“Chick Lit” and Other Horror Stories: My Interview with SpareMin

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First things first: I know.

I know it’s a random Wednesday at the end of October, and I know the air is chilly and the leaves are crunchy, and I know you’re probably halfway through a spreadsheet or a surgery or a stock… broking… maneuver.

I know.

But take a moment—right now if possible—and think back with me to this summer.

Remember June? June was warm, and sunny, and picnicky, depending on your chosen climate/hemisphere. June was pre-split for Brangelina, pre-Ghostbusters for those of us who saw and kind’ve liked it, pre-Olympics for the legendary Simone Biles, and pre-pussy-revelations for Trump. June was innocent, and hopeful, and naïve, like a first shot of tequila—a simpler, if not a better time, followed by an autumn that feels like a hangover.

I spent my June researching and writing an exhausted, exhausting, and (I hope) exhaustive post on Sexism in Classic Literature, something I come across all too frequently on The List. And then, because that was so depressing/distressing/discouraging, I added a post on Bookish Feminism a few weeks later.

Satisfied that I’d said my part, at least for the moment, I moved on with my summer.

So it came as a surprise when, in September, I was contacted by the founder of a new app called SpareMin. He had read my Sexism/Feminism posts and invited me to be part of a “mini-podcast” on the subject. The deal was that the SpareMin team would use the conversation to promote the app’s call-recording features, and I would get to talk about something I am passionate  fanatical maniacal about for 15 whole minutes.

And, last week, we did. Check out my talk with the lovely Abi Wurdeman here.

I’m including a transcript below—tidied up a little for clarity’s sake—to fill in any gaps in the audio, and to include all the appropriate links in all the appropriate places (huzzah!). Abi is in bold, and I am not, because I am incredibly modest and extraordinarily humble (if I do say so myself).

Happy listening!

Hello, this is Abi. Is this Jamie Leigh?

Yes, this is Jamie.

Hi, welcome! How are you?

I’m fine, thanks. I’m glad this worked.

Me too! Me too. Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.

No problem. Just to warn you, someone got out a chainsaw in my neighbor’s apartment, like, ten minutes ago. So if you hear a lot of noise, that’s why.

Oh, OK.

I hope they’re doing construction.

Yeah! Yeah, I hope so, right? OK, so, just for listeners—just so they know who I’m speaking to—I’m speaking with Jamie Leigh, who is a reader and writer, and we’re speaking about the representation of women in the literary world. So, let’s start with the first general question: What attitudes do you notice in the literary world towards female authors and books with female protagonists?

Right. Well, we can start off with the fact that there’s a genre called “chick lit,” right, but no genre called, like, “dude lit.” I’m far from being the first person to point this out, but it’s like the industry’s way of saying that books written by and about men represent the sort of universal human experience, but books by and about women represent only the female experience—which, then, reinforces this idea that the male narrative is the default narrative.

And this starts really early on, right? Like, even in children’s books, there are more boys than girls in central roles. And we definitely, as a culture, you know, tolerate young boys’ contempt, I guess, for books about girls—or anything associated with girls, really. So we end up teaching boys from a really young age, without necessarily meaning to, that it’s OK to dismiss us, or to ridicule us.

So I guess the most common pattern I see is one of, you know, neglect, or of belittlement. I think a good example is Jodi Picoult. She writes these really—really, like, sober books, right? She’s written about school shootings, and mercy killings, and cancer, and suicide, and stem cell research. And still critics call her books “chick lit” and “beach reads.”

And then the opposite happens when a man starts writing in an area dominated by female authors. Like, this happened in YA, this happened in romance. You know, romance is one of the most ridiculed genres. But, of course, Nicholas Sparks comes along and he’s able to build a respected career for himself writing romance novels. I, uh, I hope—I hope he and all of his movie deals will be very happy together. But that’s bullshit.

Yeah. It’s true, it’s true. It always makes me think of—I mean, as you said, there are a gazillion examples of this happening. The one that I always think of is—and this is a movie review that I believe was in Variety, about Wild, which you know, of course, was a book first—but the reviewer, a male reviewer, actually said—was letting everyone know—this is a cool movie for guys to watch, too. And the line that he used in it was, “It’s—this isn’t—” it was something like, “This isn’t a woman’s story; this is a human story.” 

