Thursday, November 29, 2018

1,000 Books: Edward Abbey to Louisa May Alcott

In this season of gratitude, I have 1,000 reasons to be thankful for James Mustich. As the co-founder of the legendary mail-order catalog A Common Reader, Mustich knows a thing or a thousand about books. (Full disclosure, Jim was an early editor of mine when we worked together on a now-defunct blog about Agatha Christie, as well as the un-defunct Barnes and Noble Review). Those of us who have felt his influence in the literary world for decades already know this, but the rest of the un-Mustich-minded population can now welcome his excellent taste to their coffee tables with the publication of the massive, and massively-entertaining, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, now out from Workman Publishing. If you are waffling about what to buy that book-obsessed person on your holiday gift list, then waffle no more: go buy this handsome volume and you can plant a big fat check next to that name on your list. I’ll save you an unhealthy dose of seasonal anxiety: this is the book to buy. Wrap it in paper as colorful as Oz’ Emerald City and tie it with bows that are as gilded as the edges of those fancy unread volumes of the Great Books in your father's library and place it it under a tree whose ancestors perhaps once gave their lives for this very book. Christmas = Done!

But...another book telling us what books to read? Sigh. Yes, yes, yes, we live in a list-obsessed Buzzfeed culture these days, and certainly there are already plenty of “books to read before you die” lists floating around out there (How many have you read? Take our quiz now!), and I am hardly the last one to preach about the saintliness of not wasting time on obsessively counting how many books one has and hasn’t read. Hell, this blog is, in one sense, an ongoing summation of my reading habits. I love to tally. And then, too, there is an undeniable authoritarian nature of lists in general: you must read these! We feel sadly incomplete if we don’t score at least 90 on those quizzes. Or maybe that’s just me.

Having said all that, I have happily embraced falling into the thick-paged delights of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. On October 31 of this year, I embarked on the kilo-volume journey, working my way, one book per day, through Mustich’s list. That puts me at a target date of July 27, 2021 for finishing this book (Note to Future Nitpickers: please don’t hold me accountable to that exact date; I need a little wiggle room for the interruptions of life, as well as the potential for burnout around the letter F). There is also the possibility that I’ll die before finishing this book. C’est la vie, shrugs the reader who, as he gets older, has found himself accelerating his reading speed in order to, impossibly, Read All the Books before he hits the grave.

I am about a month into this 1,000 Books project and I can say, unequivocally, that it is a pleasure to learn. Every day, I discover something new, or am reminded of the pleasures of books I’ve already read.

1,000 Books to Die Before You Read is organized alphabetically by the author’s last name, starting with Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire) and wrapping up 900 pages later with Carl Zuckmayer (A Part of Myself). There are 948 books which get individual entries; the other 52 are mentioned in the endnotes “More to Explore” and “Booknotes.” Selecting the titles could not have been easy: a combination Herculean and Sisyphean task, to be sure. As Mustich writes in his Introduction:
A book about 1,000 books could take so many different shapes. It could be a canon of classics; it could be a history of human thought and a tour of its significant disciplines; it might be a record of popular delights (or even delusions). But the crux of the difficulty was a less complicated truth: Readers read in so many different ways, any one standard of measure is inadequate. No matter their pedigree, inveterate readers read the way they eat: for pleasure as well as nourishment, indulgence as much as well-being, and sometimes for transcendence. Hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next.
Haute dog challenge accepted, Mr. Mustich!

Lest you think I am just some literary lemming following one man and his recommendations over a cliff formed by an already too-high To-Be-Read pile, I can assure you that: a) I trust Mustich’s taste to the fullest degree; b) I love a challenge where my reading boundaries are pushed to classic works I might ordinarily shy away from (Hello, Aristotle?) ; and c) of the books he’s recommended and I have already started to read, I am reaping the promised rewards (I’m looking at you, Half of a Yellow Sun).

Truth be told, I need this 1,000-book list like I need an extra hole in my head (unless said hole was carved for an extra pair of eyes). As long-time readers of The Quivering Pen know, I already have a Reading Essentials list of my own. I first posted my Five-Year Plan to this blog on November 22, 2014. This means I have one more year left on my ticking clock (with every tock of the pendulum, I cringe in regret for time wasted on lame-ass books). As of today, I have read only 26 books on that 236-book list. I’ll never make it. So, I’m going to discard the five-year calendar and just say “before I die” at this point. Not only that, but since 2014, I have added just a couple more books to that original list:

