100 Books! a.k.a. Challenge Completed! a.k.a. A Cautionary Tale

This is it, folks. The last chapter. Five and a half years, triple-digit classics, and—in self-congratulations—the pie party to end all pie parties.

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On the first day of Creation, God said, “Let there be pie.” And it was good.

On my long and harrowing journey across the wilderness of my own bookshelf, I visited 30+ countries—some real, some imaginary. I met heroes, villains, God, and the devil. I went to war and fell in love and traveled through time and witnessed magic. I worried and grieved and LOLed and maybe, slightly, occasionally lost my mind.

And I wrote and wrote and wrote, trying to find it again.

I never doubted that I’d finish—mostly because I try not to make a habit of self-doubt. I’m still convinced that if I really wanted to, and worked really hard at it, I could be an Olympic triathlete, or a Mars-bound astronaut, or a turtle whisperer with my own TV show. And while that kind of certainty is probably diagnosable, it may also be the very reason I was able to finish The Challenge. Predicting how this story ended was—spoiler alert!—the easiest part.

The hardest part was, of course, everything else. The 100 Greatest Books of All Time don’t read themselves—and it was up to me, day after day, to sit down and turn pages. My best estimates suggest that I read 49,823 pages to close out The List, one determined word at a time. The shortest book on The List was 66 pages.

The longest was 4,217.

But it’s all over now, and I can devote my remaining lifespan to full-time snobbery. I can casually name-drop Proust, and sneer at the very idea of e-readers. I can even call myself a literary badass, if there is such a thing.

I won’t, obviously, do any of that. But I will take a moment out to shake my own hand, feather my own cap, and pat myself on the back for a mundane victory. What is life, after all, without a little revelry? Why even bother existing, without the slightest swagger?

I hope I never find out. But if I do, it will probably be in a book.

When I celebrate, I celebrate in lists. (Well, and pie.) Every milestone up until this point—50 books, 75 books, 80 books, 90 books—has been commemorated with at least one list, but usually several. And even though I don’t believe in tradition for tradition’s sake, I do believe in the power of lists to spread peace, love, joy, and the satisfaction of a job well-organized.

So here we go, one last time: The List, in lists. 

Strategies for Every Readventurer

(Or, How I Read 100 Classics)

 

  1. Engage in wanton book polygamy. The idea of reading several books at once used to give me an insta-headache, but The Challenge changed all that. Anyone reading books so bloated they require two epilogues, or come with an author’s apology, is bound to burn out hard and fast. I’ve learned to love “revolving door reading,” and never looked back since.
  2. Play it by ear. Audiobooks are the easiest way to read loads and remain lazy. You don’t even need to change your existing routine, except to press a button once in a while. And to all those who insist that “audiobooking isn’t reading,” I’d like to say this: You do you. But audiobooks, in my mind, enhance the reading experience—and they’ve been one hell of a sidekick throughout The Challenge.
  3. Proceed not with caution, but with confidence. Even if a notoriously rabid, 800-page beast of a book with a barely pronounceable Russian name sounds mildly intimidating, ignore that initial instinct to dip a couple of dainty toes in the water. Cannonball into that book. Commit right up front. I read somewhere once that if you can dog-paddle your way through 25 pages of Ulysses per day, you’ll be done in a month. (Math agrees, and so do I.)
  4. Just keep reading, reading, reading. Can’t keep up with your own ambitions? There’s still hope. Success can be a sprint, but more often, it’s a marathon. Yours depends on turning just a few pages—five will do—every night before bed. I got through some of the most head-scratching, mind-boggling, brain-bruising novels this way: a little at a time.
  5. Use your resources. Don’t give up on that impossible read just because it’s impossible. Dial 911—a.k.a. SparkNotes, Cliff Notes, Shmoop, and the blogosphere—and ask for help. There’s always some brave hero(ine) out there waiting to save the day. Let them come to your rescue—then turn around and pay it forward.

Biggest Takeaways

(Among Countless Lessons Learned)

 

  1. Just because someone did it first does not mean they did it best. Often, it means just the opposite. So can we stop worshiping the ground trodden by Tolkien, and Lawrence, and Hemingway? Or at least acknowledge that their imagination far outstripped their implementation? No? OK, whatever.
  2. No book is made “classic” by accident, and we’re leaving a lot of our fellow humans out of the club. If the Literary Canon were a person, he’d be a straight, white, rich, able-bodied colonialist, probably with a beard and a monocle. He’d definitely be a he. And while his voice deserves to be heard, just like anyone else’s, the anyone elses have been patient enough. It’s the Canon’s turn to listen, and to make a little room.
  3. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Not even by its back cover. Plot summaries can be woefully misleading at the best of times, and tragically deterrent at the worst. There were moments during The Challenge that I fully anticipated an epic struggle with an epic hate-read (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange)—or prepared a place on my bookshelf for a brand new favorite (Wuthering HeightsTristram Shandy)—only to be taken by surprise. But you know what? There’s a reason they call it the thrill of discovery. And it’s probably the reason we should read outside our comfort zone.
  4. Don’t waste time reading books you hate. This might seem counterintuitive, since I spent five and a half years doing just that. But I couldn’t agree less with that snooty Atlantic writer who thinks there’s shame in DNF’ing. I admit that I’m unable to abandon books en route, but I consider this a weakness instead of an asset. Quitting books is a habit I’d give anything to cultivate—if only to continue reading like crazy while (hopefully) remaining sane.
  5. There’s only one thing that makes any book Great: You. You decide. Don’t listen to any publishers, reviewers, hipsters, or lists telling you there’s anything objective about Greatness. You may not know yourself what makes you connect with one book, and shudder at another. But the good news is that nobody can tell you you’re wrong.

