(Repost) The Book I’m Saving for Last—and Why

Reposting this soul-baring, teeth-gritting tell-all from April 2016 to mark my arrival on the doorstep of The 100 Greatest Books Challenge. Closing out Ulysses last Sunday means I’m just two books away from the end of my book-venture. It’s about to get all War and Peace up in here—my penultimate classic encounter—and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Happy Wednesday, and happy reading!


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…


“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:


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 novels, all of them short, and wrote exactly three papers to finish out the semester. One of our favorite reads, naturally, was 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.


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 moment 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 added very little substance to my long-term knowledge stockpile. 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—under 200 pages. But it is long enough to be a preposterous overnight reading assignment. It invalidated 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-level 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…

#Resistance Reading

I don’t know about you, but this is pretty much my default mode these days:


can all of this un-happen plz?

Even The Onion is more depressing than entertaining lately, and that’s the least of the world’s problems.

I’ve been asking myself what I can do in the wake of Trump’s inauguration—in the wake of his bold-faced lies on everything from crowd size to voter fraud, his hateful, fearmongering policymaking, his continued vilification of the press, his dangerously short-sighted suppression of science, and a hundred other infuriating, intolerant, and irresponsible measures that threaten both American values and my own grip on sanity.

“What can I do?” is the question on my mind because, besides feeling angry, sick, and heartbroken, I’ve been feeling helpless. I’m not a lawyer, like my cousin-in-law Matt, who set out for O’Hare on Saturday on behalf of the International Refugee Assistance Project to support the travelers detained by Trump’s executive order on immigration. I’m not a reporter, like my friend Mustafa, who has worked for the last six months to promote press freedom on the Committee to Protect Journalists. Tweeting and Facebooking are active but unproductive—either preaching to the choir or stirring up a hopeless shitstorm. Donating money is productive but passive—as soon as I click “submit,” I’m antsy to do more. Helplessness does not suit me well, as I’ve learned time and again this week, and idleness even less so.

But I’m not helpless. I’m helpful, dammit, and I’m smart and I’m strong and I matter. And while I may not have a law degree or a press pass or a fortune, I do have a voice and a platform and a message. So, for everyone else out there wondering how you can make a difference, my message is this: Let’s engage in small acts of resistance. 

On my quest for an Anti-Trump To-Do List, I came across this fantastic article on “20 #smallacts we can all do to protest injustice and make the world a better place.” I was a little surprised to note the source (Teen Vogue) but less surprised to note the author (award-winning novelist Celeste Ng). Her suggestions range from the obvious (call your representatives; volunteer for local charities) to the inspired (reconsider the language you use; run for office). She encourages concerned citizens, young or old, to “spread help and hope” through efforts as small as carrying reusable shopping bags, taking public transportation, and creating art.

It wasn’t long before I was coming up with ideas of my own. To the list above, I would add subscribing to reputable news sources and, especially, avoiding unreliable ones. I would also add leveraging professional resources. My employer is small, with minimal reach, but my husband works for a tech company with influence and means. I told him to send his HR rep this article in hopes of encouraging them to take a stand alongside their peers. And I told him to suggest that, at the very least, they send out an email to remind all employees that the company matches donations to 501(c)(3) charities.

Since this blog’s focus is on literature, I wanted to find a way to tie my own #smallacts back to books. Ng had one great strategy on this front:

Read (and if you can, buy) diverse literature. Books by women, people of color, LGBTQ authors, differently abled people, and non-Americans are a great way of broadening horizons and building empathy. Share books you love with others, and ask your teachers and professors to assign more diverse literature.

As I sat nodding along with Ng’s words, it hit me: Today’s exercise in #smallacts could be a resistance-themed list of All the Best Literary Links I’ve Come Across This Week. This will be my sixth—and, I think, final—list of Literary Links, dedicated entirely to the many #resistance reading recommendations I’ve encountered since the election. Some are aimed at Trump, and some are aimed at us—but all of them share the goal of an enlightened, enhanced democracy:

My TBR on GoodReads may be straining under this new weight, and my budding #smallacts agenda may already lack for space, but I’m feeling a little less helpless for the first time all week. It doesn’t take more than a pebble to create a ripple effect. And, in the wake of Trump’s unflinching, inevitable Trumpness, I’ve realized I can leave a wake of my own—however small.

