Reading Material

Writing about what other people should read seems not only pushy, but not such an easy thing to do. And it clearly invites judgment. Consider these two lists of 100 best novels, one from the NY Times, one from the Guardian:

The first thing to do, of course, is to go down each list and count what you've read. My numbers: for the Times, 33 read, plus an additional 10 which I haven't read, but of whose author I've read at least one other novel. And for the Guardian, 29 and 11.

Then you look more carefully so you can sneer at the ones you haven't read. The lists divide naturally into worthy and read, worthy and unread, and unworthy and unread (ha!). Of course there's also the unworthy and read, there are always a few of those, and my shelves are full of them. The Guardian's list has more of those: as examples, The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps.

A subcategory is worthy but unreadable. Dos Passos' USA (makes both lists) and Bunyan's Pigrim's Progress, for instance.

There are novels I've always disdained as voguish, and never read. Tolkien, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road. But since I haven't read them, I should probably be judged for judging.

And why is Hammett only on the Times list, and Chandler only on the Guardian list? Is it because Chandler was British? Is there some nation-dependent snobbishness in the fact that the Times has Arnold Bennett, and the Guardian doesn't?

And why, oh why, is Theodore Dreiser on any list!!!!

For a while, I left this page of my website up with only a link to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.

It's a very self-indulgent book either to read or recommend, but it can't really be read cover to cover. It's more like one of those layman's medical books you consult to see what that rash you developed yesterday means, and that you keep reading because the other diseases are so fascinating, too.

Anyhow, I'm likely soon to add some authors, probably starting with Joseph Conrad and Honor de Balzac.

Conrad's style is very satisfying, complex on the surface but not in any way muddy – the point he makes in every sentence is always completely clear. And he writes about recognizable people with real lives and problems worth thinking about. His constant theme that I find appealing is the impossibility of separating oneself from a corrupting society – this is pretty explicitly the main point in Victory, but runs through a great deal of his other work.

Balzac has for me the same appeal of complex but clear style. He died relatively young, but produced a huge mass of output, covering an amazing breadth of French society. Major characters in one novel often appear as minor characters in others; a lot is linked together this way without the novels being in any way serials. There is so much to read there, but nothing seems repetitive, the reader can always look forward to another novel without being afraid of running out anytime soon or that he'll come across a plot he recognizes from the past.

So I'll likely be listing a series of books, with a line or two about each one. I'm confident that my list will be just as irritating as the lists I've mentioned above.