Oh, for God’s sake. Thank you for, yes, defining women as human. Yeah.

Right, right. And the title of that was “Wild Is Actually Macho.” He talked about how—his focus was “It’s a macho—it’s something that guys can get, too, because the emotions she expresses aren’t just lady emotions. It’s crazy! It’s nuts!” 

I actually—so, the person who did that screenplay was Nick Hornby, and I saw him speak a couple of years ago in New York. And he—someone asked him about—well, actually I think he was telling a story about someone who’d asked him how he was able to kind of “get inside the mind of a woman.” And he was like, “…She wrote a memoir. I read her book, and I adapted her book to the movie…” Yeah. Not that hard.

Yeah. It’s crazy. So then, I guess you kind of addressed this, the next question, of the differences that you notice between the ways that the publishing industry markets books written by men versus by women. Is there anything else—any other points on that you want to make before we move on?

Yeah, um, a couple things. So, I guess one of the most obvious differences is book covers. You know, women’s book covers have a lot of flowers, and horizons, and makeup, and hearts, and wedding dresses, and pink. Basically anything stereotypically feminine. You know, things that imply that they’re not worth taking seriously, in a lot of cases.

And then men’s book covers are usually darker and edgier. Less cluttered. Less domestic. Less frivolous. And this is important, right? Because a book’s cover contributes to our perception of its quality, along with other things like the blurbs, and the comparisons to other novels, and where we shelve it in a store, and that kind of thing. 

So, yeah, I think book covers are a big one. Oh, I just read this article about a woman who wrote a memoir about the years that she spent working as a war photographer in Afghanistan. And her publisher—I think it was Random House—changed the title, without asking her, to Shutterbabe—

Ew.

I know. Ew, right? And then their initial design for the cover was a naked cartoon torso with the camera covering the crotch, all set against a pink background. Yeah, her war photographer memoir, right?

Wow.

So she had to explain to Random House that it is “usually her eye behind the camera, and not her vagina.”

Isn’t that how they work?

Yeah. Oh, she also said that almost all of the publications that reviewed her book—which wasn’t very many, even though this went on to become a bestseller and has been taught in journalism schools—almost all of those reviews called her a stay-at-home mom. Like, when is the last time a male author was called a stay-at-home dad? That never—that never happens.

Wow. No. 

So book reviews are also a problem. I’ve heard it’s getting better, so that’s good news, but still I think most of the major review publications have mostly male reviewers, and the reviewees are less likely to be women. So, basically, what ends up happening is that men are the kind of “literary gatekeepers,” and then they’re more likely to open the gates to other men.

Which doesn’t actually make a lot of sense if you look at book sales. There was an, I think it was an Atlantic article, out maybe this summer, that pointed out that women buy more books than men, and we read more fiction. And, in the U.S., there are more women than men who have degrees in literature. So, if anything, we should probably be considered the default readers. Like, we are the greater part of the literary audience. Women are not a niche market.

Yeah. So, now, let’s talk about—I guess this actually branches off on what you were saying earlier about children’s books, and what we learn about how to value female stories and male stories and female authors and male authors when we’re young. And you and I had spoken a little bit—I talked about, I mentioned to you how I, as I got older, I realized that I sort of internalized these ideas accidentally, that male literature is insightful and says powerful things, and female literature tends to be more niche. So let’s talk about the classics, and required reading in high school. Of the classics that are frequently assigned to high school students, where are overlooked instances of sexism or misogyny in those stories?

Um, yeah, like—well, everywhere, first of all. Yeah, when we talked about this before—well, on my blog I’ve talked about how rape happens all the time in the classics. I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever having classroom discussions about male entitlement, and how that leads to sexual assault. Even though it’s this, like, meta-theme that ties a lot of the classics together. You know, English—English teachers love that shit, right?

