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100 Books: I (Smugly) Weigh in on a List of “Must Reads,” and Then, As Usual, Pass Judgment On People In General

100 Books: I (Smugly) Weigh in on a List of “Must Reads,” and Then, As Usual, Pass Judgment On People In General

People love lists. I am no different. Whenever I see a list of something, I’m like, “Well, we’ll see about THAT.” Did you know that if you put a number in your title–like “Top 9 Political Decisions Made Recently by John McCain That Suggest Dementia,” or “15 Reasons Why Deciding to Homeschool Your Kids is a Bad Idea for Both You and Them,”–you are likely to attract more readers, more responses, more hits on Digg and StumbleUpon? I don’t know where I get these stats, but it’s totally true and you can bet the farm on it. Definitely.
Anyway, below is a list of “must read” books from the National Endowment of the Arts that has passed through several hands before it got to me. I saw it on Mary Anna’s page, and thought I’d weigh in on the contents. It is my understanding that the list is a part of some kind of community initiative to encourage reading, but I mean, really, who cares? Are you going to go on a reading binge after this? Me either! The average American adult has only read 6 of these books, so clearly this list, like every other list of its kind, means nothing. In my mind, these lists are merely opportunities: 1) to show off how many books you have read to people who don’t care; 2) to feel less-than if you haven’t read enough of them; 3) to drive book sales; and 4) for me to make cheap jokes primarily at the expense of Sarah Palin.
The instructions for passing this list around the internet like a viral disease are as follows:

  1. Look at the list and bold those you have read.
  2. Italicize those you intend to read.
  3. Underline the books you love.
  4. I am going to add to these instructions to the following:

  5. put in ALL CAPS the one that are also on the hypothetical list of books that Sarah Palin did not ask to have banned, but merely inquired about the theory of banning in general, a subtle and unimportant distinction.
  6. Strike through books that should not be on the list. This might be due to the fact that you hate them, or think they are not “literary,” or just because you are being capricious today.
  7. Color green those books that are propaganda or glorified trash. Feel justified in making these kinds of distinctions based on your status as both an ivory tower intellectual and a card carrying member of the media elite. Accuse naysayers of living in a “fly over” state. Drink organic coffee sweetened with agave nectar or stevia.
  8. Color red those books you haven’t read but “should” have, or which you have never heard of. Offer self-effacing, anti-intellectual explanations where necessary. Talk about how much you like popular culture as diversion tactic, and to make people think that you are “quirky.” Wear glasses with dark rims.
  9. Add books that should be on the list to the end. Take comfort in the fact that no list of this kind could ever be complete, and will always alienate someone. It is the problem with establishing canonicity. Pat self on back for using word “canonicity” outside of academic paper. Also, punch self in face for being tool.

Listen, it’s my website and I make the rules. So I don’t want to hear any bitching. So without any further ado, the list:

