On a bright-hot afternoon recently, I loitered in the cool basement reading Parade Magazine that comes with the Sunday newspaper. I don't usually pay attention to it, but this one was the "summer reading issue" in which author Ann Patchett picked the "75 best books of the past 75 years." Lists like these are a bag of chocolate-chip cookies for me. As a sometimes English teacher, I can't resist them. The New York Times runs a "My 10 Favorite Books" feature occasionally. In it celebs name their best-book choices. I was surprised to find The Great Gatsby on Bill Gates' list. Both he and I have Jay Gatsby in our circle of literary pals.
Patchett's list of 75 faves had a few surprises. I was expecting only fiction, but there was Joseph Campbell's scholarly Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is the definitive book on myth that inspired George Lucas to write the Star Wars saga. Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child's famous cookbook, was also on Patchett's list. I have minimal experience with it, but I do recall a morning when my wife and I set out to make croissants with Child's recipe. We abandoned the effort as soon as we read how many hours it would take.
Patchett's 75 included a favorite of mine, Invisible Man, the novel by Ralph Ellison not H.G. Wells. Ellison spent five years writing it—twice as long as it took David Foster Wallace (DFW) to write the thousand pages of his novel, Infinite Jest. Patchett praises DFW's Consider the Lobster, a book of essays I must read. I am in awe of DFW's brilliance, but I foundered 300 pages into Infinite Jest and put it aside. I hate to admit that just as I am embarrassed to confess that I have not read Ulysses or Remembrance of Things Past. Joyce and Proust intimidate me—as does DFW.
J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen King have entries on Patchett's list, of course. I am not embarrassed to admit that I have never read any of their books. That admission will be enough for some people to conclude that I suffer from a character flaw. Even so, I do have books like The Great Gatsby that are resonant enough to re-read periodically. Gatsby is about the self-absorbed rich that Bernie Sanders railed against: "They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." Another favorite book, Grapes of Wrath, is also a moving portrayal of privilege, class and abused power. The Joad family matriarch is Steinbeck's most admirable character. My other favorite female characters are Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Anna Karenina in Tolstoy's eponymous novel. They are nuanced, sympathetic characters of great strength and dignity. I have read their stories multiple times.
Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne. Perhaps he was as taken by Hester Prynne as I. When you join a discussion about the Great American Novel, you have to talk about Moby Dick just as a list of the All-Time Best Movies always begins with Citizen Kane. The opening three words of Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael," can be modified with a comma to read "Call me, Ishmael," a fan's appeal to begin the pursuit of the white whale anew.
I once was a janitor in a huge industrial building. The difficulty for me was to make a four-hour job fill eight hours. I took long breaks in out-of-the-way places where I read books surreptitiously. That's where I first read Catcher in the Rye. I then bought Salinger's Nine Short Stories. I remember opening the cover and reading the epigraph. "We know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one?" It struck me like an electric shock.
I discovered Hemingway later on. I think I read every novel and short story he wrote, plus his biographies. I was so immersed in Papa Hemingway that I took to writing copycat stories in copycat prose. I eventually moved on, but oddly enough, the Hemingway book I re-read periodically is his posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast. I visited his grave in Idaho last summer. On it devotees had left tributes of whiskey bottles and cigarettes.
Who is the best writer of the 20th century? I heard that question asked in a Q&A session with essayist Roger Rosenblatt and poet Billy Collins. They agreed on Vladimir Nabokov. I was surprised. I had never read anything by him. I thought of Nabokov's Lolita and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover as the equivalent of a soft-porn movie. Both books were famously banned when first published. Utah Senator Reed Smoot denounced Lawrence as a "man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell!" I read Lolita. It was stunning.
In addition to Lolita, my list of favorite books includes The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War masterpiece. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in the art of storytelling and the interplay of truth and fiction. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is the other war novel I have read two or three times. I was in college the first time. I was wearing Army fatigues when I read it again. A soldier's experience provides a focusing lens on the WWII satire.
For those who have made it this far, I hope you are sufficiently irritated by the books I have overlooked. Email your favorites to firstname.lastname@example.org.