My Favoritest Classics of All Time

(In No Particular Order)

 

  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  2. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
  3. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  4. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  6. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  7. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  8. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  9. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton
  10. Beloved, Toni Morrison

Works of Indisputable Genius

(Whether I Liked Them or Not)

 

  1. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
  2. 1984, George Orwell
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
  5. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  7. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
  8. King Lear, William Shakespeare
  9. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
  10. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift

My Literary Grudges

(May Their Ink Fade Away and Their Pages Crumble to Dust)

 

  1. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (to be referred to hereafter as “The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named”)
  2. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  3. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  4. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  6. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  7. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  8. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  9. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann
  10. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Most Challenging of the Challenge

(Especially Difficult and/or Tedious Classics)

 

  1. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce

We should probably stop here and camp out for a while. That’s how formidable Finnegans Wake turned out to be.

For the sake of time, though, we’ll move on. Just know that there’s a boundless, hopeless chasm between the Wake and the rest of this list.

  1. Finnegans Wake (it bears repeating)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
  4. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  5. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  6. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
  7. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
  8. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  9. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  10. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Buried Literary Treasures

(Books I May Never Have Read, and Loved, Without Taking on The Challenge)

 

  1. The Call of the Wild, Jack London
  2. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  3. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
  4. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
  5. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu

Frequently Asked Questions

(Or, More Accurately, Questions Literally No One Has Asked Me)

 

1. Will you read any more classics after this?

Of course. I’m even more excited to read the classics now that I know which authors to seek out (Baldwin, Morrison, Vonnegut)—and which ones to avoid like puddles on a subway platform (Updike, SteinbeckJoyce).

2. Will you continue blogging?

That’d be a heartfelt maybe. Someday I hope to get a pet and blog about it.

3. Was The Challenge worth the time and effort?

God, no.

4. Really? Not even for the bragging rights? 

I avoid discussing The Challenge as much as possible—mostly because reading The 100 Greatest Books of All Time makes me sound like an asshole. In the end, The Challenge has mostly served to fuel my reckless TBR on Goodreads (see #1) and my Christmas gift ideas for friends and family.

I mean, yeah, I read some incredible books (Lolita, Midnight’s Children, The Canterbury Tales). But whether or not those Kings Among Books outrivaled all the monsters (Tristram Shandy, Finnegans Wake, The-Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named) isn’t something I’m equipped to measure.

5. What is the greatest book of all time? 

That’s up to you to decide for yourself. The book that stood out to me the most among all the masterworks on The List—the book that, for me, transcended every other reading encounter I’ve ever had or expect to have—was Beloved.

6. So, what now? Book-wise?

I don’t know! And I’m trying to be OK with that.

And so, on my very last page, I wish you—forever and ever—happy reading. Consider yourself invited to my pie party, happening now at a bakery near you.

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COME AT ME, PIE. IT’S EAT OR BE EATEN. I hope you’re up to the challenge.

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#27 Native Son, Richard Wright

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The summer after I graduated from high school, I got a part-time job working at a dog kennel in my hometown. On my very first day, a 30-year-old stoner named Daryn gave me a tour of the facilities and showed me how to rotate the dogs between indoor and outdoor kennels. Most of the dogs were lodged individually, but dogs from the same household were allowed to stay together if requested by the owner.

When we reached the “large dog” wing, two mean-as-shit Rottweilers broke out in a fight. Daryn told me later they were brothers, which explained why they were sharing a kennel and why they were sharing it poorly. Daryn jumped into their kennel to wrestle them apart, shouting “Get the hose!” over his shoulder, and I did. I grabbed the hose and blasted the two dogs right in the chest, one after the other, startling them just enough for Daryn to split them up. I spent the next twenty minutes or so bandaging Daryn’s bloody hands, since he insisted “based on experience” that they didn’t need stitches.

As we left the break room, Daryn laughed and said, “Welcome to Best Friends Pet Resort.” And I remember thinking, This is a TERRIBLE first day on the job.