  1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  2. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien: Sure if you want to be a freak, then fine, read this book. Several times. And while you’re at it, why don’t you invent a bunch of role-playing games and just plan on camping out in your basement in front of the computer for all of your formative years. Social sacrifice for a geek lifestyle does not make it great literature.
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. THE HARRY POTTER SERIES by JK Rowling BTW that’s 7 books right there so bonus–you’re above average if you’ve read these!
  5. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
  6. The Bible. You don’t get to count this if you had it read to you, or perhaps acted out to you in a live-action musical format. That’s just my rule, though.
  7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
  9. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman–umm who?
  10. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  11. Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. Crap. Crappity crap.
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I thought this was the most depressing book ever written UNTIL I read Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. And then I stood corrected.
  13. CATCH 22 Joseph Heller
  14. COMPLETE WORKS OF SHAKESPEARE I’m bolding this even though I doubt I’ve read the complete works. I have taught Shakespeare at the University level, and still haven’t read Merry Wives of Windsor. Sue me.
  15. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. WTF? One entry wasn’t enough for this? Harry Potter gets 7 books on one entry, and this gets two separate entries? There is a definite aged dork bias here.
  17. 17 Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
  18. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by JD Salinger.
  19. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger Huh?
  20. Middlemarch by George Eliot. Yeah, I read it. Really long, really fucking boring book, BTW.
  21. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell Huh? Huh? Huh?
  22. The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I liked this book. I did not love it. It had the usual Dickensian problem with too damn much writing, but that is part and parcel with getting paid by the word. And who am I to criticize him, anyway. But I’m not going to underline it.
  24. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy byDouglas Adams
  26. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  28. GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck. Yeah, had to read it in high school. Shortly therafter I swore off Steinbeck for good. I am leaving it on this list because there’s a good chance we’ll need to read it as a kind of life manual in the coming years [knock on wood]
  29. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
  30. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
  31. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  32. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.
  33. Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis.
  34. Emma by Jane Austen.
  35. PersuasionJane Austen
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis. I am beginning to think this list maker is retarded. Is this not part of the Chronicles of Narnia Series? This is the one where Christ gets crucified the lion gets killed, no? Oops, sorry to ruin it for you. But he rises from the dead and can walk on water and shit, so don’t worry.
  37. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
  40. Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
  41. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  42. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT WHAT?! WHAT THE HELL?!
  43. ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  45. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. I’m OK with not reading any more Hardy. I feel like my Cymbalta can only do so much for me, and why risk it?
  48. THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood.
  49. LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding.
  50. Atonement by Ian McEwan. Yeah. I hated this book. I couldn’t even get through the movie.
  51. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  52. Dune by Frank Herbert. Huh? Admittedly, I am biased against science fiction, but I don’t get this one at all.
  53. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
  54. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
  55. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  56. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  58. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. OF MICE AND MEN by John Steinbeck
  62. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  63. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  64. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. Seriously? It’s written by a dead girl about her killing. I mean, really, MUST we read this?
  65. Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  66. On The Road by Jack Kerouac. You know who likes this book? Adolescent boys that are intrigued by rebellion, but too chickenshit to actually rebel. That’s who.
  67. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. Ugg. Worst scene of children suffering ever.
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. I really liked this when it came out, but I don’t get why it would be on any kind of list of must reads. For one thing, she “nicked” (I like to use Britishisms when I think about Bridget Jones) the plot from Jane Austen, and for another, it’s written in the form of journal entries. Not unlike a blog. Wait.
  69. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  70. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Have I ever told you about how I have three degrees in English and never read a word of Melville? I’m very proud of it.
  71. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
  72. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  73. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson
  75. Ulysses by James Joyce. Ugh. This book is supposed to be a classic, and it is supposed to be funny. I think you either have to be smarter than I am or dumber than I am to get it, or maybe it’s an Irish thing? I don’t know, but count me out on Joyce.
  76. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. No explanation necessary.
  77. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal by Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  80. Possession by AS Byatt
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  82. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  83. THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Eh.
  86. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web by EB White. This one might not count, since I think it was read to me, rather than me actually reading it. Loophole.
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection by Enid Blyton. Seriously? Is this the chick who writes those cards and message notes that have pictures of rhinos or elephants on them, and says, “Please send chocolate?”
  91. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
  92. The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  93. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
  94. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I had high hopes for this book, due to its excellent title. I was disappointed. I feel like somebody has to steal that title and make a blog that is truly excellent. It’s such a waste.
  96. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
  98. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
  101. .
    Books I would add:

  102. The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie.
  103. White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
  104. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.
  105. Geek Love by Kathryn Dunn.
  106. Blindness by Jose Saramago.
  107. The Corrections by Jonathan Frantzen.
  108. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  109. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.
  110. Fury by Salman Rushdie.
  111. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
  112. The Monk by Mathew Lewis.

Looking over this list, there are really a lot more gaps than I had anticipated. I really don’t have the “shoulds” about reading as much as I used to. I used to carry around a list of books I needed to read, like I was trying to catch up in a game of cultural literacy or something. What does your list look like?

Comments (32)

  1. Sep 29, 2008

    Oh dear – only 24 from that whole list. I need to read more.
    I started Lovely Bones but it was horribly depressing as I’m the mother of 2 daughters, and I could not finish it.
    The Time Travler’s Wife is AMAZING!! Seriously, one of my favorites of all time.
    Bridget Jones should NOT be on that list. She is one of the most annoying/obnoxious characters ever. For some reason I read the 2nd one and wanted to throw it out the window, I’ve never yelled at a book before reading that atrocity.

