Saturday, February 28, 2009

Textually aroused

I know I made fun of memes a while back. So, naturally, I'm passing on another one now. Hypocrite? Me?

But I had to, for a few reasons. First the actual meme, as seen on Facebook and everywhere else: There's a supposed BBC-originated list of 100 books, only six of which the "BBC believes" the average person will have read. The instructions are to indicate those you've read, liked, disliked, and so on.

The only problem is, I found the list on the BBC website, and it's significantly different. Near as I can tell, someone (or someones) altered the list to make it ... I don't know, more impressive sounding? I'm not sure. I know the original list lacks the Bible, Shakespeare, Anna Karenina, Memoirs of a Geisha, and several others that now appear. Maybe I'll redo my list with the original, especially if I don't feel like working but want to feel productive. But my response to the memed one (with my own commentary) is at the end of this post. I've read 48 of the books.

Like I said, I'm responding for a couple of reasons. First, I can't resist a chance to show the world how smart and nerdy I am. Second, I feel terribly clever for knowing it's modified list, though I'm sure plenty of people have already realized that. But third, I sort of take issue with the implications of doing so and of the "list of books to read" phenomenon in general. So I'm, what, eight times more well read than most people? I don't buy that. Or perhaps what I don't buy is the hierarchy of book worthiness.

Because the thing is, I'm obsessed with reading. Obsessed. And I didn't get that way on Wuthering Heights and The Great Gatsby, or even on Lord of the Rings. I didn't read a lot of the books I "counted" until well into adulthood. My obsession started young and was nurtured into a love affair by junior high and early high school, by which point I had still read almost none of the books that appear on any of these kinds of lists.

I almost had to be a bookworm. My dad (whose birthday would have been today; more on that in the next post) gave new meaning to "avid reader," and sort of made it his mission to pass it on to me. He turned me on to nonfiction reading, countless novels, and comic books (Wolverine and Batman were the favorites -- you like them now that they're cool to like? Bone up on your back stories and then talk to me.) We spent nearly an entire summer reading and rereading A Wrinkle in Time, just talking about how it worked.

Add to that my grandmother, my dad’s mother. When we were growing up, she worked at a bookstore across the country. Each month, surplus books would have their covers torn off for some sort of record keeping and the books would be slated for disposal. As a kid, it always used to strike me as somehow wrong that a bookstore could destroy books, business or no. Fortunately, my grandmother couldn’t abide the idea any more easily, and she shipped the books to us. They arrived in huge brown boxes, waiting on our steps after school, wrapped about ten times over in packing tape. The tape became a running joke. She had an inexplicable attachment to the stuff, and it almost made the end result -- the challenge, the wait, the eventual revealing of the prize -- sweeter. Like a strip tease, only with books.

When finally the tape lay in a giant ball on the carpet, we’d fling open the box flaps to reveal stack upon stack of paperbacks, piled tightly together, turned sideways and slid down vertically on top of and beside the main stacks where spaces remained, to maximize the number of books per box. My brother and sister would pick books here and there, but I became nerdily determined to read every single one. It didn’t matter what the subject was -- kids’ novels and older-audience titles, poetry, nature, science, medicine, fiction as well as nonfiction. I even read an Unauthorized Guide to the Mario Brothers, though I don’t play video games. I became obsessed with stories and background information, with different ways of describing things, with characters, with facts. I read every book in The Babysitters’ Club series, and all the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. I read every book written by Madeline L’Engle and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien save a few obscure volumes that remained perpetually on my Christmas and birthday wish lists. I knew each time a new title was due from Christopher Pike or R.L. Stine (pre-Goosebumps series). I read old and new together and mixed genres like a kid at a soda fountain mixes flavors: Rocket Ship Galileo and then Pippi Longstocking; The Wind in the Willows and then a volume ambitiously titled The Story of Mankind. I read a book on a professional painter turned marine biologist, who used his hybrid training to portray sharks in a positive light at a time when it wasn’t en vogue to do so. I read a novel chronicling the last twenty-four hours of the life of Christ. I learned words like polydactyl and metaphysics and struthiomimus. I learned how to build stilts and how to do card tricks. I learned a great many dirty jokes and some clean ones, though I was and still am terrible at delivering one effectively. I memorized “The Raven,” “Jaberwocky,” “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and “Casey at the Bat” long before I ever studied poetry in school; and even gave a go at understanding “The Hunting of the Snark,” though I wasn’t able to make much sense out of it, other than to be quite unsure how the boojum was dangerous, or what the hell it was, for that matter. I also learned from books, however, that a boojum was a rather peculiar upside-down looking tree related to the ocotillo, and let my intellectual pride take solace in this fact, unrelated to snarks though it might be.

