My dear reader,
Forewarning: Today literature is much on the mind. Before you click and split this rather sprawling blog post, take heed that I do not dwell on the didactic. However, if you can tolerate only a 300-word post with lots of colorful pics, you may want to click out now. To all my academic friends: I merely jest.
I recently read a tidbit in The Week about a study by Dr. Emanuele Castano (New School for Social Research) that noted “literary fiction takes readers into other lives and forces them to ‘reconstruct the mind of the character’—an ability that carries over into real social situations.” The upshot? Reading literary works makes you a kinder, more empathetic person.
I would like to think my study of literature shaped me in this manner. On a baser level, it occasionally makes me a pseudo-wicked conversationalist at a cocktail party—after I have imbibed a woo-hoo martini by Mr. Steve (a dear friend and financial genius who happens to be the best bartender and party host on the planet). Always four olives. Thank you, my dear man.
I did not ponder Dr. Castano’s study. Rather, my mind hopped to some great books I skipped out on in grad school. My makeup homework was long overdue. I went on a reading list mission.
Of course, I did not go to a library. My gas tank was almost empty. So this comp lit dropout did a fancy dance on the Internet and turned up this site: The Greatest Books. It caught my eye—not so much for academic authority but rather for its contorted raison d’être:
“This list is generated from 43 ‘best of’ book lists from a variety of great sources. An algorithm is used to create a master list based on how many lists a particular book appears on. Some lists count more than others. I generally trust ‘best of all time’ lists voted by authors and experts over user-generated lists. On the lists that are actually ranked, the book that is 1st counts a lot more than the book that’s 100th.”
On the one hand, this list would seem crazy to many scholarly souls who object to the literary dominance of dead white Euro men (DWEM). (Do not confuse this acronym with WMD of Bush 43 fame.)
On the other hand, I suspected Bill O’Reilly’s thrill: I was confident he follows the colorful writer/classicist Bernard Knox, who defended the relevance of DWEM in his celebrated The Oldest Dead White European Males in 1991. Mr. O’Reilly may want to “kill” someone from the other school of thought in his next book—if he hasn’t already murdered him or her in an essay or in a dizzying death-spin.
Since I was lazy and post-deadline crunched, I scampered through this website’s top 100. Here is what I highlighted in short order.
DWEM Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote) ranks #1.
DWEM James Joyce (Ulysses) ranks #2. Busted! I crawled through an acceptable amount of Proust and Faulkner but somehow avoided this demanding fellow.
DWEM rank until dead white Euro woman (DWEW) George Eliot (Middlemarch) crashes their party at #12. Is that because her name is George? There are 10 more DWEW sprinkled hither and thither after George.
Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright lead three more authors of color.
Gabriel García Márquez, Chinua Achebe, and Murasaki Shikibu (a noblewoman in 11th century Japan) appear in a rather shrunken category representing authors from far-flung lands (world literature).
The list exhausted me at that point. I resolved my makeup-homework challenge simply: While I drive through the brilliant but highly complex Ulysses at 0.5 mph, I will scan three volumes of The Norton Anthology of World Literature borrowed from a Barnes & Noble shelf. Then I will build a long-term assignment by jotting down the table of contents. The stingy publishers will not feature this info on Amazon’s “LOOK INSIDE! this book.”
My list? Fair and balanced? Would Mr. O’Reilly kill me? Frankly, I had bigger worries.
BBC to the rescue! Frank Delaney—international best-selling author, BBC host, and Booker Prize judge—coaches the unwashed through a daily five-minute podcast of Ulysses. If I get plucky, I may pull ahead of the ever patient Mr. Delaney. Heck, I can download possibly the longest e-book in the world courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Free!
My ambitious voyage of discovery may take as long as that of Homer’s legendary character Odysseus (Ulysses to the Romans, those great plagiarizers of Greek art). He wandered around for 20 years. His dear wife probably waited it out because there were no community property laws around 800 B.C.
Wow. Two decades to read a novel that takes place in one day? Now that requires an effort of epic proportions.
Trivia: Homer ranks as the most ancient DWEM on the questionable reading list cited earlier. What’s more, he could not see as well as James Joyce, who had plenty of eye problems. I celebrate Homer because he completed his literary quest without Braille, paper, a typewriter, a telephone, and the support of a faithful bookstore.
If I am not dementia-challenged when I attend a cocktail party at an advanced age–after finally completing this makeup homework–I can cleverly declare, “Ulysses may be the greatest work of art of the 20th century” and thus qualify as most informed guest. Perhaps it will be wise to hold back a bit so the other guests won’t trample their hosts while trying to escape. Of course, this will transpire only after Mr. Steve has concocted my generously gin-loaded martini. Four olives, please.
Seriously, reading is a beautiful thing. If you want to grab your own top 100 list, peruse the Gutenberg catalog, which goes global with books in 66 languages. Mr. O’Reilly cannot possibly kill it, even though he managed to kill Lincoln, Kennedy, and Jesus.
Cocktail martini courtesy of Ken Johnson
Homer courtesy of JastroMuseo/Pio Clementino, Muses Hall