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Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Old Enough to Have Always Read for Pleasure

Sometimes I wonder – well, more than sometimes – if we old folks are the last generation to have the habit of reading for pleasure.

I don't mean to imply that younger people are less literate necessarily, or dumber or not as interested in reading as we are. It's just that there are so many other things to fill time nowadays: movies, television, internet, video games, smart phones and tablets with apps and more apps.

Electronic screens are hard to ignore, some say they are addictive, and even toddlers can handle an iPad with aplomb.

Most of us, people about 65 and older, grew up - at least in our earliest years - without those distractions. There were radio and movies, the latter mostly on weekends, and television didn't arrive where I lived until I was in high school.

When I was a kid, most of my free time in the house, and that of my parents too, was spent reading. It started young and it became a lifelong habit. When everything else is done, when nothing demands my attention, I almost always reach for a book.

Recently, over at the Counterpunch website, journalist Jeffrey St. Clair published a list of 100 Best Novels in English that he and his friend, the late Alexander Cockburn, had compiled together before Cockburn's death two years ago.

I know from a decade of your comments that many TGB readers are book readers so I suspect you would be as interested in what these two smart guys came up with as I am. They made some rules for themselves - these are three of them:

Nothing older than 1900
No repeats – one book per author
Unlimited peremptory challenges for authors they dislike

Unlike listicles that plague the internet these days, this is a list I believe no inveterate reader could resist – carefully chosen from stories remembered well enough to discuss intelligently. In addition, they ranked the books in order, one to 100.

I don't know enough of the books to argue with the ordering, particularly their choice for first place, Ulysses by James Joyce. The book, a decades-old edition, sits on my shelf still, never read beyond 40 or 50 pages. I never could make sense of it.

But there are plenty of other authors I would expect and was pleased to see, among them Gore Vidal, Hillary Mantel, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Henry Miller, Hammett, Wodehouse, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Heller, Waugh, LeGuin, Kesey and even Eric Ambler – because they intentionally included genre fiction as well as literary fiction.

My recall of plots, characters and merit of the books I've read is not anywhere near as good as St. Clair's and Cockburn's, and there are many others on the list I still intend to read – but who knows if I will.

When I was a young woman, I believed there was plenty of time in life to read everything I wanted to before I die. Now at 73, I know I will die with the unread pile decidedly taller than what I've read.

It's worth stopping by Counterpunch to read Jeffrey St. Clair's entire introduction to the list. And let us here know what you think about it. What you've liked, what you skipped, which most strongly remain in your memory.

  1. Ulysses: James Joyce (1922)
  2. Absalom, Absalom!: William Faulkner (1936)
  3. Gravity’s Rainbow: Thomas Pynchon (1973)
  4. Native Son: Richard Wright (1940)
  5. Orlando by Virginia Wolff (1928)
  6. The Rainbow: DH Lawrence (1915)
  7. Under Western Eyes: Joseph Conrad (1911)
  8. Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison (1952)
  9. The Violent Bear It Away: Flannery O’Connor (1960)
  10. Tropic of Cancer: Henry Miller (1934)

  11. The Golden Notebook: Doris Lessing (1962)
  12. The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway (1926)
  13. Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys (1966)
  14. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse (1938)
  15. Tender is the Night: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)
  16. Giovanni’s Room: James Baldwin (1956)
  17. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)
  18. At Swim-Two-Birds: Flann O’Brien (1939)
  19. On the Road: Jack Kerouac (1957)
  20. JR: William Gaddis (1975)

  21. Pale Fire: Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
  22. End of the Affair: Graham Greene (1951)
  23. Red Harvest: Dashiell Hammett (1927)
  24. Mumbo Jumbo: Ishmael Reed (1972)
  25. A Lost Lady: Willa Cather (1923)
  26. The Hound of the Baskervilles: Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)
  27. Far Tortuga: Peter Mattheissen (1975)
  28. The Iron Heel: Jack London (1908)
  29. Jazz: Toni Morrison (1992)
  30. The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck (1939)