Native Son opens in 1930s Chicago and the dead of winter. Twenty-year-old Bigger Thomas assures his mother of his plans to accept a job chauffeuring for the Daltons—a rich white family that, incidentally, owns the building Bigger lives in. That afternoon, he meets Mr. Dalton, who agrees to hire him and requests that he drive Mary, his daughter, to school.

But instead of going to school, Mary directs Bigger to pick up her Communist boyfriend, Jan, for a wild night on the town. On returning home early the next morning, Bigger helps a drunken Mary upstairs to her room and panics when her blind mother walks in the door. Hoping to quiet her so she doesn’t give him away, Bigger smothers Mary with a pillow—accidentally killing her.

In an effort to destroy the evidence of his crime, Bigger feeds Mary’s body into the furnace. But when her head doesn’t fit, he is forced to decapitate her with a knife (and, later, a hatchet) before returning home for a few hours of sleep.

And I remember thinking, No, THAT is a terrible first day on the job.

This is not to say that Bigger is a likable, sympathetic character. In many ways, he is aggressively unlikable: a violent, contentious bully and rapist, Bigger feels little remorse for killing Mary and actually forgets about his subsequent attack on Bessie (the girlfriend he hopes to silence when it’s clear she can’t tag along on his getaway).

But Wright intended, all along, to write a monster—not a hero. Bigger isn’t meant to be likable; he is meant to demonstrate how the cycle of oppression, hatred, and violence so deeply rooted in U.S. race relations is both self-perpetuating and universally destructive. A poor black man with an eighth grade education, Bigger doesn’t bother with hopes and dreams for the future: With only odd jobs available to support his family, a cramped and rat-infested apartment that still manages to be a ripoff, and a sense of self informed only by the mocking, hateful portrayals of black people in the media, why would he? In his own words:

A guy gets tired of being told what he can do and can’t do. You get a little job here and a little job there. You shine shoes, sweep streets; anything… You don’t make enough to live on. You don’t know when you going to get fired. Pretty soon you get so you can’t hope for nothing.

For the reader, as for Bigger, the events of the novel feel like a series of inevitabilities slowly closing in. From its earliest pages, Bigger expresses a generalized apprehension—a feeling “like something awful’s going to happen” to him. When something does—Mary’s death—it’s an accident, but he knows no one will believe him. “I knew that some time or other they was going to get me for something,” he says. “I’m black. I don’t have to do nothing for ’em to get me. The first white finger they point at me, I’m a goner.” The discovery of Mary’s body seems inevitable, as the hours tick by, as does Bigger’s imminent flight. Bessie’s slaughter seems inevitable the more she refuses to be his accomplice, and Bigger’s capture seems inevitable the more his manhunt grows in fury. His execution is, of course, a given—and Bigger knows that, too.

Still, murder makes Bigger feel, for the first time ever, powerful. He is both smug and outraged when the Dalton family and a group of reporters underestimate his intelligence in assuming he had nothing to do with Mary’s disappearance or the ransom note he fabricated. His actions following Mary’s death are, absurdly, among the first decisions he ever makes by and for himself. But, ultimately—inevitably—he winds up back where he started:

Not only had he lived where they told him to live, not only had he done what they told him to do, not only had he done these things until he had killed to be quit of them; but even after obeying, after killing, they still ruled him. He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death.

In Native Son, Wright forces us to confront the gruesome realities of racism and the role we play in it—how fear and hate are both cause and effect when it comes to racial oppression. Just as whites dehumanize(d) blacks, Bigger dehumanizes them, too, leading on both sides to violence. The stereotype of the “barbaric black aggressor,” like most stereotypes, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—and the cycle continues to spin its wheels.

Bigger embodies all of this and more as a black man standing before the “looming mountain of white hate.” He has no choices in life, and therefore no control. And, within this context—our own shared heritage as a nation—Wright asks us: Is Bigger individually responsible for his crimes, or does society share some of the blame? Is it fair to condemn the villains we ourselves created? And is it possible, for one person or many, to turn the tide of the inevitable?

In his essay “How ‘Bigger’ Was Born,” Wright attempts to account for the resentment, anger, anxiety, and despair that define Bigger and his real-world counterparts. He describes the “Biggers” in his own life, and the fates they met with, and what he learned from them. In pulling at the threads of their shared experience, Wright unravels a truth universally acknowledged yet often taken for granted: We are all, in our essence, alike—and it is our environments that differ.

Among millions of people the deepest convictions of life are never discussed openly; they are felt, implied, hinted at tacitly and obliquely in their hopes and fears. We live by an idealism that makes us believe that the Constitution is a good document of government, that the Bill of Rights is a good legal and humane principle to safeguard our civil liberties, that every man and woman should have the opportunity to realize himself, to seek his own individual fate and goal, his own peculiar and untranslatable destiny. I don’t say that Bigger knew this in the terms in which I’m speaking of it; I don’t say that any such thought ever entered his head. His emotional and intellectual life was never that articulate. But he knew it emotionally, intuitively, for his emotions and desires were developed, and he caught it, as most of us do, from the mental and emotional climate of our time. Bigger had all of this in him, dammed up, buried, implied, and I had to develop it in fictional form.