The Best Literary Links I’ve Come Across This Week (Round 5)


It’s time for another carefully curated collection of the Best Literary Links I’ve Come Across This Week. It was a particularly good week, as literary links go—but you’ll soon find that out for yourself. Enjoy.

Happy reading! And happy holidays!

A Reading Checklist for 2016 (PopSugar)

PopSugar is back this year with a Reading Challenge for 2016. I won’t be participating (I’m plenty busy with the 100 Greatest Books Challenge, and resenting myself for undertaking the 100 Greatest Books Challenge), but I look forward to hearing from those hardy read-venturers brave enough to face the literary wilds of a new list and a new year.


I feel confident in my chances of tackling a classic from the 20th century (Midnight’s Children), a book from Oprah’s Book Club (Song of Solomon), a YA bestseller (not yet sure which one), and a book that’s more than 600 pages (ALL THE BOOKS LEFT ON MY LIST, UGH WHYYY YEEZUS).

I doubt I will read a book set in my home state, because there are only like two (probably). And I don’t think I’ll tick off a book recommended by someone I just met, because I am antisocial and that sounds like a reckless investment.

Here‘s PopSugar’s 2015 Reading Challenge, by the way. And here‘s my sad struggle to pretend I completed it. Almost.


Anyway. Back to the point, which is always Happy reading to you and yours—whatever you’re reading.

Literary London: A Recommended Reading List


Anyone dreaming of a trip to London? Traveling there this year? Packing your bags with your feet as you read this?

If so: first, stop multi-tasking. In the words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”

Second, check out my recommended reading list for the extraordinary city of London, published today over at LitroNY. Each of the books I chose offers a totally different perspective on the British capital, highlighting various aspects of a metropolis that has proved itself impossible to summarize. Whether you want a closeup of Victorian London, Dickens-style (Oliver Twist) or a contemporary romp that will keep you in stitches for the eight-hour transatlantic crossing (Bridget Jones’s Diary), I’ve got you covered.

Happy traveling, if that’s on your itinerary—and, of course, happy reading!

(LONG) Introduction to the 100 Greatest Books Challenge — The What, Why, and How

A year and a half ago, I finished the most significant chapter of my imaginary autobiography to date: my studies. I planned to enter the workforce, figure out this whole adulthood thing, and only revisit academia if and when I could find a PhD supervisor willing to let me research sleep—while asleep. Armed with degrees in Linguistics, French, and Comparative Literature, I marched into the world a full-blown, higher-educated, loan-repaying adult.

It was the first time in my life that I didn’t have an enormous stack of reading assignments on my desk. I had no history textbooks to skim, no American fiction to peruse, no French novels to analyze, no JSTOR articles to highlight. It felt freeing, and exhilarating, and bewildering, and unsettling. I had no idea where to begin—couldn’t even remember how—to select a book to read, out of ALL THE BOOKS EVER. Part of me worried that without any motivation to challenge myself with works of literary genius, or at least minimal historical/social/political/philosophical significance, I would reach lazily, and exclusively, for Fifty Shades of Twilight or the many narcissistic celebrity memoirs on the Bestseller shelf at Barnes & Noble.

Since reading the newspaper or getting a Forbes subscription was out of the question, my next move was obvious: I gave myself a reading assignment. I found a list of classic literature online called thegreatestbooks.org that would give me the opportunity to catch up on all the literary references and authors that had fallen between the cracks of my studies. It lists The 100 Greatest Books of All Time, from Don Quixote to Midnight’s Children.

Many of these lists exist. The Observer, the Modern Library, the BBC, and TIME magazine have all produced similar ones, with varying quantities of Faulkner and differing judgments on whether or not to include Shakespeare’s plays. I’m not sure now why I picked this one; it certainly wasn’t the easiest to find on the Internet, as I discovered once when my Excel version inexplicably disappeared from my desktop and I forgot the idiot-proof URL. I actually regret picking this list now, because of all the Faulkner included (no less than four of his books are apparently just that GREAT). But perhaps Faulkner is an acquired taste, like olives, and I will learn to love him, like in an arranged marriage. We shall see.

