Thursday, February 18, 2010

"To Date"

It may be just a sign of age...but I've been spending a lot of time worrying about all the books I will never read. I've gone so far as to calculate the number of books I could read in a month - using moderately reasonable expectations - to arrive at a yearly presumption of books I can finish. Then, using a life expectancy test, I calculated the number of years I have left to live (barring unforeseen events) and arrived at the grand total of 1,536 - books not years.

This latest obsession was triggered by my printing off a copy of Listology's "1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die"(reprinted from the book of the same name by Peter Boxall). With yellow highlighter in hand, I was equipped to cross off the ones I'd read. Plentitude! "What a cinch," I told myself. I have been an avid reader all my life. And being a woman of a certain age, a rather long life. My eyes scanned down the first page. I drew a blank. "Well, no bother. I've certainly read a lot from the second page." My palms began to sweat. "None? Not one?" I was a woman on the desert with a parched throat..."Water...," cried a small, squeaky voice. I turned the page over to see if some of the titles ran around to the other side in a game of hide-and-seek. "Don't play tricks on me."

Ever so carefully, I slowly turned down one corner of page 2 to sneak a peek at the top half of page 3. "Enough is enough! Do you hear me?" More resolutely (and by this time seething with outrage) I grabbed my yellow marker poised to pounce on...something. "Stupid list." "You.. stupid...shitty...list!" I was now at the top of page four. I spoke out loud, "173. Wise Children - Angela Carter". "What the..." Not only did I not read it, I had never heard of it.

I turned page four over and slapped in down on the table, thinking to myself, "I should have read Bonfire of the Vanities. I had it in my hand, for God sake." I tried to wonder what I picked up instead. Whatever it was, it was not on page four of the list, nor, as it turned out, was it on page five. To my credit, some of the titles were on my To Be Read List. I mused that the kind of stress I was now placing upon myself was counter-productive to living to 93 (which, by the way, is the number I have to reach to read 1,536 books.) I hoped that my mind would hold out that long. What, after all, was the use of a list if I forgot what it was for? Another fearful thought crossed my now feverish brain - there would always be more books. New books. Great books. In a never-ending stream, like "The Sorcerers Apprentice"...on...and...on...and...I roused myself from my stupor and resumed the task at hand. "The task at hand, Grad," I said out loud, "is to see how many of these titles you have date." I have always loved the term "to date." It resounds with hope. It reminds me of Shorty. Whenever I said, "I can't," she would tell me, "I'll let you say, 'I can't' as long as you add one more word." "What's that?" "The word 'yet'." "Okay, so 'to date'...that's better. Keep that in mind. To date."

Page six. "Maybe it's time to cheat. Just a bit." Ragtime was on page 6, and I tried to read Ragtime. It was my recollection that I hated every minute of reading Ragtime. I stopped reading it after a couple of chapters. But...does it count? "No, Grad, it doesn't count. And neither does The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch just because you checked it out of the library once." Damn and double damn.

Resignedly, I flipped to page seven. "No one will know unless you tell them" I reasoned. But I cursed my inadequate education. Where did all that tuition go? Were all my literature professors asleep at the switch? Did they never anticipate their students being confronted with such a list? Did it ever occur to them they had the power to spare those young, eager minds the humiliation of not reading a single one of the first 365 books on the 1001 books list? To feel - in a word - stoooopid? "A pox upon them", I shouted.

And then...there it was. Like a shiny coin. Like a drop of water in the desert. Like a sudden sweet note in an otherwise discordant cacophony. Right near the top of page seven. Number 367. Isn't that a lovely number? 367. Kind of rounded and angular at the same time. If I played the lottery, I might play 367. I was saved from the shame of illiteracy. And for the first time, I proudly swished my marker through I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. "My, what a lovely yellow." Victory! No longer feeling constipated, I proceeded.

My spirits and self-esteem were restored as I got farther down the list. I was brutally honest with myself (otherwise, what was the point?) Although I knew I must have read some of the titles in school - Catcher In The Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, Stranger In A Strange Land, Lord Jim - I didn't count a book unless I actually remembered reading it. I gave myself a pass on remembering what the book was about, however. Things were bleak enough without having to recall the plot. Likewise, if I was confused over whether I'd read it or simply saw a film version of it (Breakfast At Tiffany's, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Third Man) it wasn't counted. In every instance, I tried to err on the side of not having read the book.

I came up with only 60 read! SIXTY! So there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that I've read only sixty. The good news is that if I don't get hit by a bus and eat all my veggies, I'll probably have time to get to all 1001.

The question is, do I really want to? There were several on the list that I really did try to read but since I didn't finish them, I didn't count them (Herzog, Ragtime, The Magus). I attempted to read Herzog and The Magus when they came out as book club editions when I was in my late teens. I might not have been mature enough to appreciate them, but I'll give myself a few bonus points for actually selecting books at that tender age which would one day make it to "the list". The only time they have been off the shelf since then has been to either move my place of residence, or to dust.