Wright notes, in closing, that early American authors “complained bitterly about the bleakness and flatness of the American scene.” If only they had lived to see the 20th century, he says, they would find enough tragedy in the African American experience to satisfy their creative appetite: “And if Poe were alive, he would not have to invent horror; horror would invent him.” 

Harsh words, maybe—but ones we need to hear, and keep hearing. Which just so happens to be Wright’s specialty.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Wright insists that he doesn’t know “if Native Son is a good book or a bad book.” My vote? Neither. Native Son is a great book, earning its place on The List and then some.

Favorite Quotes:

“Don’t you love me?”
“About as much as you love me.”
“How much is that?”
“You ought to know.”

Either he was too weak, or the world was too strong; he did not know which.

But what was he after? What did he want? What did he love and what did he hate? He did not know. There was something he knew and something he felt; something the world gave him and something he himself had; something spread out in front of him and something spread out in back; and never in all his life, with this black skin of his, had the two worlds, thought and feeling, will and mind, aspiration and satisfaction, been together; never had he felt a sense of wholeness.

Read: 2016

Quick Reviews, Part IV

#63 An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser 

It was, I think, Mignon McLaughlin who once said:

It’s innocence when it charms us, ignorance when it doesn’t.

This pretty much sums up my hatred for An American Tragedy (1925).

Everyone in this book is insufferable. Everyone. There’s Asa and Elvira Griffiths, hapless and helpless to the tips of their fingers. There’s Hortense Briggs, and her whining, and her shopping addiction. There’s Roberta Alden and her drab insecurity, Gilbert Griffiths and his pointless grudge, Sondra Finchley and her baby-talk, and the rest of the Lycurgus social elite. All of these people make Voldemort seem warmhearted and vivacious by comparison.

Most of all, there’s Clyde Griffiths, our watered-down protagonist, who pairs an insipid personality with a cutthroat sense of greed. THESE ARE A FEW NONE OF MY FAV-O-RITE THINGS.

There is, frankly, nothing and no one to like here. Dreiser’s plot is tedious, and his writing simplistic. The moral of the story seems to be that chasing the American Dream will get you strapped into an electric chair… but so will being a murderous asshole.

By my estimation, we, the readers, are the real victims here—so Clyde can close his sniveling gripe-hole any time now.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It wouldn’t be the greatest book of all time if it were the only book ever written. Stick to your day job, Dreiser.

Favorite Quotes:

As they sang, this nondescript and indifferent street audience gazed, held by the peculiarity of such an unimportant-looking family publicly raising its collective voice against the vast skepticism and apathy of life.

Read: 2016


#85 The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

Now we’re talking. What do you get when you try to write four books at once?

A fifth book, apparently. A golden one.

At least, that’s how the story goes for Anna Wulf, who fills four color-coded notebooks with the most intimate of details: black for her childhood in Southern Rhodesia, red for her time in the Communist Party, yellow for her manuscripts, and blue for her personal diary. Anna decides, ultimately, to unite this fragmented rendering of her life into one final notebookThe Golden Notebook (1962).

This, folks, is what we call postmodernism.

Among Lessing’s more prominent themes are mental and societal breakdown, anti-war protest and communism, women’s liberation, romantic love, and parenthood. This takes it, inevitably, quite far from being a light read, but it is a compelling one. There is something raw and fearless about it, something deeply honest but carefully engineered—something that tells me I’ll pick this book up again someday to take another ride.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I wouldn’t jump right to “Greatest” from a preliminary read, but there’s nothing else quite like it on The List.

Favorite Quotes:

I was filled with such a dangerous delicious intoxication that I could have walked straight off the steps into the air, climbing on the strength of my own drunkenness into the stars. And the intoxication, as I knew even then, was the recklessness of infinite possibility, of danger, the secret ugly frightening pulse of war itself, of the death that we all wanted, for each other and for ourselves. 

Time is the River on which the leaves of our thoughts are carried into oblivion.

People don’t mind immoral messages. They don’t mind art which says that murder is good, cruelty is good, sex for sex’s sake is good. They like it, provided the message is wrapped up a little. And they like messages saying that murder is bad, cruelty is bad, and love is love is love. What they can’t stand is to be told it all doesn’t matter, they can’t stand the formlessness. 

“For Christ’s sake, you must understand sex isn’t important to me, it just isn’t important.”
I said: “You mean sex is important but who you have it with isn’t.”

Read: 2014


#56 Animal Farm, George Orwell

George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) came out of left field and blew me away, to the point that I was disappointed when it ended.

Well, OK, almost disappointed. The List is really long, guys.

