The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

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For a long time now—years, actually—I’ve known exactly which classic I’ll be reading dead last for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. And I swore to myself that, one day, I’d reveal the book I’m saving for banishing to #100—and why.

But first, I’m going to tell you about #99.

For my penultimate triumph in The Challenge, I’ve chosen War and Peace. My reasons range from the logical and practical to the emotional and whimsical:

  • I’ve been spreading out the longest reads from The List as I work my way through them, and War and Peace fell to the final rankings in my sloppy algorithm. But I refuse to end The Challenge on a notoriously long and inevitably gratuitous epilogue, so I tucked another book behind it.
  • War and Peace is known to be formidable, an Everest or a Moriarty of a book—but it’s also the most quintessential and iconic of classics. You don’t get any more classic than War and Peace. And as a classic among classics, War and Peace feels like a satisfactory climax to what has been a very long List indeed. (#100—I’ll get to it in a minute—will, I think, serve as a suitable denouement.)
  • Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Tolstoy the first time around and would like to honor him in parting with an (almost-)victory lap.
  • I’ve spent much of the Russian portion of The List with award-winning translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (a married couple—how cool is that?) and am finding it hard to say do svidaniya.
  • Given its reputation, I’m preeetty sure War and Peace is entitled to its shelf space among The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, and I want to end on (or near) a good note.

And, most essentially:

  • I have yet to buy a copy.

And so it is that War and Peace will bow humbly before me at #99. (Or maybe the other way around. The book does have six hundred characters, after all.)

And now, the Big Reveal. The Moment of Truth. The Unmasking of #100. Ladies and gentlemen: My very last book for The 100 Greatest Books Challenge, the crowning jewel on my classic library, just 11 books from now, will be…

Faust.

“Why Faust?” is a perfectly reasonable question with a slightly manic answer. If you’re already bored by this post, and/or disillusioned by what seems like an anticlimactic climax, I can sum up my rationale in one word: GRUDGE.

For seven long years, I have sustained a heartfelt grudge against Faust. And now I’m here to tell you its origin story.

Many moons ago, a sparky young college student put on a new pair of Toms and walked to the first meeting of what would be her final Literature class ever.

At Purdue University, the class was known as Comparative Literature 267, or “World Literature from 1700 to Now.” It followed the previous semester’s CMPL 266 (“World Literature Until 1700”), taught by a wonderful and engaging grad student who said “Woof” every time his wit went over our heads. In CMPL 266, we read a total of five books, all of them short, and wrote exactly three papers to finish out the semester. Our collective favorite was Dante’s Inferno, because who doesn’t love rivers of boiling blood and cannibalistic torture?

Anyway, the class kicked ass.

CMPL 267 would be taught by another grad student—but a decidedly less engaging one. Marta (or so we’ll call her), on the first day of the new semester, greeted us all by passing out a syllabus. And as the syllabus arrived on my desktop, my jaw (I think it’s safe to say) literally dropped. It was the longest syllabus I had ever seen. It was ridiculously long, unfathomably long, unjustifiably long. Marta wanted us to read 500 pages of material every week, write up reflective essays for each class period, turn in analyses twice a month, take regular quizzes, give two oral presentations, and submit three 20-page research papers. In four months.

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At least, that’s how I remember it. But even if my memory has distorted the exact size of the workload expected by Marta in CMPL 267, the story’s preface boils down to this: It was my last semester of college, I had seen plenty of syllabi, and this one was a monster.

I had a mild heart attack in my new Toms, went home, reread the syllabus, and had another mild heart attack. It was impossible. It was absurd. It was inhumane, practically—at least, by the privileged standards of a middle class American college student. So the next time the class met, two days later, I raised my hand and asked Marta if the syllabus was negotiable. And when she asked what I had in mind, I told her. “Less… everything” was the gist of it.

And she said yes.

But my streak of #winning did not last long. Marta did lighten the workload by a tree or two, but that still left a hefty to-do list behind. I ground my way through it, reading what I could and writing what I had time for, but the effort was moot from a big-picture perspective. Between the overblown homework and Marta’s lack of teaching experience, the class and the reading material did very little educating. The only reading assignments I recall from that fateful semester—out of dozens—are “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “A Madman’s Diary.”

Well, and Faust.

Marta assigned Faust on a Wednesday, to be read (and reflected upon, in 600-800 words, double-spaced, with one-inch margins) by Friday. But when I opened up The Norton Anthology of World Literature and saw Faust staring back at me, exhausting from just a cursory glance, I simply said No.

Now, Faust is not long. It’s actually quite short—Part One is under 200 pages. But it is long enough to be a preposterous overnight reading assignment. It undermined my conscious efforts to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and it felt like a slap in the face to the hardworking student I was and always had been.

Haven’t I done enough? I thought. Haven’t I devoted much more time and energy to this silly, introductory Literature class than reason warrants?

I had. I had. So I refused, on principle alone, to read Faust that night. I didn’t read it the next night, either, and come Friday, I left The Norton Anthology of World Literature at home. I marched to class in my Toms, and I took the 0 for the reflective essay I didn’t write for the play I didn’t read. And I thought that would be the end of it.

