A year and a half ago, I finished the most significant chapter of my imaginary autobiography to date: my studies. I planned to enter the workforce, figure out this whole adulthood thing, and only revisit academia if and when I could find a PhD supervisor willing to let me research sleep—while asleep. Armed with degrees in Linguistics, French, and Comparative Literature, I marched into the world a full-blown, higher-educated, loan-repaying adult.
It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have an enormous stack of reading assignments on my desk. I had no history textbooks to skim, no American fiction to peruse, no French novels to analyze, no JSTOR articles to highlight. It felt freeing, and exhilarating, and bewildering, and unsettling. I had no idea where to begin—couldn’t even remember how—to select a book to read, out of ALL THE BOOKS EVER. Part of me worried that without any motivation to challenge myself with works of literary genius, or at least minimal historical/social/political/philosophical significance, I would reach lazily, and exclusively, for Fifty Shades of Twilight or the many narcissistic celebrity memoirs on the Bestseller shelf at Barnes & Noble.
Since reading the newspaper or getting a Forbes subscription was out of the question, my next move was obvious: I gave myself a reading assignment. I found a list of classic literature online called thegreatestbooks.org that would give me the opportunity to catch up on all the literary references and authors that had fallen between the cracks of my studies. It lists The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, from Don Quixote to Midnight’s Children.
Many of these lists exist. The Observer, the Modern Library, the BBC, and TIME magazine have all produced similar ones, with varying quantities of Faulkner and differing judgments on whether or not to include Shakespeare’s plays. I’m not sure now why I picked this one; it certainly wasn’t the easiest to find on the Internet, as I discovered once when my Excel version inexplicably disappeared from my desktop and I forgot the idiot-proof URL. I actually regret picking this list now, because of all the Faulkner included (no less than four of his books are apparently just that GREAT). But perhaps Faulkner is an acquired taste, like olives, and I will learn to love him, like in an arranged marriage. We shall see.
Overall, though, this list suits my project well: Its compiler has drawn from forty-three “Best Books of All Time” lists and fed them into an algorithm, and even designed the site as an application to allow readers to tick off books as they finish them. My goal is, of course, to read all 100, as eventually as it takes. This will be a space for me to provide notes and commentary for anyone who is interested in sharing my journey from one end of the bookshelf to the other, or in taking on a related challenge.
My commentary here is meant to provide one non-expert opinion, one interpretation, among the many more and less important ones tucked away in libraries and various corners of the Internet. This is not intended as academic research, SparkNotes, or a literature lesson. Before all of you haters gather your vicious wit to pick apart my carefully chosen words and crush my soul to Oreo crumbs, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you are being CONSTRUCTIVE or being a DOUCHE. If you <3 me, let me know. Otherwise shut up. One day the Internet will kick you off and the rest of us will LOL and sing Kumbaya together over FaceTime.
I am fully committed to telling the brutal truth about these books, since the whole endeavor sounds pretty pretentious and, well, literature snobs make reading unsexy. And anyway, my reading taste isn’t very elitist. As long as a book has avoided a giant public eye roll, I am willing to give it a go. I do not have anything against particular genres, bestsellers, or beach reads. One of my favorite books (and movies, for that matter) is Bridget Jones’s Diary. After I finished Madame Bovary last year, I reread the fourth Harry Potter and then picked up The Hunger Games. Indeed, I consider a mental rest both necessary and welcome in between authors like Steinbeck and Dickens.
By that same token, I also refuse to approach literary criticism like we’re in a snob-pocalypse, no matter how “great” or significant the classic. I recognize that highly esteemed literature does not necessarily have the entertainment value of The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was just as baffled as everyone else when Mr. Rochester’s lunatic wife showed up in the middle of Jane Eyre. I’m not going to falsely defend a book I dislike or polish my opinions with any patronizing insistence on stylistic necessities or symbolism or the author’s intent, especially if it appears to me that the author’s intent was to suck.
These posts are, of course, essentially a long series of detailed *SPOILERS*, so be warned.
The rules of the Challenge are as follows:
- I must read all 100 books on The List in their entirety (duh).
- I must read all volumes of each work, if the author considered the volumes to make up one book. (This, unfortunately, is the case for The Lord of the Rings—Tolkien, three volumes—and In Search of Lost Time—Proust, six freaking volumes.)
- I do not have to reread any books I have previously read. (Before beginning this List, I had only read 16/100 in full, despite my undergraduate Major in Literature. In all fairness to the American education system, however, I have read many of those sixteen multiple times, and numerous other books by the same authors. And I have read part of another eighteen books from The List, which must count for something. In any case, this rule is mainly my way of saying that nothing could compel me to reread The Grapes of Wrath. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
- If I cannot remember whether I’ve already read the full length of any of the books on The List (e.g., The Odyssey, The Wind in the Willows), I have to read/reread them.
- I can read the books in whatever order I wish, I am not constrained to any time limits, and I can read multiple books at once. I can also read other books in between or alongside The List. This is a LONG-TERM goal. And I am optimistic about my lifespan.
- I am fluent in French, so I have to read the French books in French.
- As for other books originally written in another language, I am allowed to choose any suitable translation.
I don’t anticipate enjoying every minute of this self-inflicted assignment. Indeed, there have already been a few moments of struggle throughout the first nine books I’ve undertaken in the last eighteen months. But I also like a challenge, and what is a lengthy reading list if not that?
Finally, I believe that we read books—even classics—quite differently when we’re not being forced by someone else to read them. And I am setting out to test that theory.
So here we go, in order of greatness, The 100 Greatest Books of All Time:
Looking at The List, I am struck by several things:
- Where is Beowulf? Why the $*#% did I have to read that in high school?
- There is a terrifying number of books on this List that approach or exceed 1,000 pages, and none of them are by J. K. Rowling. Thank God for my Kindle.
- I have never even heard of The Magic Mountain or Herzog. I hope they’re not 1,000 pages long.
- I am most looking forward to reading Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, and Gabriel García Márquez.
- I am least looking forward to reading James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Marcel Proust, based on rumors and previous attempts.
So here I go, off into parallel universes where ANYTHING can happen. I hope you enjoy the postcards.
Happy reading to me, and to you.