  2. Sep 29, 2008

    I have 48 with 3 degrees in English. So who should really feel bad here? The public and private educational system of California, that’s who.

  3. QB
    Sep 29, 2008

    Five People You Meet in Heaven? Really?

    I have read 45, not double-counting Chronicles of Narnia/The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. And some of those should not be on there. Did the NEA really put this list out? I am skeptical. Not to be a party-pooper or anything.

    Not that it should be on this list, but Bill Bryson is pretty funny. If you have any familiarity with England, Notes From a Small Island is hysterical.

  4. Sep 29, 2008

    Yeah, I have no idea who put the list out. I pride myself on having zero standards of journalistic integrity.

  5. AKD
    Sep 29, 2008

    I got totally lost at the classification system and am too lazy (and at work) to go back and try to figure it out. The list seems totally random, though. “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”? Wasn’t that made into a movie with Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz?
    Oh, and you haven’t read “A Prayer for Owen Meany”? You should totally read that. Great book. Our cat Owen is named for that book.

  6. Sep 29, 2008

    I hate lists that make me feel stupid. But then I saw some of the titles on there, including ones that I read and hated, and I thought maybe the list writer was the stupid one.

    Whatever, your #8 instruction totally cracked me up!!

  7. weezy
    Sep 29, 2008

    36 for me, most of the crap ones. What happened to #15? Was it so bad it had to be excised from the list?

  8. Sep 29, 2008

    QB, The NEA does have some program called the “Big Read” with lists for different age groups that feature some of these books. But this list looks strikingly similar to a list put out by the BBC. You can see it here.

    Looks like the BBC’s “Big Read” and the NEA’s “Big Read” must have been combined/confused somewhere along the interwebs.

  9. Sep 29, 2008

    I’ve read 38. I am totally shocked. I’d add a few myself.
    Also, anything that has jokes at the expense of Palin makes my heart warm. And, I’m totally making lists now. You’ve lured me to the dark side.

  10. Sep 29, 2008

    How the holy fuck could people have only read 6 of those? Jesus Christ, that’s appalling. I had read six of those by the time I was in first grade. Oy.

  11. Sep 29, 2008

    I had read 75 of the original list (and definitely disagree with you on a few points – but that’s the beauty of lists, right?) – and only 2 on your additions. (BA in English Lit, love Tolkien, CS Lewis, & hate Charles Dickens)


  12. Sep 29, 2008

    Little Women is not crappity crap crap. My thirteen year old self is VERY upset with you for suggesting such a thing! My copy is so worn I’m considering buying a new one, free of tearstains and chocately fingerprints left from that very same thirteen year old self!!

  13. Sep 29, 2008

    Yeah, that list-maker was obviously knocking back a few when s/he formulated that thing. Not only are there clear biases with Tolkien vs. Rowling and issues with the “Narnia” series, but what’s up with including the collected works of William Shakespeare, and then randomly adding “Hamlet” alone toward the end of the list?!? I mean, I know “Hamlet” is the Shakespearean DUDE par excellence, but sheesh.

    Anyway, I am somewhat gasping for breath at the fact that you “eh”ed “Madame Bovary,” but I’ll overlook it since you very rightfully included A.S. Byatt’s “Persuasion” with no criticism. That book is my hero. If books can be heroes. And I think they can.

    Umm… was “The Diary of Anne Frank” on there? I don’t think it was. And I think it should be. I also think a Henry James (“Portrait of a Lady” maybe?) and maybe Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead” or “Atlas Shrugged.” And, hell, if Bridget Jones can freakin’ be on that list, then why not some David Sedaris or someone who actually has originality and talent?!

    So I guess this is just novels and not poetry, huh? OK, so I’ll shut up from here on out.

    Huck Finn?
    The Odyssey?

    OK, I’m stopping. I swear.

  14. Sep 29, 2008

    You made this list way more fun! I need to go back and look at it again with your new rules in mind.

    BTW: I agree with you on almost all of your comments. Scary!

  15. Sep 29, 2008

    Oops – I left off the end. I meant to say Scary! (And I only went to college for my MRS!)

