinson, Kate: Life After Life
Babel, Isaac: The Complete Works
Baldwin, James: Go Tell It On the Mountain
Balzac, Honore de: Pere Goriot
Barrie, J. M.: Peter Pan
*Beattie, Ann: Chilly Scenes of Winter
Bell, Matt: In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
Bergman, Megan Mayhew: Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Bohjalian, Chris: The Night Strangers
Boyle, T. C.: The Road to Wellville
Bradbury, Ray: Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales
Bronte, Charlotte: Jane Eyre
Bryson, Bill: One Summer
Burke, James Lee: Bitterroot
Butler, Robert Olen: A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain
Byatt, A. S.: Possession
Canty, Kevin: A Stranger in This World
Carroll, Lewis: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
*Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chandler, Raymond: The Big Sleep
Chaon, Dan: Among the Missing
Chesterton, G. K.: The Complete Father Brown Stories
Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White
Colwin, Laurie: Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object
Crane, Stephen: The Red Badge of Courage
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Danielewski, Mark Z.: House of Leaves
Davis, Lydia: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
DeWitt, Patrick: The Sisters Brothers
*Dillard, Annie: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Donoghue, Emma: Room
Dreiser, Theodore: An American Tragedy
Dufresne, John: Louisiana Power and Light
Egan, Jennifer: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Eggers, Dave: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Ellis, Bret Easton: Less Than Zero
Ellroy, James: The Black Dahlia
Emerson, Ralph Waldo: Nature and Selected Essays
Englander, Nathan: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Eugenides, Jeffrey: The Virgin Suicides
Falco, Edward: Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha
Ferber, Edna: Come and Get It
Ferrante, Elena: My Brilliant Friend
Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones
Finkel, David: Thank You For Your Service
Foer, Jonathan Safran: Everything is Illuminated
Follett, Ken: The Pillars of the Earth
Forester, C. S.: Beat to Quarters
Forster, E. M.: Howards End
Fowles, John: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Frangello, Gina: A Life in Men
Frank, Anne: The Diary of Anne Frank
*Fromm, Pete: Indian Creek Chronicles
Gaddis, William: J R
Gaitskill, Mary: Bad Behavior
Galvin, James: The Meadow
Gay, William: The Long Home
Gilbert, Elizabeth: Eat, Pray, Love
Gold, Glen David: Sunnyside
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gloss, Molly: Wild Life
Gogol, Nikolai: Dead Souls
Goolrick, Robert: Heading Out to Wonderful
Gordon, Jaimy: Lord of Misrule
Graham, Kenneth: The Wind in the Willows
Greene, Graham: The Power and the Glory
Grey, Zane: Riders of the Purple Sage
The Annotated Brothers Grimm
Grodstein, Lauren: A Friend of the Family
Groff, Lauren: The Monsters of Templeton
Gurganus, Allan: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Guthrie, A. B.: The Big Sky
Gwyn, Aaron: Wynne’s War
Haddon, Mark: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Hall, Brian: I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company
Hamid, Mohsin: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Hammett, Dashiell: Red Harvest
Hannah, Barry: Long, Last, Happy
Harding, Paul: Tinkers
Hardy, Thomas: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Harrison, Kathryn: Poison
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hasek, Jaroslav: The Good Soldier Svejk
*Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Blithedale Romance
Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War
Hemon, Aleksandar: Nowhere Man
Hempel, Amy: The Collected Stories
Henley, Patricia: Friday Night at the Silver Star
Herr, Michael: Dispatches
Hiaasen, Carl: Double Whammy
Hillenbrand, Laura: Unbroken
Hilton, James: Good-Bye, Mr. Chips
Hornby, Nick: About a Boy
Houston, Pam: Cowboys Are My Weakness
Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World
Ishiguro, Kazuo: Never Let Me Go
Jin, Ha: Waiting
*Johnson, Denis: Jesus’ Son
Jones, Edward: The Known World
Jones, James: From Here to Eternity
Joyce, Graham: The Silent Land
*Joyce, James: Ulysses
Julavits, Heidi: The Mineral Palace
July, Miranda: No one belongs here more than you.
Kane, Jessica Francis: This Close
Karr, Mary: The Liar’s Club
Kesey, Ken: Sometimes a Great Notion
King, Owen: Double Feature
Kipling, Rudyard: Kim
Knausgaard, Karl Ove: My Struggle, Book 1
Knowles, John: A Separate Peace
Koryta, Michael: Those Who Wish Me Dead
Lamb, Wally: She’s Come Undone
Lamott, Anne: Bird by Bird
Larson, Erik: The Devil in the White City
LaValle, Victor: The Devil in Silver
Le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Lethem, Jonathan: The Fortress of Solitude
Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street
Lin, Tao: Tai Pei
Lipsyte, Sam: The Ask
Maguire, Gregory: Wicked
Mandel, Emily St. John: Station Eleven
Mann, Thomas: Death in Venice
Mantel, Hilary: Wolf Hall
Martel, Yann: Life of Pi
Maugham, W. Somerset: Of Human Bondage
Maxwell, William: So Long, See You Tomorrow
McCann, Colum: Let the Great World Spin
McCorkle, Jill: The Cheer Leader
McCullers, Carson: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
McInerney, Jay: Bright Lights, Big City
*McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove
McNamer, Deirdre: Red Rover
Meloy, Maile: Half in Love
Minor, Kyle: Praying Drunk
Montgomery, L. M.: Anne of Green Gables
Moody, Rick: The Ice Storm
Moore, Christopher: Fluke
Nesbo, Jo: The Bat
O’Brian, Patrick: Master and Commander
Offutt, Chris: Out of the Woods
O’Hara, John: Appointment in Samarra
Orlean, Susan: Rin Tin Tin
Orwell, George: 1984
Palahniuk, Chuck: Fight Club
Parker, Dorothy: The Portable Dorothy Parker
Patchett, Ann: Bel Canto
Pearlman, Edith: Binocular Vision
Perrotta, Tom: Little Children
Picoult, Jodi: The Tenth Circle
Pollock, Donald Ray: The Devil All the Time
Porter, Katherine Anne: Collected Stories and Other Writings
Portis, Charles: The Dog of the South
Price, Reynolds: Kate Vaiden
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proust, Marcel: Swann’s Way
Pushkin, Alexander: Eugene Onegin
Pym, Barbara: Excellent Women
Reid, Van: Cordelia Underwood
Robbins, Tom: Another Roadside Attraction
Robinson, Marilynne: Housekeeping
Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
Savage, Thomas: The Power of the Dog
Scott, Sir Walter: Rob Roy
Sedaris, David: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Shepard, Jim: You Think That’s Bad
Shteyngart, Gary: Super Sad True Love Story
Smiley, Jane: A Thousand Acres
Smith, Zadie: White Teeth
St. Aubyn, Edward: Never Mind
Stendhal: Red and Black
Strayed, Cheryl: Wild
*Theroux, Paul: The Mosquito Coast
Thompson, Hunter S.: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Thompson, Jean: The Year We Left Home
Toole, John Kennedy: A Confederacy of Dunces
Trevor, William: The Collected Stories
Trollope, Anthony: The Way We Live Now
Tropper, Jonathan: One Last Thing Before I Go
Turow, Scott: Presumed Innocent
Tyler, Anne: Breathing Lessons
Van den Berg, Laura: What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
Vann, David: Caribou Island
Vestal, Shawn: Godforsaken Idaho
Vidal, Gore: Lincoln
Vollmann, William T.: Europe Central
Waters, Sarah: The Paying Guests
Watkins, Claire Vaye: Battleborn
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Welch, James: Winter in the Blood
*Wells, H. G.: The Invisible Man
Whitehead, Colson: Zone One
Williams, John: Stoner
Williams, Joy: The Quick and the Dead
Wodehouse, P. G.: The Old Reliable
Woodrell, Daniel: The Maid’s Version
Yarbrough, Steve: Visible Spirits