Orwell intended Animal Farm as an allegory for the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent Stalin regime, and he was NOT subtle about it. Stalin is literally depicted as a tyrannical pig named Napoleon. Following a farm-wide rebellion against their cruel human caretakers, the crafty Napoleon wrests power away from his fellow leaders with an army of dogs. All the ideals of their revolution, from equality to loyalty, are either crushed or forgotten as time passes and oppression soars. In the chilling final pages of the story, the pigs begin to walk on two legs… much like their human masters of old.

A democratic socialist, Orwell opposed communism, along with the totalitarian propaganda that so often fuels it. He described Animal Farm as an effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole,” which sounds boring but isn’t. Take it from me—someone who is, broadly speaking, repulsed by politics—that this is worth a read anyway. Orwell’s writing style is simple but riveting, and his farm animal cast makes a play-by-play of totalitarianism surprisingly readable.

Just keep in mind that this is not “a fairy story” with a happy ending. After all, this is the book that gave us the famous saying “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Absolutely. It meets my two criteria—originality + expert craftsmanship—and then some.

Favorite Quotes:

Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. He does not give milk, he does not lay eggs, he is too weak to pull the plough, he cannot run fast enough to catch rabbits. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

Read: 2015


 

#18 On the Road, Jack Kerouac

I’ve always understood On the Road (1957) to be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of phenomenon, like Taylor Swift or Marmite.

My take? It’s the same for all three, actually: something in between. I love them, sure, but only in small doses. I love them in spite of their flaws, and sometimes because of them. And I love them most of all for their ability to provoke, despite being pretty damn harmless.

The ultimate road trip narrative, On the Road is perhaps less about purpose or destination than the feeling of adventure. This book evokes travel, and the American landscape, like no other. There’s an undeniable appeal in the vitality of it—the anarchy of it—as it matches stroke for stroke, in form and function, the feel of being young, and wild, and free, and stupid. The manifesto of the Beat movement characterized by hedonism and experimentation, On the Road invites us on a spontaneous journey to rescue ourselves from tradition and conformity, all for the cost of paper and petrol.

Jack Kerouac famously drafted On the Road on one continuous scroll of paper over the course of three weeks in 1951. The story follows Sal Paradise (based on the author) and Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady) on a series of cross-country jaunts marked by sex, drugs, and jazz. Controversial at the time of publication, On the Road still marches to the beat of its own drum, occupying a unique corner in the American imagination.

As much as I admire Kerouac’s monument to freedom and Americana, I felt a restlessness reading On the Road that had less to do with my own life than the choices Sal and Dean made with theirs. As it turns out, even adventure can become monotonous. Which is why I’ll say it again: The best way to fall in love, with On the Road or with your own soul mate, is carefully, in small doses.

Marmite-style.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m going to go with yes. It’s not perfect, but few classics are.

Favorite Quotes:

The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then.

I have finally taught him that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races.

I told Terry I was leaving. She had been thinking about it all night and was resigned to it. Emotionlessly she kissed me in the vineyard and walked off down the row. We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.

If nobody’s home, climb in through the window. Signed, Remi Boncoeur

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

So I went up and there she was, the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long. We agreed to love each other madly.

“We gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

Read: 2014


#59 Gargantua & Pantagruel, François Rabelais 

Don’t be fooled by those back-cover references to the “dazzling and exuberant comic Chronicles of Rabelais,” or the “ingenious wordplay and mastery of language” evoked by Gargantua & Pantagruel (1532–1564).

This book is so, so boring.

Listen to some of these chapter titles:

  • On the Origins and Lineage of the great Pantagruel
  • How Pantagruel fairly judged an amazingly hard and obscure controversy so equitably that his judgement was termed more wonderful than that of Solomon’s
  • How Pantagruel departed from Paris on hearing news that the Dipsodes were invading the land of the Amaurots. And why the leagues are so short in France. And the Exposition of a saying inscribed upon a ring
  • How Gargamelle, when carrying Gargantua, took to eating a great profusion of tripe
  • How Gargantua was dressed
  • Gargantua’s colours and livery
  • What the colours white and blue do signify
  • How Gargantua spent his time when it was rainy
  • Why everyone avoids monks: and why some men have noses which are bigger than others
  • How Panurge had a flea in his ear and gave up sporting his magnificent codpiece
  • The Excuse of Panurge; and an exegesis of a monastical cabbala concerning salted beef
  • How lawsuits are born and how they grow to perfection
  • How Xenomanes describes Quarêmeprenant anatomically
  • How in the Court of the Master-Inventor Pantagruel denounced the Engastrimyths and the Gastrolaters

You’re already bored, aren’t you? I’m bored all over again just looking at this book.

It had potential. I’ll give Rabelais that much. This 16th-century pentalogy follows two giants (a father and son) on their many misadventures in Medieval/Renaissance France. Much is made of the book’s satirical, scatological, and violent themes, but even these could not deliver me from indifference. And just in case you don’t believe me, and want to try it out for yourself: Give those chapter titles one more read.