Barth, John: Lost in the Funhouse
Barthelme, Donald: Sixty Stories & Forty Stories
Bender, Aimee: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Brooks, Geraldine: March
Burgess, Anthony: A Clockwork Orange
Burnett, Frances Hodgson: The Secret Garden
Canin, Ethan: The Palace Thief
Dahl, Roald: The Collected Stories
Dana, Richard Henry: Two Years Before the Mast
Defoe, Daniel: Robinson Crusoe
Heinlein, Robert A.: Stranger in a Strange Land
Hitchens, Christopher: And Yet...
Jackson, Shirley: The Haunting of Hill House (read since adding to this list)
Johnson, Adam: The Orphan Master’s Son
Lovecraft, H. P.: The New Annotated Lovecraft
Lowry, Malcolm: Under the Volcano
Mansfield, Katherine: The Garden Party and Other Stories
Morrison, Toni: Song of Solomon
Muir, John: The Mountains of California
Norris, Frank: McTeague
Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea
Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
Salten, Felix: Bambi
Sayers, Dorothy L.: Gaudy Night
Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein (read!)
Smith, Alexander McCall: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Stegner, Wallace: Big Rock Candy Mountain
Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath (read! er, “listened to” on audiobook this year)
Stoker, Bram: Dracula
Turgenev, Ivan: Fathers and Sons
Turow, Scott: Presumed Innocent
Walker, Alice: The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith: The Custom of the Country
Wouk, Herman: The Winds of War
Wright, Richard: Black Boy
Zola, Emile: Germinal

Like I said, just a couple of books to add to my quote unquote burden. As I began reading 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, I merged Mustich’s list with my own. To paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws, I needed a bigger boat.

Over the course of the next nearly three years, I will be documenting my checklist here at the blog and on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. I will briefly highlight each book, and include a few words from Mustich (in bold) about the title and as well as a photo of the book in my collection, when appropriate. As widely-read a person as I think I am, I’m finding several books and authors I’d never even heard of before Mustich introduced us. That, if nothing else, is one reason to give thanks for 1,000 Books!

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire evokes the paradoxical loveliness of the harsh, hostile landscape with awestruck exactitude and visceral intensity.

I first read DS in grad school too many years ago (my copy has vanished, but it was the same as the stock photo above which I pulled off the web). I loved Abbey’s rascally humor as well as the rich descriptions of nature. Methinks it’s time for a re-read.

by Edwin A. Abbott

A novel of mathematical whimsy...

Written in 1884, Flatland is a satirical novel about math. As such, since it’s all about numbers and geometry and I absolutely sucked at those subjects in high school, this is a book I would normally run away from, screaming and bleeding at the eyes. Nevertheless, enough people weighed in on it after I posted it to Facebook that I am convinced to give the numbers a try.

Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe

It is as rich in human substance as Greek tragedy, and just as mysteriously powerful in its effect.

Another one I’ve read. Thanks, Graduate School Syllabus!!

My Dog Tulip
by J. R. Ackerley

When first published in England in 1956, Tulip was considered shocking because of what one reviewer called its “scatological and gynaecological detail.” But while the messy details are certainly present in abundance (Chapter Two, for example, is entitled “Liquids and Solids”), to be put off by them is to miss the forest for the trees. For it is precisely J. R. Ackerley’s frank, unashamed, and often hilarious discussions of his beloved Alsatian’s bodily functions, her insistent animality, which bring this particular dog to such vivid and unforgettable life.

As a longtime lover of “a boy and his dog” books (See Where the Red Fern Grows), I was surprised to learn about this memoir for the first time from Mustich’s book. Pleasantly surprised, I might add. I went online and ordered it right away, not in the least influenced by that marvelous cover from the 2009 animated movie (which I have also never seen). I can’t wait to be paws up on my back with this book.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

Cleverly, brilliantly, gloriously, ingeniously, and at times profoundly silly.

This is where the 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die list starts to get a bit embarrassing. No, I have not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s been on my mind for years. And, hey, I knew enough about it to pose my copy of the book with some towels in my bathroom. Mustich says the novel is like P. G. Wodehouse in outer space. My kind of book! (Though, yeah yeah yeah, I also need to read Wodehouse himself...)

The Education of Henry Adams
by Henry Adams

A work of extraordinary eloquence and discernment.

I’ve read Henry Adams’ novel Democracy (pictured in the background), but not his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography. As you can see, I have a vintage Armed Services Edition (given to troops during World War Two to carry in their pockets during combat) which I picked up in an antique store a few years ago. I have a bunch of those ASE titles, but have yet to read any of them. When I do, I’ll pretend hunkered down in a foxhole in a French forest somewhere. Because I’m weird like that.

Watership Down
by Richard Adams

One of the most phenomenal international bestsellers of the 1970s, Watership Down is an immersive saga that traverses great themes and feelings--courage, frailty, community, ecology, responsibility, love--while holding readers on the edge of their metaphorical seats. And oh, yes--it’s a 500-page novel about rabbits.