I think part of the problem is how rarely we’re willing to call rape rape. Right? Anything to victim-blame, right? The example that shocked me the most, actually, was Lolita. Because it’s hailed as this, like, great love story, even though it’s, you know, it’s about a middle-aged man who kidnaps his twelve-year-old step-daughter and rapes her repeatedly over the next two years. Which is the complete opposite of a love story. And it’s not even ambiguous, even in the book. Nabokov says in the preface to the book that Humbert is a monster. He calls him a—he calls him a “moral leper.” And then I turn my book cover over—my book over to the back cover—and I see a quote from Vanity Fair that says that the book is “the only convincing love story of our century.”

Oh my God.

Isn’t that horrifying?

I just threw up a little bit.

Yeah. So rape is definitely one. But there are broader issues, too. I mean, in my experience, literary curriculum in general overlooks female authors and protagonists. I can—I can only think of three books assigned in my high school that were by or about women. I mean, out of dozens, right? Meaning I spent entire semesters—and even entire years—reading books by men about men. And that was just normal, right? But if I’d wanted to take a class that featured only female writers, I would’ve had to wait until college, and I would’ve had to sign up for some specialized class in the Women’s Studies Department. Again, as if we’re this, like, niche offering.

Yeah. Yeah.

And while—yeah. And it is true that, historically, men have dominated literary culture, but most of the novels that exist today have been written in the last couple of centuries. So there are plenty of women to choose from.

And I’m not sure that being a man has ever been an excuse to dismiss or exclude women. I’ve criticized Tolkien on my blog before for underrepresentation of women, and some guy was like, “Well, what do you expect? He was a conservative Catholic academic born in the 19th century.” And I was like, Tolstoy. Thackeray. Flaubert. Henry James, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Richardson, Thomas Hardy… All men. Some Catholic (probably). Some conservative (probably). All born well before Tolkien, and all of whom thought women were, at least, like, minimally interesting. Interesting enough to write novels about, apparently.

And yeah, the last thing I was going to say is that there are, um, I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for discussion around intersectional feminism in the classics—like, this idea that the various forms of oppression intersect. So, for example, a poor black woman is going to experience oppression differently than a rich white woman. I just finished Native Son in September. It’s this book, set in the ’40s, about this 20-year-old black boy who accidentally kills a white girl—who’s his boss’s daughter—and then deliberately murders his black girlfriend. But when he’s captured and put on trial, it’s only for killing the white girl—and the black girl’s body is brought in as evidence.

Whoa.

Yeah. Evidence of his, like, inclination toward violence. And as he’s sitting there, in court, he thinks to himself that even though she’s dead, and even though he killed her, he knows that she would resent her body being used that way. You know, in a way that essentially erases her personhood.

Yeah. Yeah. So what—yeah, sounds like an intense read. I have not read that one.

Yeah, it is an intense read for sure.

So what women authors or woman-centric books do you think should be added to high school curriculum to help teenagers now get the experiences and perspectives that you and I didn’t get when we were in high school?

Well, I guess in the case of my high school, like, any would be a good start. Because there were so few. I—I looked up a list recently of the most frequently assigned books in U.S. high schools, and it was all Shakespeare and the Greeks and Steinbeck. And, you know, us ladies, we get, like, The Scarlet Letter. Which is so boring we all wish it never existed in the first place, right? And it was written by a man.

But some of my favorites—and this is definitely subjective—but I would say of the books that actually do justice to female characters, probably Jane Eyre or anything by Jane Austen. Margaret Atwood’s books. Toni Morrison’s books. Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston all wrote wonderful, complex women. I know some high school curriculum does include some of their books, but mine definitely didn’t. I wasn’t assigned any of those authors, at least not until college. Which is such a shame.

Yeah. My best friend from college, I always really envied. We had a few—we would have, like, maybe two female authors a year when I was in high school, so there was a little bit. But my best friend in college went to an all-girls Catholic school, and the nuns very deliberately made sure that fifty percent of the authors they read were women. And I was so jealous when I first met her—I was like, “I’ve gotta catch up to you!” Cuz there were these books I didn’t even really know existed, or had a vague sense of—but no one was saying, “You need to go out and read these,” so I didn’t prioritize them.

Right. Right. So, like, for example, why did I have to read both 1984 and Brave New World, but didn’t get to read The Handmaid’s Tale in school—you know? And why did I have to read everything Shakespeare ever wrote, but I had to find Jane Austen and Toni Morrison on my own? There’s just such a huge imbalance.