I think we’ll see eye to eye in no time.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I don’t even know—I only half-paid attention.

Favorite Quotes:

Then they gave us heartfelt advice: if we wanted to rise in the courts of great noblemen, to be as economical as possible of the truth.

Would you say (as one may indeed logically infer) that the world was heretofore daft but now become wise? How many and what conditions were required to make it daft? And how many and wise to make it wise? And why was it daft? And why should it now be wise? By what qualities did you recognize its former folly? By what qualities, its present wisdom? Who made it daft? Who made it wise? Who form the greater number: those who liked it daft or those who like it wise? For how long was it daft? How long has it been wise? Whence proceeded its antecedent folly and whence its subsequent wisdom? Why did its antecedent folly end now and not later? Why did its present wisdom begin now and not earlier? What ill did that antecedent folly do to us? And what good, the subsequent wisdom? How could that old folly have been abolished? And how could the present wisdom be restored? 

Nothing is more dear nor more precious than time: let us spend it on good works.

Read: 2016

Check out Quick Reviews: Part I, Part II, and Part III for more fun and games whining and mocking.

Oh, and here’s the premise behind the Quick Reviews series. (I’ll give you a hint: It’s laziness.)

#51 The Tin Drum, Günter Grass

Oskar Matzerath is no ordinary three-year-old.

He’s not even three years old.

Oskar decided, in fact, to remain three years old no matter how much time went by—all because #adulting held so little appeal.

But wait—there’s more.

Oskar has this drum, this tin drum, a drum he’s obsessed with to the point of violence and betrayal. Also, his scream can shatter glass. So Oskar drums and screams his way around his native Danzig, like a three-year-old but not as a three-year-old, while the Nazi Party gains power over in Germany and begins its march toward Poland.

When he finally decides to grow up a little (mentally and physically) after the war ends, Oskar:

  • works a series of random jobs (gang leader, tombstone engraver, nude model, and jazz band drummer, to name a few)
  • is accused of murdering his neighbor, and
  • winds up in an insane asylum.

His only regret is that he’s innocent.

This is a nasty piece of literature narrated by a nasty piece of work. Oskar is a lying, thieving, whining, bragging, manipulating sociopath. He hits pregnant women and kicks dogs. He has a God (or, more accurately, a Jesus) complex. Worst of all, he regularly refers to himself in the third person.

We can only assume Mr. Burns and Dolores Umbridge are saving him a seat in Hell.

And yet, despite my generalized disgust for The Tin Drum, there is one contextual detail I find endlessly intriguing. Günter Grass, like Oskar, grew up in the Free City of Danzig (now called Gdańsk) and moved from Poland to Germany after the war. With The Tin Drum, published in 1959, Grass hoped to force a post-war Germany to confront its past—military members and civilians alike. What Grass didn’t mention until 2006—almost 50 years later—was that, at 17, he himself was a member of the Waffen-SS and trained as a tank gunner. 

Accused of hypocrisy for holding himself up as a “moral authority, [and] a rather smug one,” Grass nevertheless felt the time had come to confront his own past. Shmoop, always spot-on, sums up the controversy like this:

What do you think? Did Grass earn a ton of money and a Nobel Prize by claiming a moral high ground he really didn’t deserve? Or did having to confront his own participation in the war give him the right to demand that others confront theirs?

If you like unreliable narrators, demon children, historical themes, and magical realism, you might enjoy The Tin Drum. Just know that the longer you spend with it, the dirtier your hands will get.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Audiobook was probably the wrong format for this novel. I’ll have to get back to you on this when my ears stop ringing from all the moaning, wailing, screaming, and sneering.

Also the criminal third person.

Favorite Quotes:

When Satan’s not in the mood, virtue triumphs. Hasn’t even Satan a right not to be in the mood once in a while?

Today I know that all things are watching, that nothing goes unseen, that even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings.

Boredom may well be the very essence of evil.

Read: 2016

Literary Incest: Classics Within Classics

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The more time you spend with the classics, the more you notice the time they spend with each other.

Because, as it turns out, the classics spend a lot of time with each other. They’re kind of obsessed with each other, consumed by each other, locking each other into their own word prisons playgrounds whenever they have the opportunity. It’s a little bit sick, and a little bit twisted, how wrapped up they are in each other’s interests and arms.

That’s why I call this phenomenon Literary Incest.

When I first took on The 100 Greatest Books Challenge way back in 2011, I created a spreadsheet to track meta-themes. My reasons ranged from the obvious (mere curiosity) to the nerd-tacular (spreadsheets are a hobby) to the profound (a need to extract meaning from this endeavor, in the form of half-assed statistics). I tracked recurring subject matter as broad as “social commentary” and “religious commentary,” plot points as specific as “protagonist dies,” “protagonist kills self,” and “protagonist attempts to kill self,” and personal impressions as vague as “characters have weird names” and “book is categorically boring.” As soon as I finished a book on The List, I would dive into my spreadsheet to tick off every box that applied.

