Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Quick! What Five Books Have Made You Who You Are?

Earlier this month, one of those book lists made the Facebook rounds. It was based off a BBC Big Read list (like this one, in Sporcle form) and said something like "Most people have only read 6 of these top 100 books. How many have you read?"

I think that English majors respond differently to this list than most people. This isn't some light-hearted game. It's a challenge. The gauntlet has been thrown down. This is not just a test of your reading habits. It's a questioning of your identity. Are you, truly, who you claim to be? Prove it.

I read a lot of books. I always have. Even back in high school, when I thought I was going to become a biologist, and thus had no need to maintain my identity through copious reading, I read constantly. I read when I wasn't supposed to--like during geometry. Once, I decided to read a book a day just to prove that I could. I went to the high school library and picked out a stack of books from the young adult section, focusing on books that had empty check-out cards. The neglected. In this way I read Stargirl and a bunch of other stuff that hasn't really helped me much in life, but it was still fun.

In college, I double majored in English and creative writing. That meant I read a lot. I took a full load every semester, and by the second half of sophomore year, I was taking almost entirely English classes. I read classics (Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby (for the fourth and fifth times), The Scarlet Letter (for the third and fourth times), Othello) and lesser known works (White Teeth, Kindred). Some of it stuck with me; some of it didn't, but I read it all. Even the early American works that bored me to tears (oh, Jonathan Edwards, I know why God was angry with you) and the British texts that (sorry my Brit Lit friends!) made my eyes water as I reread the same paragraph for the fourth time in an attempt to maintain focus.

So, I found myself shaking my head as I read Kate Harding's essay on how she bluffed her way to an English degree.  Sure, she only ended up with a 1.56 GPA, but she read less than half of the assigned texts. I found myself responding as a teacher while I read. I have students, right now, who act like reading the ten pages I assigned them is literally going to kill them. Death by words. They're all afflicted. They don't even respect me enough to fake it; they just come in and avoid eye contact for one whole excruciating hour. It is miserable.

But then I read this line: "reading past Page 3 of a book that didn't immediately hold my interest felt like going to the zoo and being forced to watch the naked mole rats for hours, never being permitted to look in on the giraffes." And it took me back, for a moment, to geometry class. I sat in the back, quiet, taking geometry notes with one hand, and reading under the desk with the other. Geometry was my naked mole rat.

And then there's this bittersweet NPR article by Linda Holmes. She examines the fact that there is too much out there for one person to consume. Too many books, too many movies, too much music:
It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you'd have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.
 She goes on to explain that the way most people deal with this potential defeat is to cull the list, tossing out entire segments--rap music, for instance, or soap operas. The alternative, she posits, is to surrender--to recognize that  we do not, cannot, know all there is to know.  She ends with this:
If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that.
 And the BBC list circulating on Facebook and trying to send English majors into identity crises is based on broad-scale culling. If we can create a list of what is "important" and make sure that we have read everything on that list, we get to feel important, too. We get to ignore the people talking about anything else, because they didn't get the memo, and therefore aren't in the club.

Sometimes, I read books that aren't particularly "intellectual." I read Billie Letts' book Where the Heart Is about once a year because I love the characters. I have started Catch-22 three times and haven't finished. Could I skip reading Anne Lamott so that I could fit in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and thus check off another box from the top 100? Sure. I could. I'm not going to.

All that said, I still have a problem with Kate Harding's bluffed degree (and, to be fair, so does she, as she points out in the conclusion of her essay). This isn't because Harding's degree should be held up to some literary litmus test, but because participating in a college class means giving up some of that control over the choices. It means recognizing that we can't read everything, but maybe there's some value in letting someone with a little experience in the matter shape our reading for this classroom. It means understanding that literature has value not just in its isolated consumption, but as a jumping off point for discussion, and that requires some coordination.

I want to end with five books I couldn't imagine having culled or surrendered. Five books that I truly think I had to read to become who I am. They are, in no particular order:
  • Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man
  • William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! 
  • Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas 
  • Aristotle's Rhetoric 
  • Katherine Dunn's Geek Love
Are these the best books in the world? Probably not. In fact, Geek Love and Fear and Loathing, in particular, will probably be scoffed at by some of you as adolescent indulgences. Perhaps they were. But a book is a combination of its content and the experience of reading it in a certain time and place. These five have helped shape me into who I am, and I don't think any of them made the top 100 list.

What about you? What tops your list? What books could you not imagine having not read?


  1. Hmmm...such a difficult task. I have a lot of books I'm glad I've read, but the most disappointing thing is that most of the ones that come to mind are by men. Our education at CMSU was definitely heavy on the canon (i.e. dead white guys). I love them, I do, but I feel like I'm only recently starting to enjoy stuff by more contemporary (YOUNG!) writers. I think I couldn't live without Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller or Adam Zagajewski's book of poems, Canvas.

  2. I do not do nearly as much reading as you, but I do love reading, nonetheless... I would have to say "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, "Existentialism is a Humanism" Jean Paul Sartre, "1984" George Orwell,"Dead Man Walking" Helen Prejean. I can't think of a 5th one. For better or worse, I think movies "made me who I am" more than books did..

  3. Ah, Michelle, this is why I love you. What a wonderful and thoughtful post. And, what a difficult task! My life is books (really). It seems impossible to list just 5 and then as I thought about it, it seemed maybe embarrassing to list the five that first came to mind. First on the list would have to be "Gone With the Wind". I did not have access to books as a kid (no town library and no elementary school library). When I got to Junior High, I took "GWTW" out. I consumed it and, here's the embarrassing part now that I am a librarian - I loved it so much that I wanted it physically. I kept it and never returned it. I told my mom I'd lost it and she paid for it. I still have it, and I've never "stolen" another book again! To show you how old I am - my list would have to include e.e. cummings complete works, because that was one of my first exposures to poetry that I connected with and felt like I really wanted to read. As I had kids and got consumed with that, I loved Lee Smith's "Fair and Tender Ladies" about a woman who struggled with whether or not that was all she wanted in life. Number four would be David Oshinsky's pulitzer prize winner in history "Polio" because it is such a beautifully written piece of history and I love history. Fifth place remains open for that book which is just around the corner waiting for me to be so absorbed, so moved, so taken away from it all that I can't put it down! Thanks for the blog - it's a good one.

  4. Amanda, I definitely have a ton of movies I'd put on this list, too.

    Sarah, I love the idea of leaving a blank space for the book I might pick up tomorrow!

  5. I tried to make my reply a comment, but it ended up being an entire blog post!

  6. This is hard. I want a list of 5 academic books, 5 literary books, 5 fun books. But, if I really have to choose just 5 books that I had to read to become who I am at this instant:
    1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
    2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - Robert Heinlein
    3. Rhetoric Retold - Cheryl Glenn
    4. Midnight's Children - Salmon Rushdie
    5. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven - Sherman Alexie
    Good exercise.

  7. I love this idea! I have favorite books, but it's much harder to pull out the books that have made me who I am (whoever that is):
    1) Paradise Lost - Milton (college mind melt)
    2) All the King's Men - Robert Penn Warren (high school mind melt)
    2) The Dark is Rising series - Susan Cooper (sixth grade mind melt)
    3) Charlotte's Web - E.B. White (my first chapter book!)
    4) the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales (first grade mind melt)
    Oooo, I also have to add My Antonia -Willa Cather, The Thread that Runs so True by Jesse Stuart, and The Dollmaker-Harriette Simpson Arnow though they were, perhaps, less defining than the others.

  8. I'm a late reader to this blog but this post has me sincerely thinking about what books "made me who I am" now. You always had a way of doing that to me Michelle.