  1. I salute your plan! It is so intriguing to read another person's list. I guess all readers have such lists and because you are you and I am me, our lists overlap but are particular to ourselves. I hope you will give us a monthly report.

    1. Thanks, Judy.
      I do hope to occasionally write about the "Essentials" list here at the blog. Stay tuned...

  2. Jeannie Brandt-LietzauNovember 22, 2014 at 11:39 AM

    David, I think you know full well what lists mean to bibliophiles. Lists make us do crazy things....add books to already staggering piles and titles to unachievable lists of our own. All in the hopes of being able to read them pre-bucket kicking. (I have 10 yrs on you...sometimes wonder why, if I have two eyes, I can't read two books at the same time) I was, in fact. doing quite well (in book speak the meaning of this is defined only in one's own imagination) until I ran into Owen Thomas's "The Lion Trees" which is an 1612 page omnibus. Thus far it seems that it will be well worth the time. Any matter. Lists are great. Thanks...I've read some of the titles on your list. They deserve a place on a list ! Good Luck !

  3. good for you, there are some gems in there, and some that will invite you to read the sequels, Wolf Hall to name but one!
    So what's your secret to find the balance between reading both form your TBR and to read some new books coming out in 2015? My Goodreads TBR being over 800 titles, and my being close to your own decade, I would really like to know the secret. I have really been struggling with this issue

    1. I know what you mean about some of these books potentially leading to others by the same author. It's a happy problem to have, I guess.
      As for my methodology, at this point, I think I'll be reading in threes: 1. Read from the Essentials list in alphabetical order, 2. Pick another book from the Essentials list which most appeals to me, 3. Read a book from the "regular" TBR pile. I'm going to start off with a book from #2, though--something I've been meaning to read for a long time. At this point, it will either be a Wodehouse or "A Confederacy of Dunces."

      BTW, I'm open to suggestions for the best, most-representative Wodehouse to read.