So with drooping spirits I sat with my pitiful "list of the unread." My "list of shame!" My list of the "great unwashed brain." I began to wonder what I've been doing all my reading life. Where had I been? I stared at the bookshelves. Unnerved and disappointed, I wandered over to them. I ran my hand along the spines of books gathered during the course of decades. Some of them almost 50 years old. The shelves were filled to capacity. Certainly not all the books have been read; but I would say most of them have. A good number of the titles are non-fiction - mostly history. A bit heartened, I remembered "the list" was of novels only, so that accounted for some of my "reading gap." Looking more closely at my collection and the list, I realized the list had some swiss cheese-like holes in it. There was no Wizard Of Oz, no Red Badge Of Courage, no L. Frank Baum or Stephen Crane period. There was nothing by Washington Irving. Amitov Ghosh wasn't there, neither was Nectar In A Sieve by Karmala Markandaya. No Barbara Pym. And, although John Steinbeck was there The Pearl was not. It dawned on me that there was no way to compile a list of all the books that "must" be read, and, in any event, to read blindly from a list did not make one a well-rounded reader. It brightened my spirits to realize that any list such as this is simply a tool. Like a road map (or to be a bit more current a GPS), it says "go this way, take that turn, stay on this path."

Nevertheless, the best surprises are in the side trips...up and down the hilly road which is not on the map, and which is covered with golden autumn leaves that go whoosh when you drive past and then rise up and swirl around like a cloud of stardust... and which make a picture in the rear-view mirror that you will never forget.


  1. Graddikins, I hear ya. I actually received this very book for Christmas, and flipping through it made me feel illiterate. It was sincerely depressing on a number of levels to see how poorly I scored. 60?? I think 60 sounds HUGE. I didn't bother counting but I'd be surprised if I cracked double digits. But those sorts of things are just soooo subjective - some of those books for a contemporary lit lover such as myself are just never. Going. To. Darken. My. Door. There always seems to be a huge emphasis on 19th century texts in these things and it makes me weary. And rebellious. So the Boxall has been placed up the back of the book shelf, and I am just getting on with my own list, thank you very much, Sir!

  2. Di, for me it was just the opposite. It wasn't until I got into the 19th century that I made much progress at all. I've read a fair amount of contemporary literature, too, but apparently not stuff worthy of making Boxall's list. I wish you WOULD do a list. I'd trust your judgment more than his. But, I must admit, it was kind of fun going through it - after I stopped taking it seriously. (And I have since read Age of Innocence and The Maltese Falcon, so I'm inching up there, if Boxall cares to know).

  3. Loved this! I periodically have gut wrenching panics that I will never be able to read all the books I own let alone all the books I want to read. I have the Boxall book and a spreadsheet that was made by another blogger than actually totals all the books and allows you to put in your age and it tells you how many of the books on the list you have to read each year based on average life expectancy. I haven't looked at the list in a while so I don't remember how many on it I have read. But I totally agree with you, the list and others like it are only guides to help us choose good books from the vast sea of books. Something good is always left off and it somehow makes me feel happy to know that I have "discovered" a gem that had been ignored or forgotten.

  4. Stefanie, I really do love lists despite my pitiful showing on this one. I am an orderly thinker (if not an orderly liver) and I've always found lists comforting. I make them, and they somehow get discarded. But the act of making the list helps me sort things out. Going through this list helped me accomplish one particular thing. I went to the library this afternoon and pulled a copy of Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow off the shelf. Just to remind myself why I found it so boring. I sat by the window and began to read it. I liked it so much, I checked it out. Why didn't I appreciate it when I was four and twenty? I can't say. But, there you go. Life is forever changing on us.

  5. You just made me ALMOST want to read Ragtime again; I, too, found it tedious the first time around. In general, your conclusion here is the right one. While I applaud this author's sense of how to make money (I really wish I'd thought of that book idea first!), a list is always going to be complete, and its criteria are always going to be suspect. And reading is to some extent a solitary adventure (except that we're lucky enough to share it with you).......

  6. I don't do very well on those must-read lists either. I've read all 88 of Agatha Christie's novels and never once has even one of hers appeared upon them! Grad, dear heart, you should line up 1,500 books and see what they look like. I assure you it is a most satisfying pile and who cares whether any of them feature on a poxy compilation list. :-)

  7. Tinky, the jury is still out on Ragtime. I only read a little in the library, so we'll see if age has altered my perceptions. I did pick up The Plot Against America on audio and listened to it in the car. When I got home I pulled my hard copy off the shelf and continued. It is very good. And...bonus just happens to be on the "poxy list"!

    Litlove, but The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is on the list as well. So at least Boxall got that right. Probably the best ending to a mystery story ever written. And I love the word "poxy."

  8. Well I'm happy to try and read along some of the way with you, dear Grad. I'll see if I can pick up a copy of Ragtime in the library. I read Herzog for a course and enjoyed it. The narrator was holed up in his country house, a bit gone to seed (narrator and house both) and was having woman problems. (I could relate.) I think lists like this are designed to make us feel inadequate. But I like the sound of those 1,500 books you plan to read.

  9. Pete, I really need to dust off Herzog. I think I was just too young and used to 19th century lit to "get" contemporary literature ( was contemporary way back then. But perhaps I should call it late mid-century modern?) I've never tried anything else by Saul Bellow, so maybe it's time. And as for the 1,'s a cinch. All I have to do is keep breathing!

  10. Stefanie's story of the life-expectancy spreadsheet is funny and scary at the same time - what a thing to do! And Pete's 'I could relate' cracked me up. Graddikins, I'm afraid that's one list I'm unlikely to tackle - I think every reader should suit themselves. To me the important thing is just that, that they're readers, and as long as they love books, well, that's good enough for me.

  11. maja- i just love the heck outta ya!! your amazing in every sense of the word!! i miss you, bffl!! love you with all my heart!

    And to her blog friends-thank you for your kind words. Bless you all <3