There’s a meme for personal blogs and online diaries: a list of movies or books or whathaveyou is passed around. The blogger publishes the list on their blog, marking the books they’ve read or movies they’ve seen. We haven’t done that ’round here because, for one, this isn’t really a personal blog, and, for two, we don’t really know anyone who keeps that kind of blog anymore, so no one passes them along (thank God).
Anyway, Keith Law–baseball writer, connoisseur and bookworm (he’s Mr Thursday, on HGH, if HGH did anything useful)–has decided to create a list of his favorite 100 books. He estimates he’s read 400-500 books. I don’t really know how many I’ve read–I’d guess it’s 30 or so per year, depending on the year. Far more than that in high school and college, at least double that rate. Anyway, we’re going to take his list here, and give you a few comments on the books he’s listed that we’ve read. Or, if we have anything to say about the one’s we haven’t read, maybe we’ll comment on that.
He’s divided his list into 5 parts. We’re just lumping everything together here, in one overlong post.
98. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, by GK Chesterton. The title of this blog is, in part, a reference to that book. It’s a comic masterpiece dealing in the existence of God, in rebellion, in fear. Chesterton’s prose is death-defyingly poetic, and, even more wonderfully, the book wraps up the whole ride in just a touch over 200 pages. Brief, bright, and beautiful.
90. The Hound of the Baskervilles, by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is, generally, considered the best of the Sherlock Holmes novels, whether written by Doyle or others (in the others category, the excellent The Seven Per Cent Solution reigns supreme). I haven’t read the book since high school, but I loved the book at the time, and, aside from the iconic Prof Moriarty, the book has everything one could want from the grand detective.
83. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. I used to read in bed, for at least an hour, every night. From the time I could read until I got a driver’s license, basically. Huck Finn was one of the two Mark Twain books I read over and over again (along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Admittedly, I read these books, in part, because I was infatuated with their age–the copies my mother possessed, and allowed her grade school middle son to read, were nearly 100 years old. If I recall correctly, the Huck Finn was a 1900 edition, and Tom Sawyer 1902.
In the end, I loved Huck Finn more than the excellent Tom Sawyer for it’s extraordinary brashness, the spectacular boldness of the story. The book is vibrant with conmen and swindlers and children trying to escape the confines of “sivilized” life. I can only imagine that when I, as a child, asked my mom what “nigger” means, she was both shocked at the question, and relieved that she asked at home, and not at school.
To this day, in my opinion, Twain has found no equal in his ability to capture the voice of the dialects of his characters.
77. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison. This is the only Morrison I’ve read, and to be honest, the only reason I haven’t read more of her is because Oprah and I have generally differed on our literary views, and because Morrison, to me, comes off obnoxiously in interviews. The book is filled with details without being overwhelmed by them, and the imagery–from the nature of breastfeeding to Doctor Street–are haunting. As always, whenever I think of this book, I really believe I need to get into more Morrison.
75. Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. I read this book last summer for the only time–though I vow to re-read it sometime. The book is the most violent I’ve read. That violence is crouched in allegory and bizarre, and often confusing events. I still don’t know quite what to make of the book (though, of course, I’ve still only read it once through), but I will repeat here what I’ve said elsewhere: when this book is “good”, it’s spectacular. It’s well worth the read, just to experience the Judge, if nothing else.
67. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Whenever this book is mentioned, I fail to understand whether it’s generally considered a triumph, or a disaster of a book. Regardless of the opinions of others, I love BNW. The book successfully anticipated a number of late-20th century political and social (and technological) developments, and maintained a compelling narrative for someone who read the book in 2000 for the first time.
65. The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler. Chandler, I suspect, is someone who a reader either adores, or cannot be bothered to read. I fall into the former group. My Chandler love began with Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and continued, triumphantly, into his detective stories. The Big Sleep is the most famous, and, perhaps, the best of Chandler’s considerable work. Phillip Marlow–the model for all grizzled private detectives–is following a case so twisted and hairy that, even without the red herrings, it can be damn hard to follow. Even Chandler himself didn’t know who committed all the murders. For the movie lovers out there, it doesn’t hurt to picture Humphrey Bogart as the leading man, as Bogey played Marlowe in the 1946 version of the book.
57. Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read this in, I don’t know, 5th or 6th grade, for a book report, and loved it. I ought to read it again. And, to recycle an old debate from around here, pirates do beat ninjas.
55. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. I haven’t read this, but the movie in outstanding (with more Bogart–who’s to complain?), and the book has a stellar reputation. I love the detective genre–I’ll get around to this, sooner or later.
