8/7/15 — Love Those Reading Lists!
Some of my favorite reading comes from lists. With enticing names like “Best,” “Great,” or even “Chosen,” they promise new discoveries and hours of entertainment. I know not everyone feels this way—Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada criticizes summer reading lists as stress inducers—but to me, reading lists actually remove the stress. Someone else has done the hard work of getting the goodies together, and I get to pick and choose what I want and ignore the rest. (I’ve even offered a few lists of my own in this space.)
One list that’s now at the top of my list of lists is the Guardian and Observer newspapers’ “100 Best Novels.” It’s an outgrowth of the Observer’s “100 Greatest Novels of All Time,” a list compiled in 2003 by then-literary critic of the Observer, Robert McCrum.
The earlier list showcased books in translation as well as books in English—from Don Quixote to Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. The list has been a web sensation from the start, but McCrum had second thoughts. “I have had a sneaking worry that, drawn at random, from many different literatures, our selection was too spontaneous and too wide-ranging. Was there not a case for a more considered compilation? What, for example, would a list of the 100 classic British and American novels look like?”
He answers that question with the Best Novels list that he began unveiling in September 2013. Now in week 98 of the 100-week project, he’s posted his choice of English-language novels in an appealing and provocative format. The appeal is that you can click to get descriptions, reviews, interviews, should you need to further test your appetite for the recommended book. Provocative because why David Copperfield but not Pickwick Papers, why Portnoy’s Complaint but not American Pastoral? I guess because it’s Robert McCrum’s list and not mine.
If I have a quibble here or there, that’s all it is. Without his lists I probably would never have heard of Jerome K. Jerome and Three Men on a Boat. This short book tells the adventures of three young men and a dog on a river excursion around 1889, the year the book was published. It’s a story about nothing, with occasional descriptions of the English countryside thrown in. Jerome is a hoot, though he wasn’t aiming for humor. He set out to write something of a travelogue about the Thames and its scenery, but he kept stumbling into what he called “humorous relief.” Going from hilarious tangent to hilarious tangent, the author takes us on a nineteenth-century version of a Seinfeld episode.
One of my wife’s go-to lists that she often shares is Designers and Books, selections of books by designers, all kinds of designers—architecture, fashion, graphic design, interactive design, interior design, landscape architecture, product and industrial design, and urban design. The rationale for the list, according to the website, is that “there has always been a particularly special and robust relationship between designers and books: reading them, writing them, designing them, collecting them, learning from them, and being inspired by them.” I don’t know if that’s true, but the designers’ selections will lead you to books that you may never otherwise have seen.
A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous [Marta Hillers], for example, is a recounting of her life during the two months in 1945 when the Russian army occupied Berlin. In beautiful, heartfelt measured prose, the author relates the impending Russian siege of Berlin, the fears of the women and old men at home, and the brutalities inflicted once they arrive. Hillers began the book as a diary, not with publication in mind, but was persuaded to publish it after the war. It first appeared anonymously in English in 1954 and five years later a Swiss publisher issued it in German. (The author’s name was revealed only after her death in 2001.) The book was controversial when it appeared, and it remains so. So soon after World War II, you wouldn’t find English readers shedding a tear over the degradations Germans suffered at the hands of the Russians, not after the abominations they inflicted, and German women had no wish to publicize the humiliating choices they had to make to survive. But now, with time, we can see that Hillers’ descriptions tell us something about war, something we can learn from.
Designers and Books, coming from 177 people at last counting, has a greater variety of recommendations than 100 Best Novels. There is fiction and nonfiction, books on design and books on philosophy, and with nearly 2,000 books on the list, you’ll surely find something to pique your interest.
Perhaps a good place to start is with some of the books that made both lists. Don Quixote, Austerlitz, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Emma—anyone?