But Faust came back to haunt me. Questions about Goethe’s famous drama cropped up on quizzes for the rest of the semester. The subject of each literary analysis was, inevitably, a comparison between Faust and “Bartleby the Scrivener,” or Faust and “A Madman’s Diary,” or Faust and… whatever else we read for Marta. I really can’t remember. We were expected to include references to Faust in two of our three major research papers. Our oral presentations were—you guessed it, you clever thing—Faust-focused.

Still, I refused. Marta couldn’t make me read Faust, not if I didn’t want to, and I DID NOT WANT TO. My stubborn and childish streaks expanded to military stripes, and I wore them proudly. I read just enough of Faust—excerpts here and there—to write my papers and give my presentations. But a grudge was born that bygone semester, never to give up its ghost if I had anything to say about it.

It was only a year or so later that I decided to take on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge and saw, hovering at #94 just inside the bottom rankings, Goethe’s fierce and unforgiving Faust. The grudge is obviously mutual. And while committing myself to The Challenge leaves no room for compromise, I can still relegate it to last place. So even if that means Faust triumphs in the end, at least—at the very same moment—I will, too.

Also, it is pretty short. On the heels of War and Peace, reading Faust will be as easy as selling my soul to the devil.

Oh, wait…

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18 thoughts on “The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

  1. An essential at college… they made me read War and Peace AND Faust at high school! At that age these kind of reads are pointless and only make you dislike the books from all the wrong reasons.

    • I couldn’t agree more! It’s one of the reasons I wanted to revisit the classics AFTER finishing my studies — some teachers have a way of ruining great reads. (Though to be fair, some books have a way of sucking no matter when you read them. I had to read The Scarlet Letter in high school for a terrible teacher and in college for a wonderful teacher… and hated it both times around!)

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  3. My jaw nearly hit my desk reading about that syllabus. My GOD. What the everloving *@%&!!! was this teacher thinking.

    You know what might be a fun project after you finish this one? To contrast the 100 greatest books, which may not actually be great so much as academically lofty… is to read 100 (or whatever number) of the most *popular* books ever. Books that were most LOVED by average readers. Might be interesting to see the differences and similarities between the two.

  4. Continuing my previous note… If you decide to do something like that, this link of the BBC’s survey of best-loved novels of all time could help: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Big_Read

    Lots of Terry Pratchett, Roald Dahl, and JK Rowling (all well-deserved!) on there, so seems like a much more fun and easier feat than your current list, hehe.

    Hmm, now I’m starting to think *I* might want to take this on… Once I’ve gone through the majority of my already mountainous TBR pile, that is. :)

    • I really, really like that idea. I don’t know that I would take it on as a formal challenge, but I love the idea of adding those I haven’t read to my TBR list. It’s interesting to see where there’s overlap between the two (such as LOTR, P&P, TKaM, 1984, etc.), although it’s fair to say that the classics get more exposure than the average book (and are often FORCED upon us in school). I’m sure there’s a blog post in there somewhere, so, thanks. :)

      At the moment I’m exploring all sorts of ways to add new titles to my post-Challenge TBR list, but my efforts have mostly resulted in a massive, jumbled Google spreadsheet. But then, my reading list has been dictated to me for SO LONG now that the healthiest approach would probably be just to wing it. The problem is I don’t know if I’m capable of that, haha.

      • Yeah, it’s interesting to see which classics are classics because people genuinely love them. I wish there was a way to help people not resent the books that are forced on them in school… It’s important to keep these books alive, so it makes sense to assign them, but a book associated with WORK isn’t going to be enjoyed. :/

        I know I’ve said it before but GOODREADS! <3 Such a great way of finding books to read. Not only are there many sections to browse, the site also gives you recommendations based on your ratings. And you can make lists to keep it organized. For instance, my total TBR is 300+ but I have a "priority list" where I put books I want to read soon, and I always keep that number around 50 or so.

        I'm also subscribed to Buzzfeed Books. They send out lots of categorized lists, like "Best mysteries" or "Great novels with a female protagonist," etc. Soooooo many titles have gone on my TBR from reading those lists.

      • So here’s my question about GoodReads: Is the recommendations system based on the notion of “other people who liked this book also liked x”? Because I’ve never found Amazon’s system–“other people who bought this book also bought x”–helpful AT ALL. And if it IS the former, do you find it to be fairly reliable? I’m afraid the reasons I liked a book won’t be the reasons another person liked it…

        I like the lists/categories idea. My current spreadsheet is just an indiscriminate dumping ground. I suppose I could create organized columns/sheets, but… meh. And good to know re: Buzzfeed Books!

      • I don’t actually know how they calculate it, but I do know they offer a LOT of recommendations, and I have indeed found good rec’s from them. You can see rec’s based on a specific book, or based on genres, or based on shelves you’ve made. Oh, I should have clarified, Goodreads has both “shelves” and “lists” – shelves are what you alone make, controlled by you, for whatever categories you want. Lists are made by all users, who cooperatively vote on books to make them onto this or that list. Some of them have been really helpful. I added a TON of books to my TBR after perusing a list of mental health memoirs.

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