At the far end of the spreadsheet was a column labeled Incest: references within the classics to other classics. It was here that I recorded every member of the literary “family tree”—and here that I discovered the Greek and Latin classics to be a sort of father figure to all the rest.

It’s an understatement of irresponsible proportions to say that the Greek and Latin classics show up everywhere in literature. Among the classics that make direct reference to The Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Aeneid are:

  • The Divine Comedy
  • Middlemarch
  • The Portrait of a Lady
  • The Magic Mountain
  • Tristram Shandy
  • Tom Jones
  • In Search of Lost Time
  • Gargantua & Pantagruel

And those are just the ones I happened to make note of, and that happen to appear on my List. Add to this the fact(s) that Joyce’s Ulysses parallels The Odyssey, that Lowry’s Under the Volcano parallels Ulysses, and that Virgil’s Aeneid is a kind of Odyssey/Iliad two-for-one deal, and we’ve got quite a lot of inbreeding in our hands.

Well beyond Homer and Virgil, though, we can still find countless cases of classic overlap. Middlemarch also contains allusions to Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, and Gulliver’s Travels. On the Road makes reference to Gargantua & Pantagruel, The Sun Also Rises, and Moby-Dick. Brave New World has a Shakespearean fixation, and Tristram Shandy is on speaking terms with Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, Hamlet, and Gargantua & Pantagruel.

Naturally, the older the book, the more often it is referred to. After the Greek and Latin epics, no book is cited more frequently than Dante’s Divine Comedy: Lolita, The Count of Monte Cristo, An American Tragedy, In Search of Lost Time, and Middlemarch borrow pieces of his genius. And some books, of course, make incest their own filthy habit. Finnegans Wake invokes nearly every preceding classic, and Lolita teases at least six others:

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • The Divine Comedy
  • King Lear
  • Madame Bovary
  • Brideshead Revisited

So what are we to make of all this? If my spreadsheet is any indication, not much. Lately arrived on its deathbed, this blog is the brightest glimpse of daylight it will ever see.

But if we all put our heads together like some big, perverted family, we might come to the conclusion that the literary greats looked toward one another for inspiration. And when they found it, they gave credit where it was due. And when we’re writing, we should consider doing the same.

Or maybe it was just as show-offy then as it is now to casually name-drop Homer or Dante into conversations/publications, and they were trying to look cool.

But hey, who cares?

There are worse crimes.

#98 The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

I like to think of The Count of Monte Cristo as a scientific experiment conducted by God during one of Earth’s more tedious centuries. What happens when you surround a man with enemies, watch them lock him up in prison for 14 years, give him an education, give him endless riches, give him back his freedom, and then unleash him on the world at large?

The Count of Monte Cristo happens. And it ain’t pretty.

Edmond Dantès is, at 19, a happy, well-liked, and gifted young sailor with a doting father and a devoted fiancée. Fortune smiles upon him like a favorite pastime. The future looks bright enough for Ray-Bans.

But Edmond is crushed under his own windfall of good luck when three local dickheads let jealousy get the better of them. Danglars, the treasurer of Edmond’s ship; Fernand Mondego, a local fisherman in love with his fiancée; and Caderousse, his resentful neighbor, accuse Edmond of treason on the eve of his wedding to Mercédès. (Edmond does, indeed, carry a letter from Napoleon, exiled to Elba, but only as a favor to his friend and former captain.) The prosecutor, Villefort, sees Edmond’s innocence for what it is and intends to send him home… until Edmond reveals the intended recipient of Napoleon’s letter: Monsieur Noirtier, a.k.a. Villefort’s father. To protect his own interests and cover up his father’s treasonous affairs, Villefort sends Edmond to the notorious island prison known as the Château d’If.

Edmond is educated in secret by another prisoner (a former Italian priest) before finally making his escape over a decade later. Once freed, he follows a tip from the priest to the island of Monte Cristo and discovers unfathomable sums of buried treasure. The next time we meet him, Edmond has become the Count of Monte Cristo, an omniscient and omnipotent god-like figure with mysterious, foreign habits and an appetite for revenge.

At this point, only a quarter of the way into the book, things really start to heat up. Edmond takes his vengeance on Danglars, Fernand, Caderousse, and Villefort slowly, surely, and mercilessly. He lays complicated traps for each of his prey, adopts numerous aliases, spends an enormous fortune, and generally takes “obsession” to new levels of entertainment.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an adventure tale in the truest sense of the word. Originally written in serial format, it is 117 chapters of rollicking thrills, dark secrets, and moving romance. We read a separate novel’s worth of stories-within-the-story and witness many of the dramatic events that changed the course of French history. We watch Edmond play the role of Karma and take Destiny into his own hands—for the good of some and the detriment of many.