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. This was a great conversation.

Thank you so much.

Have a good day. 

Thanks, Abi.

Bye.

In listening to this after the fact, I realized I did not reciprocate Abi’s initial “How are you?”—like some kind of mannerless monster—and I did not wish her a good day in parting. Normally both are reflexes, so the evidence of this wanton incivility on my part fills me with shame. My only defense is that I was distracted by setting up the call, preparing my notes, checking the time (the call was set to cut off automatically after 15 minutes), and, of course, tuning out the roar of my neighbor’s chainsaw.

Anyway, there you have it. This probably isn’t the last you’ll hear from me on this topic, but it’s probably the last you’ll hear from me about it today. Feel free to return to your spreadsheet, or your surgery, or your stocks, as the case may be. I’ll be here, as always—reading and writing and banging my head against the wall on behalf of women everywhere.

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

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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.

Let’s Make Fun of The Pilgrim’s Progress (Again)

Making fun of the classics is a Thing that I do. Mostly I do it here, at The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. But sometimes my reviews get exported to other publications—in this case, Punchnel’s, who generously recycles my classic reviews in a monthly series.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is up and better than ever. From John Bunyan’s “Author’s Apology” to the allegorical Christian’s long-predicted demise, there’s just so, so much to make fun of.

Happy reading!

50 Books! a.k.a. Halfway There! a.k.a. Nap Time!

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It’s a day of celebration here at The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. I just finished my 50th book off the List, marking the halfway point in my Challenge. In other words, I deserve half a trophy, and half a pie party. Preferably gold, and preferably pumpkin, respectively.

I feel obliged to acknowledge that this was the “easy” half of the List. I had read 16 of the books prior to officially undertaking the 100 Greatest Books Challenge — meaning that, since 2011, I’ve really only read 34 books from the List. (Of those, I read 16 in 2014 alone.) And while I have tackled a handful of lengthy, challenging works over the last three years (Vanity Fair; Middlemarch; Anna Karenina; all three volumes of Lord of the Rings), I have yet to touch Proust and the six volumes that make up his infamous In Search of Lost Time… except for that stint in college that still makes me shudder to this day. Over half of the books left on my List are 400+ pages in length, and several were written by James Joyce or William Faulkner, my literary archenemies.

Anyway. Let’s focus on the positive: 50 books finished, and many of them so, so Great. Here are some mini-lists about my experience pursuing literary fame and glory a slightly maniacal to-do list, each and every one created exclusively for your my entertainment:

 

My favorites (so far) among the 100 Greatest Books of All Time:

1. Anna Karenina

2. Beloved

3. To Kill a Mockingbird

4. Vanity Fair

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude

6. The Catcher in the Rye

7. Pride and Prejudice

8. The Age of Innocence

9. Slaughterhouse-Five

10. Dangerous Liaisons

 

Books that are not among my favorites, but still undeniable works of genius:

1. The Divine Comedy

2. The Canterbury Tales

3. Hamlet

4. 1984

5. To the Lighthouse

 

Books that made me go “Wait, why is this famous, again?”

1. The Sun Also Rises

2. A Passage to India

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

4. Wuthering Heights

5. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

 

Easiest reads:

1. The Wind in the Willows

2. The Catcher in the Rye

3. The Call of the Wild

4. Brave New World

5. On the Road

 

Most difficult and/or boring reads:

1. The Grapes of Wrath 

2. The Sound and the Fury

3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

4. Women in Love

5. Heart of Darkness

 

Biggest surprises:

1. Hemingway had no discernible talent. Yes, that Hemingway.

2. The Call of the Wild was incredibly interesting and not at all cloying, despite being narrated by a dog.

3. Wuthering Heights: blithering idiots.

4. Anna Karenina was a piece of cake, and a tasty one at that. I’m actually looking forward to the remaining Russian classics, as long as I can get my hands on the Pevear & Volokhonsky translations.

5. I’d be embarrassed by any personal attempt to articulate how amazing Beloved is. Even this one has left me cowering with shame.

 

Next up: Don Quixote, supposedly the Greatest Book of All Time. And then maybe I’ll tuck into the winter with some Proust.