This book has been a part of my life since at least 1977, five years after it first came out, when I was constantly shelving it and checking it out to patrons at the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming, back when I was a teenage librarian who was so in love with books that I dreamed of, among other things, concocting a men’s cologne called Pages (notes of rosemary, woodstove, and dust). I remember that hardbound copy of Watership was spine-broke and grimy from a thousand readers’ fingers, but still it circulated steadily until it was as limp and weak as sun-baked lettuce. And then came the movie, which I must have seen three or four times in my life. And, oh my!, don’t even get me started on the sentimental pleasures of Art Garfunkel’s song “Bright Eyes”! I don’t know where or when I got this battered paperback you see here (photobombed by Kindle the kitten), but it was before I started keeping track of my collection on Library Thing in 2006. All that being said, I’m sorry to report I haven’t actually read the novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set in Nigeria during the decade culminating in the 1967-70 Biafran war, a secession conflict that left more than a million dead from violence and famine, Half of a Yellow Sun is at once a historical drama and a tale of family struggles and romances gone right and wrong.

After reading Mustich’s summation of the novel, I got so excited, I immediately marched myself up the hill to check out a copy from the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library. I was swept up in the story by page 3 and happily plunged onward. Unfortunately, previous readers had loved Half of a Yellow Sun half to death and a chunk of the first 30 pages, loosened by readers who like to spine-break, kept falling out into my lap. That is no way to enjoy a book. Undaunted, I returned the book to the library and downloaded a page-intact version onto my Kobo. Now I can hold Adichie’s massive, Dickensian world in the palm of my hand.

The Oresteia
by Aeschylus

If you seek between covers an education in the trials and tribulations, the hopes and fears, the terrors and triumphs of the human spirit, the majestic tragedies of the ancient Greeks are the place to begin, and perhaps the place to end as well.

The Oresteia is the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, seen here in Volume 8 of the Harvard Classics “Five-Foot Shelf of Books” which I found in a garage sale here in Butte, Montana nine years ago. I should say “rescued” rather than “found" because most of the 51 volumes were water-damaged and rotting with mildew. I spread them out around the basement and for the better part of a week, the house smelled like an old tweedy English professor who’d been left out in the rain for too long. (Sadly, I was unable to save Volumes 7, 47 and 48.) As for the Greek plays, I’m marking these as “read” because I’m sure they were on my syllabus when I was a Theater major at University of Wyoming back in the early 80s and I’m pretty certain I read Agamemnon at the very least (though, truthfully, my memory is also a little tweedy and rain-soaked).

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
by James Agee and Walker Evans

Agee invests simple realities--and the struggling lives of sharecroppers--with beauty and moral gravity.

I had a Penguin Classics edition of Agee’s novel A Death in the Family perched on my own To-Be-Read list, but Mustich started twisting my arm in favor of Famous Men; and then on Facebook, fellow reader David Surface completely wrenched my elbow up toward my shoulder blades with this summation and I cried “Uncle!”: “This book is Agee’s Apocalypse Now, in that (like Coppola) he went into the jungle and wouldn’t come out. What was supposed to be a magazine article on sharecroppers turned into this huge, sprawling, genius mess of a glorious work of art that touches on politics, class, poverty, race relations, and (like all his work) human beings and our relationship to the holy. It’s unclassifiable, literally––walk into any B&N and try to find it; I’ve found it under Literature, Sociology, History, even Memoir and Biography (and, thanks to the other genius involved, Walker Evans, even Photography). There’s much in it that your eyes and brain won’t want or be able to deal with. It also contains several of the most heartbreakingly beautiful, angelic pieces of writing in the English language.” Pictured: my Library of America volume of Agee’s books.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee

Fear and Loathing in the Living Room

Thanks (again!) to my early thespian training in Wyoming, I am not afraid to say I’ve read this play time and time again, until my brain was as hoarse as George and Martha’s voices yelling at each other over late-night drinks. Albee’s play is incredible in the way it treats the human condition. It stings, it burns, it insists we not look away from the mirror.

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

It is among the most cherished and popular children’s books of all time. Within its comfortable domestic compass, many readers first discover the import of the largest questions: Who am I, and who do I want to be?

I don’t remember where or when I got this 1924 copy of the novel--and it’s not the edition I read a few years ago when I realized I better see what all the fuss was about--but it’s in great shape after all these years and is a cherished member of my vintage books shelf. Ember (Kindle’s likewise photobombing brother) told me it has notes of oak and cherries in its aroma. I then turned and splashed him with a fingerful of my Pages cologne to show him what a real book should smell like.

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