Best Books of All Time?
Last week, I came upon this article: “40 Books to Read Before Turning 40”. I jokingly sent it to my boyfriend – currently enjoying his last few months in his 30s – and noted that he “has a lot of reading to do.” The books on the list are certainly some I’d recommend to anyone I knew, whether age 39.5 or 20 or 65, including some of my favorite downtime reads like Bossypants by Tina Fey and Blue Nights by Joan Didion; others on the list like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan and Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan are featured on my class syllabi semester after semester.
But I always read lists like this with some skepticism (and also amusement — I’m not sure all high school literature students would necessarily recommend that we all read The Portrait of a Lady or Great Expectations by age 40). Are all forty-somethings missing out on some fundamental life lesson if they haven’t yet read Song of Solomon? Or attempted to “master” Julia Child’s Art of French Cooking? (Well, I’d say yes to both… but I’m an English professor/foodie, of course). What about those ubiquitous lists like “Must-Reads of 2013” or, even “The Best Books of All Time,” which, Google informs me, is a topic that has been contemplated by, among others, Wikipedia, GoodReads, the Modern Library, Time Magazine, and countless other amateurs like you and me. Should I judge my worth as an English professor if I haven’t read all of Moby Dick or don’t really like Mark Twain or find Hamlet to be a bit over-rated (Just a bit! It’s growing on me after decades of reading it…).
These quasi “official” judgments and societal expectations are things I consider and talk about casually with friends, with nurses at doctor’s appointments who hear about my job and want a book recommendation, and also in my Literary Criticism and Book History classes. Who makes decisions about what we “must” read, and who/what gets left out in each of these lists?
I’m also thinking through these questions as I read my latest – and maybe last – summer read: The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. As the author and his mother wait at her chemotherapy appointments and doctor’s visits, they chat about what they are reading and trade books and recommendations. They also connect their books to their life experiences and beliefs. This is exactly what I hope to be doing for decades to come – randomly sharing my latest find or a significant quote or connection to a text to whoever will listen.
Oh, and since this post is all about lists, here are a couple of the must-reads from Stacy’s library. You won’t regret it.
King Lear. This is by far favorite Shakespeare play to read and see and teach. It helps us ponder what it means to be a child, parent, sibling, as well as leader and public persona. It features a main character who is at once horrible and unsympathetic yet also pathetic and pained and almost endearing.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I read this memoir of the year following Didion’s husband’s death when it first came out in 2006, and I re-read it a couple of years ago as I was going through my own intense sorrow after the long drawn out death of a relationship. I’ve never read such an honest account of grief and the struggle to move forward with life – all mixed with beautiful, haunting prose and literary examples.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and Sula by Toni Morrison. These are two well-known, well-regarded, oft-taught writers, but my favorites of theirs are not the expected choices (or the ones you’d likely find on the “must read” lists). These two novels and their flawed and burdened (and maybe ultimately redeemed?) characters stick with me long after I read them.