Since there’s bloody little else to do on these wretched state and federal holidays during which the holy Post Office is closed (and with a winter storm coming – that being something of a tradition for Inauguration Days I care about), we can get a lot of extra reading done on Martin Luther King Day. Ah, but what to read? Prior to the advent of Stevereads, this used to be the premiere question nagging every voracious reader: what do I read next? (Now, in the Age of Stevereads, there are two – and only two – equally wonderful options: you can read the books recommended on Stevereads, or you can read Stevereads itself, which is now so vast an archive of verbiage that you’d need a whole day to get through it all!)
It’s lucky for such searching readers (or maybe it’s because of them?) that bookworms like nothing more than the making of lists. Books Read. Books To Be Read. Favorite Books in All Categories. Runners Up. Such lists have featured prominently here on Stevereads all these years, and they’re everywhere else too – it’s understandable, really, since the profusion of books out there makes every winnowing-device feel like a godsend.
Hence, the profusion of books consisting of lists of books! These have been with us for centuries, and now, ironically, readers need help picking which books to read about picking which books to read. And Stevereads is here to offer such help – in the form, naturally enough, of a list:
Have You Read 100 Great Books? - Everybody’s got to have a first encounter with such books, and for me it’s this dorky 1950 volume from the late lamented Jasper Lee Company. The book (printed soon enough after the WWII that it could refer to the war itself as “the great holocaust” – no capital ‘H’ – without self-consciousness) believes explicitly in the improving power of reading, and it wants to convey that power to ‘the man on the street.’ The first third of the book is taken up with ‘best books’ lists from such literary luminaries as Arthur Conan Doyle, John Cowper Powys, John Lubbock, Arnold Bennett, and Christopher Morley, as well as house lists from such institutions as Columbia College and the Grolier Club. The last third of the book is filled with page-long excerpts from some of the great books listed all throughout. But it’s the middle third that was – and still is – the charmer for me: Jasper Lee sent out questionnaires – not to famous authors or magazine columnists, but to libraries, asking them to send in their lists of the best books ever written. These lists went to the most illustrious institutions in the country – Milton Lord and his staff at the Boston Public Library required exactly one afternoon to generate their response – and also to all the beautiful little libraries dotted throughout the country. Many of those little libraries grappled so earnestly with the task of creating their lists (consulting the staff went without saying, but since the staffs in question could often be four people, in many cases favorite patrons were consulted as well) that Jasper Lee had to remind them more than once about big-city deadlines (the list from Council Bluffs, Iowa, is a work of art – and one of the only ones to contain any Longfellow).
The List of Books – The job was almost never done more comprehensively than in this tall, slim 1981 volume from Kenneth McLeish and the great Frederic Raphael, in which many lifetimes of reading are distilled into common sense categories (“Fiction,” “Home and Garden,” “Poetry”) and flagged with a Linnean system of icons: “A particular pleasure to read,” “Difficult: worth persevering,” “Major masterpiece,” “Minor masterpiece,” “Infuriating: possibly illuminating,” and that most coveted reader accolade of them all: “Not to be missed.” As could be expected in any project involving Raphael, The List of Books is fare more than what its title implies – it’s in fact an over-stuffed treasure-trove of argument-starting literary opinion (about Cecil Woodham-Smith’s Irish Famine book The Great Hunger we read: “One of the best books on Irish history. If you are English it should make you blush with shame”). Almost all of literature is touched on here; all it really lacks is everything that came after it was published.
The Joy of Books by Eric Burns – Despite being a professional journalist, Burns is an intelligent, omnivorous reader, and this 1995 book is my favorite among the many first-rate things he’s written. These are occasional book-themed essays, collected and sometimes slightly elaborated, and they sparkle with the kind of no-nonsense quotable gems Burns was able to dispense with almost medical regularity, as when he writes about the drawbacks of the writing life: “Maybe a writer can finagle a $30,000 advance for a book, but it will take him so long to write that his hourly rate works out to about the same as the guys who stuff the rodent remains into all-beef hot dogs.” Like all such books, he ends his festivities with the course we all wanted: his own list of his favorite books in a handful of genres – the ones that have brought him the most joy up to the time of his writing. It’s great to see Pete Dexter on that list – and a little wistful to see such names as Ward Just, Vincent Patrick, and Colin Harrison there as well.
How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen – This skinny little 1998 volume probably sold more copies total than any of the other books on this list; it’s the books-only equivalent of the New York Times column she wrote for many years, full of wonderful, winding conversations on all aspects of the reading life (with some potted historical asides inevitably hauling in the Sumerians). As charming as these ruminations are, they, too, are merely the foreground for the good stuff at the end: Quindlen rewards her readers not just with books-lists but highly themed books-lists: “10 Nonfiction Books That Help Us Understand the World,” and “10 Books for a Girl Who Is Full of Beans (or Ought to Be),” and best of all “10 Big Thick Wonderful Books That Could Take You a Whole Summer To Read (but Aren’t Beach Books)” (in case you’re wondering, #1 is Gone with the Wind). These are the kinds of lists only the most hopeless book-addict would even think to make, and they’re the highlight of this little endeavor.
For the Love of Books by Ronald Shwartz – Hopeless book-addiction certainly applies to this 1999 volume (my personal favorite on the list), written with erudite passion by an author who steered clear of liberal arts graduate school because “it was rumored to be a cold clinic in which to deconstruct literature, a place where bad things happened to good books.” Instead, he went to law school and continued to give himself over to the love of reading – and that love is the subject of this book, which is an extremely fascinating collection of reminiscences by famous authors looking back on the books that shaped them. Shwartz doesn’t give us any book-lists of his own – except for the long and wondrously varied list that emerges from listening to all these writers talk about the writing that most stuck with them thoughout their lives. Scwartz spent many years as a Boston trial lawyer, and it shows: these personal responses, these affidavits, speak as enumeratively – and eloquently – as any hundred lists could do. The result is, erm, good enough to lick.
A Passion for Books - edited by Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan – This generous book also came out in 1999, the mid-to-late 1990s feeling the massive groundswell of the Internet and beginning, perhaps, to sweat a little about the future of plain old printed books (our current march toward digital domination was only the glimmer of a nightmare to these authors and editors; they imagined that ubiquitous home computers would eliminate reading, not eliminate printed books). A Passion for Books resembles very closely the first book on our list: it’s a miscellany, really, including not only quips and quotes and cartoons but also longer excerpts by book-folk down the ages, from Petrarch to Montaigne to Robertson Davies and even a bit from the Anna Quindlen book just mentioned. There are much longer pieces, too, including Robert Benchley’s hilarious “Why Does Nobody Collect Me?” and William Dana Orcutt’s great essay on Aldus Manutius (no idea – then or now – what this piece is doing here, but it’s such a joy I’m not complaining). And yes, there are lists at the end – including the infamous Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th Century, which caused dozens of bookworms throughout the country to start lying about whether or not they’d ever read Zuleika Dobson.
By the end of a wretchedly non-postal afternoon spent in the company of such books, the outside world is forgotten, and the reader is busy making – or re-making – book-lists of his own, surely one of the best book-addict activities this side of that Holy of Holies, book-rearranging. And who knows? If this mythical snow really does arrive, maybe tomorrow will be the day for that.