Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Read and Unread and... Again

Found this clipping in a book.  Don't remember now what book that was, and I don't know that it much matters.  What interests me most isn't the list itself. "20 Great Books -- Read and Unread," might be the headline on any such in the last one hundred years.  This is simply something we do, make such lists and then unmake them so as to make new ones.  There is some small interest in seeing which books survive from list to list and across the generations.  Some books, like Tolstoy's War and Peace and Milton's Paradise Lost would seem to be so firmly established as to be unshakable.  With Shakespeare, the usual cheat is to treat the plays collectively as a single book.  Here though, the reader will note that the five unnamed English professors from the unnamed Boston school, went with just Hamlet.  I would bet on King Lear if the same list was made today.  I do wonder if Hemingway, Marx and Yeats would still make the professors' cut nowadays, and I certainly don't remember the last time I encountered Saul Bellow's Herzog in this line-up, or Camus, though he would seem to be having something of a surge of renewed interest of late.

The real curiosity in this clipping, for me at least, comes from what the clever unnamed chappy from the (then) Boston Herald American did with the list he'd got from the five wise men, namely, asking Senator Ted Kennedy, then Governor of Massachusetts and future Democratic Presidential Nominee, Michael Dukakis, the president of Filene's Department Store, etc., how many books on the list each gentleman had read.  As you can see, "Kennedy claimed to have read all 20," -- The Herald American even then, it seems was a Republican newspaper -- while Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, rather impressively, even for "a graduate of the University of Souther California" said he'd read 13 of the 20.  Imagine.

More, and here we get to my real interest in the piece, imagine a similar sampling today of similarly situated citizens.  Even with five new Boston professors and a revised list, I'd be pretty confident in the numbers of the serving Governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick and of United States Senator Elizabeth Warren.  I know even less about the current Red Sox pitching roster than I now do of ol' Bill (13 out of 20) Lee, but a little research tells me that one Craig Breslow of the Red Sox graduated from no less an institution than Yale University, which, (ahem) while it may not say much to his skill as a ball player, suggests at least as impressive a reading-list as any at UCLA, back in the day.  There is of course no more Filene's, and I can't be bothered just now to figure out who happens to be the serving Mayor of the City of Boston.

Even without further research, Massachusetts or Boston at least I feel may still be counted on.

But what of the rest of us?  How many of the books on this list would you guess have been read by the current Speaker of the House, John Boehner, that proud son of Cincinnati's Xavier University?  Nearer to home, how about our own Senator, the honorable Patty Murray?  If that seems rather a cheap shot, how many of these "20 Great Books" do we imagine read and unread by Princeton University summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos?  How about the Microsoft Medici, Bill Gates?  Paul Allen?  How about our own Governor Jay Inslee, late of the UW and the Willamette University College of Law?  Seriously, I'm just asking.

When was this list made anyway, you may well ask?  Turning the clipping over, this becomes surprisingly easy to figure out.  Besides the painful regret of never having seen Vincent Price play Oscar Wilde, I note that the Marty Feldman comedy, The Last Remake of Beau Geste was then in it's third week at the Regency in what I immediately recognized from the various addresses shown to have been San Francisco, CA.  I learn from IMDb that by the purest and most pleasant coincidence the Feldman comedy opened in the US on my birthday, July 15th, in the year 1977.  (I was then 14, and I remember going to see this movie which, despite the Vincent Canby rave quoted, I can assure you was not "the funniest.")  That puts this bit of Associated Press column-filler out about the second week of August, 1977.

I ask myself then, how many of these "20 Great Books" had I read by my 14th birthday?  I count three, which is not terrible, I should think, for being just 14.  The next logical and most obvious question would be how many have I read by this, my 51st.  Some of my friend's may be shocked to learn that I enter the rankings right with the Red Sox pitcher at 13 out 20.  I might qualify that statement a little by adding that I have read at least some part of all the remaining seven, but nonetheless I have never been able to finish for instance more than a page or two of James Joyce's Ulysses, and have at this late date no intention of ever trying again.  Of the other six unread by this standard, I likewise feel safe in saying that at fifty-one, I will probably never read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, The Communist ManifestoMoby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov (that's the one that still seems to shock people most, I understand,) or Thoreau's Walden (and that's the other one.)  Milton, I suspect I will keep periodically trying to master, and presumably keep failing.

Of the ones I have read straight through, the only one I should think might surprise would be The Bible, but yes, I did do that, straight through, back in the day.  Revised Standard and yes, also King James. Big up to Bible Camp and the weird obsessions of youth.

Thinking about this whole business of "20 Great Books," now and then, and my own reading life to date, I'm reminded of how much easier it was in a way to accept such a list -- as homework, as it were -- at 14 than it is after 50.  I actually subscribe to the idea that such lists are both useful and necessary.  If  the reader in 2014 may question some choices made by those anonymous Boston brahmins circa 1977 -- why Bellow, the one (then) living writer on such a short list?  -- Hemingway rather than Fitzgerald -- Walden Pond somehow the obvious, American answer to Plato's Republic?  -- I would probably be at least as skeptical of any new list of 20 books from any five professors of English today, assuming five English professors today could be made to agree on such a list, or even agree what constitutes a book, let alone a great one.

Also assuming an actual newspaper.  More likely, this would be a "flavorwise" quiz on facebook.

Finally, as I finish with this triflin' and think about getting back to the books I'm actually reading on my birthday, I do wonder just how many of the books I love, on the list and off, how many of the books that have proven to be really important in my life, how many of those will I have the chance to read again?  How many will I have read for the third or the fourth time, should I be so lucky as to live so long?  That I think is more to the point at 51 than it it was, certainly at 14, but no less so at 24, or even 34, or maybe even at forty-four.  Really, it's only been in the last decade or so that I have allowed for the possibility that I may never read all the Great Books.  There is something about seeing my father's face now in the mirror each morning that reminds me how quickly we all come to the same place, as well as the same face.  Who has time to worry about the authors to whom one never cottoned after more than fifty birthdays?  Why not read Great Expectations again, instead?  Why not Persuasion?  Portrait of a Lady?  The Last Essays of Elia?  Boswell's Life of Johnson? Macaulay's history? Orley Farm?  Barbara Pym, Vanity Fair, Ivy Compton Burnett, Chekhov's long stories...?

Although, I really should give Paradise Lost another try.  Really, I should.


  1. What about South American, Asian, French and German literature?
    By the way Happy birthday and all the best to you.
    You are brilliant and thank you so much sharing your fascinating thoughts.

  2. Point well made. And thank you for the birthday wishes.