    2. hmm, had not seen your reply to my comment earlier, sorry.
      In 2016, I started something a bit similar, a plan to read 50 classics in 5 years. I finished all of Proust (I had started that project actually in 2015) and read all of Dante. here is my list:

    3. Love your Classics Club! If I wasn't already bogged down with my own 5-year plan, I'd steal a few titles from yours. Maybe I need to extend mine to a 7-year plan?

  4. Wow! I have a similiar situation and I am bumping into mortality faster than you are. I am 68 and have 313 books on my shelves waiting to be read. I have been refraining from entering giveaways until I hit my annual goal and then I am very careful with selection! First, I stopped buying books, that was so difficult and the want is so strong! I have culled too. So I have 13 more books to read by the end of this year. My husband is not a reader, he does read but only Chinese classics in characters so I don't want to burden him with mailing books after I die. I started with 420 books so I think I am winning. Would love it it you could post ahead of time which one of your list your will be reading as I see some that are on mine too!

    P.S. I have severa thousand e-books too. So I am only touching them on trips! Most of them were free books.

  5. Some of the books on your list I have read, some are also on mt TBR someday list. But the one that really gets to me is House of Leaves. When I bought that book, in 2000, I was so excited and planned to read it right away. But, other books "jumped" in front of it, and after awhile it went onto the bookcase in my bedroom. A few years later I took it off the shelf, swearing to read it. I set it on the nightstand, and probably read a page every night for about a week. Then, in cleaning up, I put it in the drawer of the nightstand where it stayed for probably 8 years. One day I pulled it out and brought it down to the living room bookcase, sure that it's proximity to where I read would get me to read it. When I read your post today, I immediately looked over at that bookcase, and there it was, looking sad and lonely. It has been waiting for me to read it for 14 years. I think the time has come! Thanks for spurring me on. (I wish James Michener's Alaska was on your list. I bought it in 1988. I have actually read about half of it over 2 or 3 tries, but other books are always calling me, and it is back on the shelf.)

    1. Suzze: In keeping with the theme of "House of Leaves," I think that book is haunting you. I love its persistence, following you around the house, patiently waiting for you to find the right time to read it. Maybe 14 years ago wasn't the right time, but today is. I'm with you, though, it's a book that's been fascinating me and calling to me for nearly that long.

      As for "Alaska," I've already read it--some time in the 90s, when I was stationed by the Army in Fairbanks. While it's not a bad book, I would certainly put "House of Leaves" ahead of it in the TBR queue.

  6. James Cain wrote Double Indemnity, by the way.

    1. Chris, you are absolutely correct--and I'm embarrassed I didn't catch that. I was going on the entry in my books database which listed Raymond Chandler as the author of the screenplay for "Double Indeminity" (which is also correct). Since I *have* read some James M. Cain in the past, I'm going to change the Chandler book to "The Big Sleep" (with a side order of the "Double Indemnity" screenplay, perhaps). Thanks so much for pointing out my dunderheaded error. I blame it on lack of coffee the morning I was compiling this list.

  7. Hello David,
    Almost a year in and I wonder how you are getting on with this challenge? Many of my own personal favourites are on your list, and (of course) a part of me wants to say things "Oh, but you haven't read that one?" or "You must read this one!" An even bigger part of me wants to make my OWN list. Sometimes I feel that I should devote at least a year of my life to reading nothing but the books (all of them recommended by some source) that are waiting patiently on my bookshelves. "A Dance to the Music of Time" (all 12 volumes of it) comes to mind. At the moment, I'm bogged down (mostly happily) in a project of cataloguing 1000 Young Adult novels. As you can imagine, hop-scotching through your blog has given me a (somewhat pleasurable) anxiety about how far behind I'm getting with Adult literature. Although I AM two-thirds finished with "Purity" and I have just finished "Oranges are Not the Only Fruit" (which has been on my mental list for at least 20 years). Anyway, happy reading from a fellow book-lover.

    1. Bee,
      It's funny you should ask about my progress because I literally--just two minutes ago--went back over this list....and added about another dozen titles to it. (!!!) I plan to write a blog post at the end of this year giving a complete update. But for now, I can tell you I've read 8 of these titles....not as much progress as I'd hoped. But hey, I still have four years to go, right?
      Good luck with your own project. I need to add more Young Adult books to my To-Be-Read pile. But that would require a whole other list, I'm sure.

  8. I am inspired now to make my own list! I've actually been jotting some down today as I've been working.
    I look forward to hearing which titles you've managed to polish off by the end of the year. Also, what is your policy on rereading? Do you ever do it? And if so, which books call to you over and over again? That would be an interesting blog post . . . but perhaps you've already done it?

    YA: assuming you are interested in war novels, (other than your own), I would recommend Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Rose Under Fire (a sequel, of sorts) is also wonderful -- and features lots of Edna St. Vincent Millay poetry.

  9. One more thing . . . I was reading the above comments and I am curious: Did you ever read A Confederacy of Dunces? I haven't read it in years, but I remember absolutely adoring that book. (Who can resist that title?) My brother is in the Army and one year when he was in Afghanistan I sent him a box of classic British humour -- including a couple of Wodehouse books. I don't actually love Wodehouse, but I know people who find his writing a great comfort.