  31. Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  32. Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (1964)
  33. Riddle of the Sands by Erksine Childers (1903)
  34. The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West (1936)
  35. Catch 22: Joseph Heller (1961)
  36. Beat the Devil: Claud Cockburn (1951)
  37. The Indian Lawyer: James Welch (1990)
  38. The White Hotel: DM Thomas (1981)
  39. Neuromancer: William Gibson (1984)
  40. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: Evelyn Waugh (1957)

  41. Light Years: James Salter (1976)
  42. Almanac of the Dead: Leslie Marmon Silko (1991)
  43. Death of the Heart: Elizabeth Bowen (1938)
  44. The Monkeywrench Gang: Edward Abbey (1975)
  45. Slaves of Solitude: Patrick Hamilton (1947)
  46. The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
  47. Novel on Yellow Paper: Stevie Smith (1936)
  48. A Feast of Snakes: Harry Crews (1976)
  49. Vida: Marge Piercy (1975)

  50. The Man in the High Castle: Philip K. Dick (1962)
  51. Naked Lunch: William Burroughs (1959)
  52. A Place of Greater Safety: Hilary Mantel (2006)
  53. Voss: Patrick White (1957)
  54. Dog Soldiers: Robert Stone (1974)
  55. Animal Dreams: Barbara Kingsolver (1990)
  56. Cat’s Cradle: Kurt Vonnegut (1963)
  57. Sometimes a Great Notion: Ken Kesey (1964)
  58. Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1944)
  59. The Known World: Edward P. Jones (2003)

  60. Written on the Body: Jeanette Winterson (1993)
  61. Disgrace: JM Coetzee (1999)
  62. Call It Sleep: Henry Roth (1934)
  63. July’s People: Nadine Gordimer (1981)
  64. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
  65. The Black Prince: Iris Murdoch (1973)
  66. Julian: Gore Vidal (1964)
  67. The Killer Inside Me: Jim Thompson (1952)
  68. An American Dream: Norman Mailer (1965)
  69. If He Hollers, Let Him Go: Chester Himes (1945)

  70. The Secret History: Donna Tartt (1992)
  71. Flaubert’s Parrot: Julian Barnes (1984)
  72. Matterhorn: Karl Marlantes (2009)
  73. The Last Good Kiss: James Crumley (1978)
  74. Salvage the Bones: Jesmyn Ward (2011)
  75. Underworld: Don DeLillo (1997)
  76. The Radiant Way: Margaret Drabble (1987)
  77. Regeneration: Pat Barker (1991)
  78. Snow Crash: Neal Stevenson (1992)
  79. Ray: Barry Hannah (1980)

  80. Tripmaster Monkey: Maxine Hong Kingston (1989)
  81. The Golden Gate: Vikram Seth (1986)
  82. Lucky Jim: Kinglsey Amis (1954)
  83. Day of the Locust: Nathaniel West (1939)
  84. Gateway: Frederick Pohl (1977)
  85. Machine Dreams: Jayne Anne Phillips (1984)
  86. Two Serious Ladies: Jane Bowles (1946)
  87. Mr. American: George MacDonald Fraser (1980)
  88. Zuleika Dobson: Max Beerbohm (1911)
  89. The Dogs of March: Ernest Hebert (1979)

  90. The Deceivers: by John Masters (1952)
  91. Sleeping Beauty: Ross McDonald (1973)
  92. The King Must Die: Mary Renault (1958)
  93. Tree of Smoke: Denis Johnson (2007)
  94. House of Splendid Isolation: Edna O’Brien (1994)
  95. Lucy: Jamaica Kinkaid (1990)
  96. Affliction: Russell Banks (1989)
  97. Gaudy Night: Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)
  98. Flicker: Theodore Roszak (1991)
  99. Greenmantle: John Buchan (1916)

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Henry Lowenstern: Lost and Found


Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post

Comments

I notice there are only 99 books. I checked Counterpunch and they left out number 45.
Only one Australian on the list and he had to win a Nobel Prize to achieve it.

