I was a bit disappointed, while at a friend’s birthday party this afternoon, to admit to not having read anything good in a while when asked if I had any good book recommendations. I majored in literature in college, and people know that I like to read, but my internet addiction has lead me to read more things that end in .ly than “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize” lately. I also admit that I have little patience with books I don’t enjoy after the first 20 pages or so. My attitude in this regard is the same one I have for movies: life is too short for bad books AND bad movies. I don’t want to force myself to read something I am not absorbed by. And yes, this means that I have tried unsuccessfully to read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre twice, before abandoning the book with a yawn.
I only made a valiant effort to read Jane Eyre because several friends whose opinion I value had recommended it. When it comes to choosing books to read, there are book reviews/media buzz, like the kind that greets literary blockbusters like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom; there’s the old first page test in the bookstore (that is, read the first page of a book found in a library or bookstore, and if you have an urge to continue, you’ve found yourself a good book). For those of us who studied literature in college and love the written word, there are books that we intend to read, authors we mean to read more of, but whom we’ve never gotten around to reading. In no particular order are the books and writers who I would like to read before I kick the proverbial bucket:
- anything by William Faulkner. I vaguely remember reading a passage from As I Lay Dying in high school and loving the language and the simple premise: a woman’s last, fevered thoughts on her deathbed. I know the Biblical weight of a title like Absalom, Absalom, though I don’t know what the novel is about; the same is true for The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August. I love the story of the college librarian who wrote masterpieces in secret. The fact that I haven’t read any of Faulkner’s novels needs to be remedied.
- Russian literature. This one is simple, or should be anyway. I don’t think anyone can claim to know about great literature without having read any of the great Russian writers, like Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, or Pushkin. Unfortunately, I don’t have more than a Cliffs Notes understanding of any of these men, or other Russian authors for that matter. I won’t set so high a bar as War and Peace- I’ll settle for reading Ivan the Fool.
- the Romantic poets. In college I took a course called Reading the Traditional British Canon Part I. It was one of my favorite classes, taught by a brilliant young professor which lead students through an intense 10 weeks of some of the giants of British literature. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the second course in the series, naturally called Reading the Traditional British Canon Part II. And that course introduces students to the Romantic poets. I know what the adjective byronic means, but I have never read Lord Byron. I know that there is a famous poem called “Tiger tiger burning bright”, but I have never read William Blake. This situation is also easily remedied, though I refuse to buy another edition of the Norton Anthology.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. If I were being really ambitious, I would read it in the original French, but I choose this novel because it is the original feminist tale about a desperate housewife, right? Close runner up: Anna Karenina.
- Philip Roth. What was Portnoy complaining about? What was in The Human Stain? I know that Roth is one of the most prolific contemporary American writers, and I have a friend who wrote his dissertation about Philip Roth’s work. That’s enough for me.
What do you think? What would you suggest? Is my list too centered on dead white men, and if so, which female authors and writers of color do you recommend? Keep in mind I majored in Spanish Literature- Spanish-language writers are also appreciated. As a matter of fact, a Spanish-language version of this list may be forthcoming.