53. 1984 (George Orwell) and 52. On the Road (Jack Kerouac). I must be one of the few Americans who had to read A Brave New World but not 1984 in high school. OTR is a book I haven’t read, honestly, just to avoid assimilating into the hive mentality at college, which involved romanticizing everything, playing acoustic guitar in public places (especially under trees), and reading this book compulsively. I’ll read them eventually, but I’m in no rush.
48. I. Claudius, by Robert Graves. As an advanced level Latin student from 6th grade onward, I’ve both read the book, and seen the exhaustive and mostly excellent series based on it. Incest, violence, fire, insanity, backstabbing, poisoning–it’s a ludicrous soap opera, set 2000 years ago. Personally, I don’t have much sympathy for the character of Claudius, who, at times, comes across as both cowardly and clumsy, but the chaos that surrounds him is too fascinating to look away.
41. Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien. Love the series, and The Hobbit, to boot. Mrs Thursday loves Fellowship most, whereas I prefer Return. The books work as a sort of Dumas story with gravitas. Certainly not for weak-eyed readers, as the print tends to be small on these books which clock in at well over 1,000 pages. Worth the effort of going through at least once, though I imagine I’ve read the series more than any other books, as I tried to do the trilogy on a yearly basis from childhood until college.
38. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Read it. It’s a fun book, though it wanders a bit in the middle. The circular nature of the language is downright astounding, and even more impressive, though subtly, is the circular nature of the storytelling.
34. The Trial, by Franz Kafka. This is not my favorite Kafka, as I think his short stories tend to be stronger than his novels, and I’ve only read The Trial once, and The Castle I haven’t read at all. The story is disconcerting, at the least, and the stark narration is terrifying. Dark, dark stuff.
30. Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. This book came recommended to me by a smart and enthusiastic reader. Normally, I avoid Pulitzer Prize winners the way I avoid Oprah recommendations, but, hey, it was there. The climax is startling, for certain, but the trouble of small people in a small town in Maine is discernible. Excellent book, and probably the most recent on Law’s list, though I prefer other newer books to this one.
17. The Great Gatsby, by F Scott Fitzgerald. To be honest, when I saw this book at this spot on the list, I was disappointed. I utterly expected Gatsby to show his face in the top 3. This book, for me, falls in that myriad list of books I read in high school, and while I didn’t dislike it, I struggled to grasp the hype. It deserves a re-read, I suspect.
14. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. Hey, Amazon just delivered this book to me, today! I’ll let you know how it goes. Honestly, would have guessed this to make the top 10.
13. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Law mentions that Walker Percy was less than kind in his introduction to this book. It’s been years since I’ve read the book, but I don’t remember him being particularly mean. Of course, when I read the book, I was still enthralled with Percy after reading Lost in the Cosmos, which, at the time, I found outstanding. CoD, is, of course, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Ignatius is vile and lazy and utterly hysterical. A despical Don Quixote, set in New Orleans. Book doesn’t have a lot of drive, as it’s just about the meandering adventures of a fat guy, but it entertains enthusiastically.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. This has long been my pick for The Great American Novel. Worth every ounce of praise it’s ever received and then some. The story is effective for its ability to take a very personal and quirky story and turn it into something universal and culturally significant. The reader ends up joining the peanut gallery in the courtroom. I’ve written a bit of fiction in my day, and sometimes, I start to hate my stories for failing to achieve that feat. Harper Lee is called a one-hit wonder, but to me the title is misplaced. One-hit wonder implies a failed effort at a second hit. Lee never attempted to publish another novel. Which, of course, is an absolute shame. Anything half as good as her opus is well worth the read.
1. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I’m intrigued by stories that take a long time to write. James Joyce famously took more than 13 years to write Finnegans Wake, which is a fascinating book if you’re patient but is an absolute bitch to read. Virgil famously (among Latin scholars) spent the final 10 years of his life on The Aeneid, which he (probably) failed to complete. Bulgakov spent (with some interruption) the final dozen years of his life, and the book was completed by his wife. While Joyce’s Wake is enormously long and riddled with inscrutable, multi-level and multi-language punwork, and Virgil’s masterwork is enormously long (for a poem), and riddled with complex and astonishing wordplay, Bulgakov’s finest is relatively short and straightforward.
The book as all the more incredible for that. It’s a novel of perfect economy, with no wasted words or sections. Every phrase advances the plot, and every step the plot takes forward transforms either the characters themselves, or our understanding of them. There are a number of memorable scenes–the broom-ride, the ball, the conversation between Yeshua Ha-Nozri and Pontius Pilate, and, perhaps, no scene more wondrous than the opener, which is much like that of The Man Who Was Thursday, except that the devil gets involved. While Blood Meridian’s Judge as Satan is all horror and vile, black, evil, Woland is a tempter, dignified and polite and cunning. His works are more subtle, but just as damning. I don’t think I’d call it my favorite book, but Klaw certainly didn’t make a bad choice here.