Wow, interesting list, and so much more to read. I have read only 10 of them. Gravity's Rainbow (#3) was a struggle: I read it during the summer of first year university to please a boyfriend whose favorite novel it was.

I could never get through Ulysses either.

I got to Hilary Mantel's novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, earlier this year. It is truly magnificent and masterfully done. Hard to believe it is the first novel she wrote (published after she became famous for other works).

I think you are dead on that the younger generation has too many choices to fill their time so reading, per se, is not high on their hit list.

As for me I bought a Kindle for travel as I now travel w/a carry-on to Europe so this is expedient but at home, I patronize 2 libraries which is a joy.

This is an interesting list. I haven't yet counted up how many I've read, but I'm sure it's only a small percentage of the total, even though I read constantly--always have two books going, one fiction and one nonfiction.

I'd like to see a similar list compiled by two accomplished women. I often notice that the books men pick as outstanding are not books that interest me much. At least these guys include a fair number of books by women.

Although I haven't read many of the books on that list, I am and have always been an avid reader with usually more than one book going at a time. You are so right about dying with a pile of books still to be read by my side! Right now my GoodReads To Be Read queue is at 149; it very seldom goes under 100. Happy reading all!

Nancy Wick, you wrote just what I wanted to write, so ditto! I would have at least included To Kill a Mockingbird.

I did most of reading on the subway riding to and from work (I had a long trip). It was not so much reading for pleasure as it was reading out of necessity.I did have certain litterary standards though. The book had to be in paperback (so It would fit in my coat pocket). And,the chapters had to be realatively short so that I would not have to stop reading in the middle of one when I got to my stop.Anything by James Patterson or Nelson DeMille worked well.

When I was aged four or five, my father was encouraging me to learn to read and said, "When you can read the world is yours." So, of course, I learned to read and reading continues to give the most amazing pleasure. I have read some of the books on the list, but there are many unfamiliar names there I'm from the UK). Yes, a list compiled by two women would also make interesting reading. You also need to be able to read to use a smart-phone, tablet etc!
Elizabeth

I'm with you on ULYSSES; tried but could not get into it and decided that it was not worth my frustration & boredom, when there are so many other choices. Listing it first has me suspect about attempting the rest.(Have only read 7 from their list) I also have a love of reading and never am at a loss of material. Perhaps not typical, but my 9 year old grand-daughter loves to read. This is probably because she has been raised without TV. However on her recent visit, she was reading downloaded books on an IPAD, while traveling. I hope that she will not outgrow this passion for books.(I am thrilled)!

I had no idea that I had missed so many good books. I will really have to get busy and start catching up.

Although many of the titles are familiar, I was unaware of others.

I have copied and pasted the list to see how many I can get on my Kindle and I will send a copy to my daughter and granddaughters who do love to read. (My daughter started reading to her girls when they were still in the womb,so you see we are a family of book lovers.)

Thank you for this; I do love a book list! I've read almost everything prior to the last 20 years or so, but don't do a lot of contemporary reading these days. I'll do some catching up.

Yes, let's find a list compiled by women! And ix-nay on Pynchon!!

Here is the site for the reading list to take until the next century:
>
>theyearofreadingtheworld< compiled by a woman who decided to read 1 book from every country in the world (which had been translated to English)

I have been a book junkie since childhood, and keep breaking my own promise to myself NOT to buy anymore books, except for ebooks when travelling. The pile next to my bed shocks me sometimes. And I'm sure you all know that a reference to a specific book in one you are reading, often sends one to that book with the usual result. Recently reading "Four Seasons in Rome", the author rhapsodized about Pliny the elder's work on the natural world and believe it or not I found a copy on Amazon. With the usual result. It has been worth breaking my promise.

Wow, so many books, so little time.

I haven' read all of these books, but will print the list and go track the ones not read down.

Thank you, Ronni.

I remember it well … My elementary school class being led into one of our cities’ libraries. What a thrill it was to receive my first library card that day and be told that all the books in that second floor room were mine for the borrowing.

I continue to love books and visiting the library.

