Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Thirty Great Books

A sample of some of the books on my original, highly ambitious, guilt-induced list.

I was not an English major in college, so no one ever required me to read "the classics," and I preferred most leisure reading in the more easily digested format of chick lit like Bridget Jones' Diary. Now, I am not in any way denigrating this genre or its cousins, beach trash and airport novels; I love me some mass-market fiction. However, I can no longer bullshit my way through English teacher debates about the best Jane Austen book or Hemingway's most influential work. The required reading from my psych classes just doesn't seem to come up very often in the teacher's lounge. Maybe I should just try working Maslow's hierarchy of needs or Jung's collective unconscious into more conversations...  Either way, I am developing a guilty conscience and an inferiority complex about the holes in my literary history, hence, the goal of reading thirty great books.

With the help of online lists like The 100 to Read Before Your Die, The 50 Greatest Novels Ever Written, Books that Everyone but the Most Moronic Haven't Read, and the like, I started compiling my list over the summer. Lolita was at the top of most of the lists I came across, so I marched out, bought it, and read it in a matter of a few days. I loved it even though I had to read it with a dictionary at the read. That Nabokov could craft such sparkling prose in his second language was inspiring and humbling.

Bolstered by my success, I headed back to the book store (I didn't want to have to return the evidence of my literary accomplishments to the library) and picked up One Hundred Years of Solitude, another frequent flier on the must-read lists. It has been on my bedside table for going on five months now, the post-it note bookmark stubbornly refusing to move beyond page 43. I decided to put it aside and pick up another of the books that I am embarrassed to admit I haven't read, Huckleberry Finn. That bookmark (a receipt from Rite Aid) is firmly wedged between pages 22 and 23. I brought it with me to Big Bear, planning to dedicate some serious hours to Twain's masterpiece while avoiding the frosty outdoors.

My good intentions were foiled when my lovely mother-in-law tempted me with The Piano Teacher, a book that she had just finished. The beautiful cover and the back cover promises of "layers of intrigue," "unexpected twists," and "a tempestuous affair" were too much for me to resist. I put poor Huck back in my suitcase and spent the next two days immersed in pre- and post-war Hong Kong. The book was very good, I devoured it, luxuriating in the hours of uninterrupted reading. The point of all of this rambling is that I have decided to cut myself some slack. I am still going to try to read some of the Books I Should Have Read by Now, but I am not going to punish myself with books that don't move me. I am going to strive to find the balance between challenging myself to stay with a book that may not immediately grab me and suffering through a book I don't like just because it is on someone else's list. If I can read thirty non-school books by my birthday, I will consider myself a success.

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