Since its 2002 release, The Count of Monte Cristo has been one of my favorite movies. And while many alterations were necessary to squeeze 1200 pages into two hours of film (and gratify a Hollywood audience), it captures the spirit of Dumas’s original reasonably well: Revenge is satisfying, but not as much as you’d think. We can change who we are, but only by a little. Happiness will elude us as long as we compare our lot with others’. It’s all there, even if it takes a different form.

Between The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers alone, Alexandre Dumas has left a considerable legacy. Born in northern France in 1802, his background was both aristocratic and mixed-race. He moved to Paris in his twenties and worked at the Palais Royal for the Duc d’Orléans. By the time he died in 1870, Dumas’s bibliography included much more than his popular adventure novels: His works ranged from travel narratives on Florence and Naples to historical dramas about famous English actors to essays on infamous European criminals.

By way of curious anecdotes, he had at least 40 mistresses throughout his (apparently very busy) lifetime and fathered a handful of illegitimate children. He also built a country house (circa 1846) and named it the Château de Monte-Cristo—along with a writing studio he called the Château d’If.

The best part of The Count of Monte Cristo? It is said to be based on a true story.

I wholeheartedly recommend this lively and rewarding read, even if it leaves you contemplating vengeance on your own bullies of days gone by.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It may not be Lolita or War and Peace, but it’s way better than anything Hemingway ever wrote.

Favorite Quotes:

There is neither happiness nor misery in the world; there is only the comparison of one state with another.

It is for justice to avenge those she has been unable to protect.

All human wisdom is summed up in these two words: “Wait and hope.”

Read: 2015

#70 Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe

All the Thoughts I Had While Listening to Robinson Crusoe on Audiobook

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Early On

  • So, Mr. Crusoe, your first sea voyage ends in shipwreck, and the second ends in your capture by Moorish pirates. Upon escaping slavery, your first move is to get back on a boat??? Fool me thrice, and all that.
  • Glad to hear you feel one measly qualm about selling Xury after he helped liberate you from bondage, Crusoe. Seriously, I’m dabbing a tissue to my eye’s flooded edge as we speak.
  • Cue another shipwreck. Didn’t see that coming for a minute.
  • “Island of Despair.” Ha. Hahaha. Karma’s a bitch, isn’t she?
  • Hang on—did I hear that right? Penguins?

Later

  • My, aren’t we resourceful.
  • Actually, “resourceful” is putting it mildly.
  • OK, we’ve now ventured way beyond resourcefulness and traipsed into surrealism. Is anyone a man of this many talents? Or did the entire English population of the 17th century know how to farm, fish, craft pottery, weave baskets, build rafts, carve canoes, fashion clothing, and make candles, cheese, bread, and wine?
  • Forgive me, Mr. C., for the impertinence, but shouldn’t you have gone crazy by now? Shouldn’t you be carving yourself a cedar family at this point, instead of all those canoes?
  • So many cats, so few bullets. *Shakes head.*
  • I’m pretty sure that, under the same circumstances, I would have abandoned religion instead of adopting it. But whatever. At least there’s no one around to evangelize.
  • JUST KIDDING. Thank God for Friday.

Later Than That

  • What are the odds of strolling into the middle of a cannibal party?
  • OK, Wikipedia says the odds aren’t THAT slim. Fine, then.
  • So… once you taught Friday to speak English, dearest Crusoe, you couldn’t have asked him his real name?
  • Holy crap is this book racist.
  • OOF racist.
  • Racist!!!
  • ALL THE RACISM.

Very Late

  • Bear with me for a minute, Crusoe. So you saved Friday’s life once, and he vowed to serve you as lord and master. I get it. I really do. But now that Friday has saved your life at least five times, shouldn’t you switch???
  • Also, why is every slave in this book so excited to be a slave? (Except you, NATCH.)
  • Well done, Crusoe. You finally realized the moral of your own story: Travel overland.

The End

  • But look out for wolves.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

The concept trumps the execution in this case. (The same, of course, can also be said of all reality TV, of which Robinson Crusoe is an ancestor.)

Favorite Quotes:

It put me upon reflecting how little repining there would be among mankind at any condition of life, if people would rather compare their condition with those that were worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them with those which are better, to assist their murmurings and complaining. 

It is true, I had been very unfortunate by sea and this might be one of the reasons. But let no man slight the strong impulses of his own thoughts in cases of such moment. Two of the ships which I had singled out to go in, I mean more particularly singled out than any other, that is to say, so as in one of them to put my things on board, and in the other to have agreed with the captain; I say, two of these ships miscarried, viz. one was taken by Algerines, and the other was cast away on the Start, near Torbay, and all the people drowned, except three; so that in either of those vessels I had been made miserable, and in which most, it was hard to say.

Read: 2015