Thanks for the list although I don’t think I’ve read many …. maybe five??? I’ll give it another look.😊

Joyce weaves so much symbolism into "Ulysses" that supplemental texts are required for most people these days to comprehend it. We spent half a semester reading it in school, and most of us thoroughly enjoyed it, but we had an exemplary teacher and solid reference material.

Yikes! Hemmingway is missing . . .

But happy to see Steinbeck, Henry Miller and Burroughs.

Though others could not stand their writing - I explained it is not the words - but the emotions you must feel.

The same with Hemmingway . . So what do suppose is the explanation for his works dropped from the list?

An interesting list of books, only about one fifth of which I've read. My all-time favourite is Doris Lessing's the Golden Notebook. I've plotted the changes in me over the last 40 years, since first reading it, by returning to it every 8 years or so.

Another corker is Pat Barker, especially her trilogy about the Great War.

I too would like to see a list compiled by women, hopefully to include some outstanding foreign writers whose books have been translated into English.

Yellowstone, Hemingway is #12 The Sun Also Rises.

But he spells Virginia Woolf Wolff!

No Paul Auster
No E.L. Doctorow
No John Barth
No Dennis Lehane
No Peter Carey
No Tom Keneally
No Peter Temple
Hmmm

Being one of those people who keeps count, I find that I have read 35 of the novels on St. Clair's list. Which doesn't mean that I agree with all his choices. For one thing, I would toss out those "man's man" authors, Mailer and Hemingway, to make room for a couple of major gay authors like Alan Hollinghurst (Booker Prize) and Edmund White plus a personal choice, Christopher Isherwood. There are others I would eliminate and many I would add, including one they "hated," Jonathan Franzen. Why?

I was ready to get my panties in a further twist about certain omissions until I read in their article that they intended to issue a list of novels in translation. At which time I will feel kindly toward them only if Haruki Murakami, Orhan Pamuk and Milan Kundera are included.

I also take issue with their arbitrary 1900 cutoff, which allows them to leave off not only Jane Austen but also Thomas Hardy---and Hardy is essentially a modern writer. Finally, I am greatly relieved to learn that I am not alone among my TGB friends in being completely unable to tolerate "Ulysses" which makes me almost physically ill by about 25 pages in.

Luckily, I know quite a few younger readers, from age 17 on up, who are avid readers for pleasure! There is hope.

And I agree with the commenters about the creators of this list - one by women would be nice.

does anyone beside me find lists like this almost completely useless? probably not. but as in art, music, food, and a host of other subjects, taste in books is completely subjective.

Whenever I see lists of this sort I am reminded of another blogger's comments. Go to this link and scroll to his last post on Oct 9, 2013: http://normblog.typepad.com/normblog/

I admit to being a light-weight when it comes to fiction. Most of my life-time's reading list comprises non-fiction (and, I admit, technical/scientific) books.

That said, Meg's comment "...unable to tolerate "Ulysses" which makes me almost physically ill by about 25 pages in." pretty well sums up my take on "Ulysses". I found On the Road to be unsatisfying to the point that I gave the book to a library, never having finished reading it.

As other women have mentioned, I find the list (and some of additions by comment) to reflect particularly (and peculiarly) masculine values.

As I finished reading only seven of the list (and I slogged my way through Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, so I do claim some endurance in the face of a challenge), to my remembrance, it is obvious that my experience/taste hardly correspond to the list makers'. Or...perhaps I actually finished reading more of the books but they failed to leave an impression.

Interesting, but unsatisfying, list. Thanks for posting it, Ronni.

Thanks, Judy (belatedly), for the link to "normblog." Not only did I like his list best because it included more books that I love, but I can heartily concur with the principle behind it. My personal book list might include 1,000 books instead of 100 but it would be my own. And that's the list we should rely on.

I find this post interesting because I wrote a post for my blog about how my reading habits have changed since I got older. I'm still pretty young at 62, but know I have a limited number of books to read before I leave this reality. It's become all the more important to pick my reads carefully.

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