Overall, though, this list suits my project well: Its compiler has drawn from forty-three “Best Books of All Time” lists and fed them into an algorithm, and even designed the site as an application to allow readers to tick off books as they finish them. My goal is, of course, to read all 100, as eventually as it takes. This will be a space for me to provide notes and commentary for anyone who is interested in sharing my journey from one end of the bookshelf to the other, or in taking on a related challenge.

My commentary here is meant to provide one non-expert opinion, one interpretation, among the many more and less important ones tucked away in libraries and various corners of the Internet. This is not intended as academic research, SparkNotes, or a literature lesson. Before all of you haters gather your vicious wit to pick apart my carefully chosen words and crush my soul to Oreo crumbs, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you are being CONSTRUCTIVE or being a DOUCHE. If you <3 me, let me know. Otherwise shut up. One day the Internet will kick you off and the rest of us will LOL and sing Kumbaya together over FaceTime.

I am fully committed to telling the brutal truth about these books, since the whole endeavor sounds pretty pretentious and, well, literature snobs make reading unsexy. And anyway, my reading taste isn’t very elitist. As long as a book has avoided a giant public eye roll, I am willing to give it a go. I do not have anything against particular genres, bestsellers, or beach reads. One of my favorite books (and movies, for that matter) is Bridget Jones’s Diary. After I finished Madame Bovary last year, I reread the fourth Harry Potter and then picked up The Hunger Games. Indeed, I consider a mental rest both necessary and welcome in between authors like Steinbeck and Dickens.

By that same token, I also refuse to approach literary criticism like we’re in a snob-pocalypse, no matter how “great” or significant the classic. I recognize that highly esteemed literature does not necessarily have the entertainment value of The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was just as baffled as everyone else when Mr. Rochester’s lunatic wife showed up in the middle of Jane Eyre. I’m not going to falsely defend a book I dislike or polish my opinions with any patronizing insistence on stylistic necessities or symbolism or the author’s intent, especially if it appears to me that the author’s intent was to suck.

These posts are, of course, essentially a long series of detailed *SPOILERS*, so be warned.

The rules of the Challenge are as follows:

  1. I must read all 100 books on The List in their entirety (duh).
  2. I must read all volumes of each work, if the author considered the volumes to make up one book. (This, unfortunately, is the case for The Lord of the Rings—Tolkien, three volumes—and In Search of Lost Time—Proust, six freaking volumes.)
  3. I do not have to reread any books I have previously read. (Before beginning this List, I had only read 16/100 in full, despite my undergraduate Major in Literature. In all fairness to the American education system, however, I have read many of those sixteen multiple times, and numerous other books by the same authors. And I have read part of another eighteen books from The List, which must count for something. In any case, this rule is mainly my way of saying that nothing could compel me to reread The Grapes of Wrath. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
  4. If I cannot remember whether I’ve already read the full length of any of the books on The List (e.g., The Odyssey, The Wind in the Willows), I have to read/reread them.
  5. I can read the books in whatever order I wish, I am not constrained to any time limits, and I can read multiple books at once. I can also read other books in between or alongside The List. This is a LONG-TERM goal. And I am optimistic about my lifespan.
  6. I am fluent in French, so I have to read the French books in French.
  7. As for other books originally written in another language, I am allowed to choose any suitable translation.

I don’t anticipate enjoying every minute of this self-inflicted assignment. Indeed, there have already been a few moments of struggle throughout the first nine books I’ve undertaken in the last eighteen months. But I also like a challenge, and what is a lengthy reading list if not that?

Finally, I believe that we read bookseven classicsquite differently when we’re not being forced by someone else to read them. And I am setting out to test that theory.

So here we go, in order of greatness, The 100 Greatest Books of All Time:

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

Looking at The List, I am struck by several things:

  • Where is Beowulf? Why the $*#% did I have to read that in high school?
  • There is a terrifying number of books on this List that approach or exceed 1,000 pages, and none of them are by J. K. Rowling. Thank God for my Kindle.
  • I have never even heard of The Magic Mountain or Herzog. I hope they’re not 1,000 pages long.
  • I am most looking forward to reading Jack Kerouac, Virginia Woolf, and Gabriel García Márquez.
  • I am least looking forward to reading James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Marcel Proust, based on rumors and previous attempts.

So here I go, off into parallel universes where ANYTHING can happen. I hope you enjoy the postcards.

Happy reading to me, and to you.