“100 Great Books” reads the headline, this time from PBS, one of my favorite institutions.
Of course I’m in favor of reading. Everyone should do it, constantly.
However, I generally try to avoid either reading or creating lists of “great books” or “best books” or whatever the latest terminology is.
My American Heritage Dictionary defines “great” this way:
adj. great·er, great·est
a. Very large in size, extent, or intensity: a great pile of rubble; a great storm.
b. Of a larger size than other, similar forms: the great anteater.
c. Large in quantity or number: a great throng awaited us.
d. Extensive in time or distance: a great delay; a great way off.
a. Remarkable or outstanding in magnitude, degree, or extent: a great crisis; great anticipation.
b. Of outstanding significance or importance: a great work of art.
c. Chief or principal: the great house on the estate.
d. Superior in quality or character; noble: a great man who dedicated himself to helping others.
e. Powerful; influential: one of the great nations of the West.
f. Eminent; distinguished: a great leader.
That’s enough of that, even though the dictionary goes on defining for several more lines. What a vague description– a pile of rubble! Are these the books that will live longest in the memory of readers? The most remarkable– for what reason? Are they superior in quality, and if so, how? Plot? Characterization? Truth?
Not only is “greatness” pretty difficult to describe, I distrust the lists for another reason. Might a lot of people be tempted to cheat?
What books, we might ask ourselves, will indicate what a brilliant person I am? What books will indicate my innate goodness? My love of nature? What books will convince (fill in the blank) [my pastor, my lover, my teacher, my book group] that I am worthy of their respect? That I am an intelligent and thoughtful person, worthy of great honor?
Besides the possibility that we think too highly of ourselves, consider how memory works. I recall lists containing the same titles of Great Books circulating when I was in high school, when I took them more seriously.
Did I read Crime and Punishment then? I’m not sure. Did I see the movie of The Da Vinci Code? Possibly; I know the story, but how do I know it? I suspect I read some books on the list and blotted out the memory because I disliked them and didn’t think they were among the 100 best. (Little Women?)
Perhaps a friend read it and told me about it so I think I read it. (The Color Purple?) Or someone I loathe read it and pronounced it the best book EVER, so I vowed never to read it. (Fifty Shades of Grey, The Clan of the Cave Bear, Siddhartha)
So: with all that preliminary, here are the ones I’m sure I read.
a lot of Alex Cross mysteries
And Then There Were None
Atlas Shrugged (in my Ayn Rand phase)
The Call of the Wild
Gone With the Wind (when my mother insisted, swooning over both book and movie)
The Grapes of Wrath (for a class)
Great Expectations (for a class)
The Great Gatsby (I have an MA in American Literature, and took a lot of English literature classes during my phase of thinking I might get a Ph.D., so I suspect I read more of the old classics than I am recalling)
The Little Prince (as a child)
Lonesome Dove (and Leaving Cheyenne, and that was the end of my McMurtry phase)
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Sun Also Rises (and everything else Hemingway wrote, during my Hemingway phase)
Pride and Prejudice (and several others before my Jane Austen phase ended)
To Kill a Mockingbird
In 2011, I started writing down the titles of the books I read. Between January 1 and December 31 that year, I read 367 books. In 2012, I read only 345. Certainly they were not all great; but if I begin a book that doesn’t hold my interest, I stop reading and it doesn’t make the list. I don’t record those, and there are a fair number. I generally read mysteries for relaxation, so many of these books won’t make anyone’s list of “great books,” because those lists tend to be more general. Notice, though, that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is on the list. Her books would be numerous on any Great Mysteries list. In 2013, I read 344 books, but only 261 in 2014, and 252 in 2015. I put a black spot on the page beside those books I don’t care for, and as I review the pages I see that several authors gained black spots. In 2016 and 2017 I was working hard on my own writing, so my totals were 118 books and 153, respectively, some of them repeats of particularly enthralling mysteries.
I do re-read books, particularly as I find it harder and harder to discover new writers whose work speaks to me. Some authors whose books I have read more than once include: Ngaio Marsh, Susan Witting Albert, Michael Innes, William Kent Krueger, Georgette Heyer, Louise Penny, Arthur Upfield, Jill Churchill, Ann B. Ross, Mollie Hardwick, Jacqueline Winspear, Aaron Elkins, Deborah Crombie, and Sue Grafton. Among the mystery writers those books I keep to re-read during long blizzards are Gwendoline Butler, Jo Bannister, John Creasey, P.D. James, Jane Langton, Lee Martin, Charlaine Harris, Sharyn McCrumb, Elizabeth Peters, Dorothy Sayers, Martha Grimes, Margery Allingham, Amanda Cross, and Elizabeth George.
A new discovery is Susan Elia MacNeal, who writes the Maggie Hope mysteries about World War II; in fact, I’ve been reading a lot about both world wars lately, both in mysteries and in nonfiction. And I’ve just found Sara Henry, whose work appeals to me because her main character is, as I was, a newspaper reporter.
But I digress, therefore I am a writer.
100 best books? My list would be entirely different and I’m not going to spend my good writing time creating it. None of the books on the PBS list would appear, unless I was overcome by a desire to please the professors from whom I took English classes. Since they’re all likely dead, I can’t succumb.
Similarly, I would find it difficult to choose a “favorite” book from this list without some definition of terms–
Best plot? (almost any Alex Cross mystery)
Most elegant writing? (Probably Gone with the Wind)
Leanest, most succinct writing? (The Sun Also Rises)
Most educational? (Another Country, since I am not black)
Most enjoyable? (I don’t think I enjoyed any of the books on that list but the mysteries; the rest were read because someone expected me to, or was going to test me on them)
Now ask me what books I have always kept a copy of beside my desk since I discovered them.
Excluding essential writing reference books like The Chicago Manual of Style; The Elements of Style by Strunk and White; Roget’s Thesaurus; The Writer’s Legal Companion; How Does a Poem Mean by John Ciardi, and a good dictionary, they are as follows:
Silences, Tillie Olsen
The Great Law of Peace of the Iroquois League of Six Nations
Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss
The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work”, Kathleen Norris
Beyond Engineering, Henry Petroski
To Engineer is Human, Henry Petroski
The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski
Writing to Learn, William Zinsser
Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington
Candy is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash
The Holy Bible
If you don’t have a good book to read, and no one with whom to have an intelligent conversation, and it’s snowing and you don’t want to go outside, you might want to make your own list.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom
# # #
Click here to see the Great American Read list of 100 Great Books.