  16. QB
    Sep 29, 2008

    Thanks for the BBC list. I found the NEA’s Big Read list, but there didn’t seem to be too much overlap. BBC list seems like it was voted on by popularity, which explains a lot of the choices, like the His Dark Materials trilogy (loathed these, btw. I am convinced that people only like them because they are very anti-religion, because I don’t think they’re good books at all. Even my anti-religious husband didn’t care for them.) and so much Tolkien and Harry Potter (even though I really do like the Harry Potter series).

  17. Sep 29, 2008

    @PauvrePlume Yeah, well, you’re a French Lit person, no? I think Mme Bovary is one of those books you love or you hate. I acknowledge it’s a quality book from a lit standpoint, but I just didn’t like it much.

    @NGS, please tell your thirteen-year-old-self I’m very sorry. Still, I think it’s totally crap, though.

  18. Sep 29, 2008

    Yeah, I’m a French lit person, but that doesn’t mean I love all French lit. For example, Alexandre Dumas (père AND fils) basically put me into a coma on page 1. Which is a total head-scratcher for me because “fils” was such a freakin’ whore and lived such a cool life… Oh well.

    Madame Bovary ruled. Let’s just say that the English version probably sucks.

  19. Sep 29, 2008

    Yes, as I was reading it I was thinking, “This is probably way better in French.” Same with “Swan’s Way.”

  20. Sep 29, 2008

    Hah! I read #92 last year on my birthday! The Little Prince. But I’m reading the Twilight series now. I think I may be the only person who feels this series isn’t all it promised to be. I think Edward owes me.

  21. Sep 29, 2008

    I just started Book 3 of the Twilight Series. Let’s just say that I’m not surprised they’re not on this list.

  22. Sep 29, 2008

    Holy crap, I can’t believe I didn’t realize you had added “Middlesex” to your list! That book is AMAZING…

  23. I loved Middlesex. As I was reading it my husband was really hoping it was about something else. Sadly, for him, no. Thanks for the suggestions on your separate list. I’m going to check them out.

    I will reserve my chastising of the Palin. I’m terrified that she will, indeed become the VP and then will not only burn books, but anyone who jeers at her. Wasn’t she recently exorcised or blessed against witch craft. Either way, I wouldn’t be surprised if she showed up at my house, peed on my carpet and threw up split pea soup.

  24. KerrySS
    Sep 30, 2008

    Based on the fact that I agree with most all of your opinions on books, I think you would like “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” REALLY good book.

    I disagree with you about The Corrections…but then, I live in one of those flyover states he is making fun of throughout the entire book.

  25. AKD
    Sep 30, 2008

    Okay, I added it up and I’ve read 40 of the original list. (Now I feel “less than.”) But, I’ve read 7 out of 11 of your extra books. 63.6%!

    I would add “Harriet the Spy,” if they are going to have random kids’ books on the list. And I realize they are sort of obscure, but what about the Moomintroll series?

  26. Sep 30, 2008

    @KerrySS I will try that–my mother read this post and said the same thing! LOL

    @AKD, I don’t know this Moomintroll series. I need to investigate.

  27. Sep 30, 2008

    I love your take on this list. Particularly #36. Laughed out loud. But – how can you hate Little Women?

    I loved Time Travelers Wife, Atonement and Lovely Bones, but could not get through The Corrections. Agree re: Gone With The Wind and Bridget Jones Diary. I loved B.J.D., but it probably doesn’t belong on a list like this.

  28. Oct 1, 2008

    I have read a big chunk of the list, but was interested to realize that my eight year old daughter has read 15 of them (I’m counting all seven Harry Potters). I’m planning to give her my copy of Little Women for Christmas. I’m curious- did you find it to be crappity crap as a child or adult reader?

  29. Oct 1, 2008

    Yeah, I read it in college. I think if I had read it earlier, I probably would have liked it better.

  30. Oct 1, 2008

    “Yes, as I was reading it I was thinking, “This is probably way better in French.” Same with “Swan’s Way.””

    So is The Stranger.

  31. Oct 1, 2008

    Oh my gosh, yes: “The Stranger” is such a different (more enriching) experience in French than in English. I’ve taught it to 200-level French students and those who had already read it in English always appreciate the strength and nuances of the French text.

    OK, done with the Frenchness, promise.

  32. tj
    Feb 1, 2009

    33, but no Moby Dick? No White Jacket, no Billy Budd? I have White Teeth and the Bell Jar.

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