75 Books! a.k.a. Three-Quarters! a.k.a. My Deathbed!


Today is a good day. Today, I finished my 75th book on The List, which—if I remember how Math works—means I’m officially 3/4 of the way through The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Of course, these numbers are slightly misleading, since In Search of Lost Time, for all intents and purposes, is not actually one book but six. And, at over 1500 pages, Clarissa might as well be two novels—not to mention The Tale of Genji and The Count of Monte Cristo.

But still. Today is a day for celebration, so let’s pretend Math is our friend and invite him to the festivities.

At some point during this last year of fervent and wild-eyed reading, I started to wonder how I would measure the value of the Challenge. Measuring success is, of course, easy: Victory will be had when I can tick off the last book, raise my fists in the air, and shout to a surprised neighborhood that “I came, I read, I conquered.” Success is 100 books, plain and simple.

But my triumph will mean little if that’s all I get out of it—five minutes of bewildered and exhausted satisfaction before I move on to some other masochistic hobby. Relief never stays as long as the Distress that ushered it in, despite our warmest welcome. I’m aiming for a grander, more profound takeaway.

I’d settle, obviously, for enjoyment—for entertainment. If, at the end of all of this, I can say that I actively took pleasure in reading most of the works I’ve undertaken for this Challenge, it will all be worth it. The thing is, I’ve never actually sat down and counted.

To this end, I decided, on this Day of the 75th Book, that it’s time. It’s a good thing we invited Math after all.

There’s a game I play sometimes called “Love or Hate.” The rules are simple. All you have to do is choose one or the other—Love or Hate—based on a prompt (e.g., tofu, Taylor Swift, Florida).

There’s no sitting on the fence in this game; “Neutral” is not an option. The idea is to search your feelings—to decide once and for all which way you’d lean if the madman with a gun to your head really, really wanted to know your opinion on leggings-worn-as-pants.

Today, I will be playing “Love or Hate” with the 100 Greatest Books of All Time.

Well, OK, 75 of them, anyway (or so says Math).

The books I’ve read are in self-congratulatory bold. Here we go:

  1. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (L)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (L)
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (L)
  5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (L)
  6. 1984, George Orwell (L)
  7. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  8. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  9. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (L)
  10. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (L)
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (L)
  12. Middlemarch, George Eliot (L)
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (L)
  14. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (H)
  15. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (L)
  16. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (L)
  17. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (L)
  18. On the Road, Jack Kerouac (L)
  19. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (L)
  20. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (H)
  21. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  22. Beloved, Toni Morrison (L)
  23. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (L)
  24. The Iliad, Homer
  25. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner (H)
  26. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (H)
  27. Native Son, Richard Wright
  28. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (L)
  29. The Odyssey, Homer (H)
  30. Catch-22, Joseph Heller (L)
  31. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (H)
  32. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (L)
  33. The Trial, Franz Kafka (L)
  34. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  35. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (L)
  36. Emma, Jane Austen (L)
  37. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  38. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (H)
  39. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (L)
  40. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (H)
  41. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien (H)
  42. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (H)
  43. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (L)
  44. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (H)
  45. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (L)
  46. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (L)
  47. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (L)
  48. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (L)
  49. The Aeneid, Virgil (L)
  50. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  51. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
  52. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (L)
  53. The Call of the Wild, Jack London (L)
  54. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (L)
  55. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett (H)
  56. Animal Farm, George Orwell (L)
  57. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (L)
  58. Oedipus the King, Sophocles (L)
  59. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  60. U.S.A., John Dos Passos
  61. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (currently reading, currently loving)
  62. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne (H)
  63. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  64. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (L)
  65. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (L)
  66. Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
  67. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (H)
  68. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  69. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (L)
  70. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (L)
  71. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (L)
  72. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  73. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  74. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  75. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (L)
  76. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (L)
  77. Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence (H)
  78. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (H)
  79. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
  80. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
  81. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (H)
  82. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (H)
  83. Hamlet, William Shakespeare (L)
  84. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  85. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (L)
  86. Light in August, William Faulkner (L)
  87. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (H)
  88. The Stranger, Albert Camus (L)
  89. Herzog, Saul Bellow (H)
  90. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin (L)
  91. The Awakening, Kate Chopin (L)
  92. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  93. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  94. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  95. King Lear, William Shakespeare (L)
  96. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (L)
  97. Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (L)
  98. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (currently reading, currently loving)
  99. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (H)
  100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Whew. That was brutal, if you could have peeked behind the curtain. Let the record show, though, that if forced, I will admit to liking a reasonable 52 out of 75 classics.

All is well until we hit Faulkner and Steinbeck, those sadistic sons of bitches, at #14 and #20. What did we ever do to them, right?*

From there, though, the love is touch-and-go. My most neutral feelings (and, therefore, the hardest decisions) were reserved for Forster’s A Passage to India, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And it would be a stretch to say I LOVED The Brothers Karamazov, Robinson Crusoe, or The Stranger, but I loved them more than I hated them. So I guess that qualifies as value in some microscopic form.

I’m starting to suspect that the ultimate value of The Challenge will be the opportunity (via this blog, and a busybody mouth) to share my thoughts and reading recommendations with others. And while I have a tendency to mock even those classics I loved (one of few victimless crimes, as far as I’m concerned, unless fans of Tolkien count), it’s good to know there’s plenty of staggering, transformative, extraordinary reading behind me—and, hopefully, ahead of me.

Since I celebrated 50 books in November of last year, savoring 75 books now means that my brain swallowed up 25 whole classics in the last 12 months (there’s that Math again; does he ever shut up?). I note this with more fatigue than pride. But all that reading has given me lots to contemplate, appreciate, and share. So before we sign off on this Day of #75, let’s look back at some of the best sentence inventions I’ve read all year:

From Catch-22 by Joseph Heller:

Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them. 

From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe:

There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad.

From A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

From Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

“Sometimes,” said Julia, “I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: 

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

From Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin:

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

From The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: 

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

From Light in August by William Faulkner:

Yet neither surrendered; worse: they would not let one another alone; he would not even go away. And they would stand for a while longer in the quiet dusk peopled, as though from their loins, by a myriad ghosts of dead sins and delights, looking at one another’s still and fading face, weary, spent, indomitable.

From King Lear by William Shakespeare:

But his flawed heart—
Alack, too weak the conflict to support—
’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief
Burst smilingly.

And, finally, from All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren:

The best luck always happens to people who don’t need it.

That’s all for today. Happy reading to you and yours! May you read ever, and much.

*This blog post was drafted before Faulkner worked his August magic on me. I still think he’s a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, though. So I left that part in.