Yeah, I pretty much thought I was the shit. I must have been a royal pain.

And now David reads all those same books. The exact same ones, many missing covers, others read so many times that pieces of the covers have permanent creases or purple unicorn "Belongs to Kim" stickers that themselves have been worn thin.

Now, I know what a lot of people think at this point. Because, except for a few, there aren't many books or subjects I've just listed that would appear on any "best" list. So the common response is, well, it's still great, because at least you were reading something. At least David's reading something now. That's probably why you went on to read 48 books on that list.

I hate the attitude of "At least they're reading something."

Who needs a caste system of books? Really? "At least?" "At least" is the opposite of why I've read 48 of those books. Conditioning myself to read, and then "discovering" the "real" stuff, has nothing to do with it. I learned to read because my dad and others taught me it was fun. Those boxes were treasure boxes. It's the same reason David reads today. Reading is exciting. We've all learned to read for purely recreational purposes.

Now I'm not saying that lists don't have their place. A list of books college bound students should read, fine. A list of the most educational and accessible books in some field or other, great. I think they're infinitely helpful. But I take issue with the general "these are the best books" list. You know the book that made me a passionate reader? This one:

It contained such scholarly tidbits as the "Cyclops girl," a man who painted with his tongue, a guy who held his arm outstretched for ten years, two women who each gave birth to 69 children, and a temple where "thousands were hurled to their deaths."

The thing was, I read all 332 pages of this book. At eight years old. My neck would get stiff and the carpet would make indentations in my knees, from sitting and reading. The morning light would turn brighter and harsher, and only then would I rise from murderous tyrants and 20-foot-tall flowers to eat a late lunch. I had to read it.

In my mind, some of the only books on the list that would have given me that gotta-keep-reading feeling would be the Harry Potter volumes, and it's not because the writing's that great. It's not, technically. For one thing, Rowling's overuse of adverbs makes me want to barf after two or so pages. But her storytelling rocks. Her dialogue is excellent; the characters tell the story for her. The point is, for whatever reason, these kinds of books fly by for me. They're easy in a good way and accessible and I'm actually a little disappointed when I can't "live" in their worlds anymore. We'd be severely deprived if this was the only kind of book out there, but it's what turns readers on.

Today, David's engrossed in a book about the universe. Catcher in the Rye can't be far behind. But I know it won't precede severed toes and The Hearse Song. We're in the middle of The Goblet of Fire, and I have to pry him away from it each night. He'll never have to have a book assigned to him in his life. He reads anything.

The books in both lists are good stuff, no doubt. And yeah, if you take my Lord of the Rings or Mockingbird, we might have to have words. But even those, I can put down. Whatever combination of good writing and storytelling and one's own point in life makes it happen,
it's a rare book that makes you almost wet your pants because you can't put it down.

Or maybe that's "rare" for me and "never" for sane people. Whatever. Here's my list. (You can stop reading here now if you're totally tired of these things. The list is ugly. I would have put it in the comments, but the spacing was all weird there.)

The instructions, for the uninitiated, were to:
1. Look at the list and put and (X) after those you have read
2. Add a (+) to the ones you LOVE
3. Add a (-) to books you didn't like.
3. Star (*) those you plan on reading.
4. Slash (/) those you don't plan on reading.
5. Tally your total at the bottom

1. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen):X
2. The Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien): X
3. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte): /
4. Harry Potter series (JK Rowling): X+
5. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): X+
6. The Bible: X
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte): X
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell): X
9. His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman):X (would have been X+ if I'd read it as a kid; still almost + for ideas if not writing)
10. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens): X
11. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott): X
12. Tess of the D'Ubervilles (Thomas Hardy): /
13. Catch 22 (Joseph Heller): X (And there should be a hyphen, list writer. Also, I award my own "+" to anyone who actually uses the term "Catch-22" PROPERLY)
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare: X+
15. Rebecca (Daphne Du Maurier): /
16. The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien): X+
17. Birdsong (Sebastian Faulk): /
18. Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger): X+
19. The Time Traveler's Wife (Audrey Niffenegger): /
20. Middlemarch (George Elliot): X
21. Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell): /
22. The Great Gatsby (F Scott Fitzgerald): *
23. Bleak House (Charles Dickens): /
24. War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy): /
25. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams): x+
26. Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh):/
27. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky): X
28. Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck): X
29. Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll): X+
30. The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame): x+
31. Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy): /
32. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens): x
33. Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis): x (can I say "+" on some readings and "-" on others?)
34. Emma (Jane Austen): /
35. Persuasion (Jane Austen): /
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (CS Lewis): X (Um, this IS part of Chronicles of Narnia, idiotic list-maker person)
37. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini): X (It was OK, but I feel like I must be missing something.)
38. Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Louis De Bernieres): *
39. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden): *
40. Winnie the Pooh (A. A. Milne): X
41. Animal Farm (George Orwell): X (In 9th grade, I'd have said "X++++," because I thought I was SO smart for "getting it.")
42. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown): sorta * (Meh. Maybe.)
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): *
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney (John Irving): *
45. The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins): / (Don't recognize this one.)
46. Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery): /
47. Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy):/
48. The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood): X+
49. Lord of the Flies (William Golding): X+ (mainly because my dad and I spent a month reading and re-reading it and discussing it.)
50. Atonement (Ian McEwan): * (maybe)
51. Life of Pi (Yann Martel): X+ (Just go along for the ride. Suspend incredulity. It makes it better.)
52. Dune (Frank Herbert): X+ (and also Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapterhouse Dune, The Butlerian Jihad, and The Machine Crusade. I'm working on the rest. Yes, I do have a life. Why do you ask?)
53. Cold Comfort Farm (Stella Gibbons):/
54. Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen): /
55. A Suitable Boy (Vikram Seth): (Don't recognize.)
56. The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon): * (I have it. I think I picked it up solely on the merit of its title.)
57. A Tale of Two Citites (Charles Dickens): X
58. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley): X (Again, boy did I feel clever for getting it. I must have been a pain in the ass in junior high and high school.)
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time (Mark Haddon): / (what's the deal with this one? It's supposed to be some big deal, right?)
60. Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): * (maybe)
61. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck): X
62. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov): X
63. The Secret History (Donna Tartt): *
64. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold): *
65. Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas): X
66. On the Road (Jack Kerouac): X
67. Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy): (Don't know this one either.)
68. Bridget Jones's Diary (Helen Fielding): /
69. Midnight's Children (Salman Rushdie): X
70. Moby Dick (Herman Melville): X (I hated it in high school; it was alright the second time.)
71. Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens): /
72. Dracula (Bram Stoker): X
73. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett): X
74. Notes From a Small Island (Bill Bryson): X+
75. Ulysses (James Joyce): X
76. The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath): *
77. Swallows and Amazon (Arthur Ransome): *
78. Germinal (Emile Zola): (Don't recognize.)
79. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray): /
80. Possession (AS Byatt): (Don't recognize.)
81. A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens): X
82. Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell): /
83. The Color Purple (Alice Walker): /
84. The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro):/
85. Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert): /
86. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry): *
87. Charlotte's Web (EB White): X+ (I loved this book when I was 8 or so.)
88. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Mitch Albom): /
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle): X
90. The Faraway Tree Collection (Enid Blyton): *
91. Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad): *
92. The Little Prince (Antoine De Saint-Exupery): / (Started it; didn't like it.)
93. The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks): *
94. Watership Down (Richard Adams): /
95. A Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole): /
96. A Town Like Alice (Nevile Shute): /
97. The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas): X (Only after my friend and I saw the movie, because we hearted Chris O'Donnell.)
98. Hamlet (William Shakespeare): X+ (Saw the play too! One of the only formal events I ever attended. DOn't miss that boyfriend, but I loved that.)
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Ronald Dahl): X
100. Le Miserables (Victor Hugo): /

I've read 48.

3 comments:

Daniel Greene said... Best Blogger Tips

I'll never forget reading a book called something like Planet of the Bones, which was about these Bone People who could read your mind. I remember one of the protagonists kept telling the other (it was like a buddy road-trip story except the road trip took them to a strange planet), "Hide your thoughts in the back of your mind!" or "Put your thoughts in the back of your head!" From that one conceit ensued discussions with my Trekkie friend, Richard. I was keen on exploring the possibility of the mind's division into various depths from front to back. I remember saying to Richard, "Now, think of something in the front of your head... now push it to the back of your head and put something else in the front. Doesn't it feel like it goes from front to back?"

I even thought about how we could control things with our minds someday, but how we'd have to be careful to put the "command" thoughts in the front of our minds and push other thoughts, such as "wouldn't it be funny if I sent 'object x' off a cliff?" to the back of our minds. To this day, I don't know if any research has been done on this, but all these scientific inquiries began in my little nine-year-old brain as a result of a little sci-fi paperback I bought in one of those classroom book ordering sales.

Lady Stephanie said... Best Blogger Tips

Kim, I see that you do not plan on reading Time Traveler's Wife. This book would take you one day to read. I LOVE this book. Please, give it a chance. Really.

Thanks,
Steph

kirsten said... Best Blogger Tips

I read all of Madeleine L'Engle, C.S. Lewis and Tolkein too :) The L'Engle books were my favorite around grade 6 - I always was a science nerd!