Monday, June 25, 2007

25 x 25 - and on June 25th, Ironically Enough

...and another two weeks get behind me. Sorry for the long delay between posts, but unlike some other internet personalities I could name, I'm neither independently wealthy nor paid for blogging. I do have an offline life which sometimes gets extremely complicated, and I never ask rhetorical questions merely to set readers up for an opportunity to demonstrate my stunning intellectual superiority. Sometimes I ask open-ended questions because I'm curious and trying to learn.

Having said that, then, and having read everyone else's responses to 25x25 and given this some serious thought, here's my answer. Before we get to the list proper, though, I want to apologize for posing a poorly phrased question in the first place. I should not have used the term properly literate; minimally or marginally literate might have been more accurate. And I think it was Nate who asked if I actually meant literate or educated; I should have clarified that. There are enormous numbers of books that I think an educated person should be familiar with that do not qualify as "literature" -- for example, The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith.

No, for the purposes of this discussion, I'm sticking with the dictionary definition of literature: "writings in prose or verse, esp. writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest." And I want to point out right now that I don't necessary like all the books on this list; when necessary, I've chosen to override my personal tastes and pick the essential and important books that have left footprints far and wide across our cultural landscape. After all, I am the guy who once chose to take a C in a 300-level American Lit course rather than write another damned term paper about that damned white whale.

And with all of *that* out of the way — the envelope, please.

1. Homer, The Iliad. Because this is where all of western literature starts.

2. Homer, The Odyssey, or as Homer's publisher wanted to title it, Iliad 2: The Wrath of Poseidon. This is the original road novel. After I picked this one, I decided that no matter how hard I found it, I would henceforth select just one major work by any given author.

3. Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable. Cliff's Notes on all the rest of that Greco-Roman mythology business. It's kind of a cheat, yeah, but it'll save us a lot of work later.

4. Dante Alighieri, Inferno. Don't bother reading the rest of The Divine Comedy. All the good bits are in the first book.

5. Miguel De Cervantes, Don Quixote. So you understand what "quixotic" means and why tilting at windmills is a bad idea.

6. Voltaire, Candide. Every generation thinks it invented satire and sarcasm. This book handily disproves that notion.

7. William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar. Some of the more ambitious of you have said, "Everything by Shakespeare!" As I look up at the eight-volume Complete Works of Shakespeare sitting on the shelf above my desk, I think, "Have they ever tried to read Troilus and Cressida? Bet not."

Seriously, I would no more demand that anyone read all the plays of Shakespeare than I would demand that they read all the sheet music of Beethoven. By all means, see all the live performances of Shakespeare's plays that you can. But reading the script for one play should be sufficient to provide familiarity with the form, and for this play, I chose — Hamlet? Macbeth? Romeo and Juliet? — ah, heck, friends, Romans, and countrymen, make it Julius Caesar, and beware the Ides of March and all that. Et tu, Babalu?

8. The Unobtainable Anthology of Poetry, Vol. 1. Another cheat, like Bulfinch. If I ever become a book publisher, I'll probably put out something like this: a greatest hits collection of English-language poetry, starting with Chaucer. And I mean real Chaucer; "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote" —

And once I've put paid to the idea that the English language is somehow unchanging and immutable, I'll settle down, and serve up some selections in modern translation from The Canterbury Tales (most likely "The Miller's Tale"), some of Shakespeare's sonnets ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?"), a little sample of Milton (that's about all the Paradise Lost most people can take), and on, and on, and on... I've actually given this idea a good bit of thought but don't have the space to explicate it now.

9. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels. And you must read all of it, not just the voyage to Lilliput.

10. Goethe, Faust. The original "deal with the devil" story, from which all others and two centuries of morbid depression and German sturm und drang flow.

11. Edgar Allen Poe, The Unobtainable Anthology. Another of those imaginary books I'd someday like to publish. There's no need to read all of Poe, but a good selection of Poe's Greatest Hits — "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Gold Bug," "The Masque of The Red Death," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Raven," and a few more, should do. This is where modern horror starts.

12. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After Goethe and Poe, you're allowed to start this book by reading Chapter 17. Then, after you've met Emmeline Grangerford and gotten Poe out of your system, you can go back and start at the beginning. Huck Finn is the definitive American novel, and says more about race relations in the U.S. and the experience of being an American than anything else published ever since.

13. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. Sorry, no. I know it's one of the all-time great masterpieces of English-language literature. I still hate it.

14. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. "Please sir, I want some more."

15. Emile Zola, Germinal. From Dickens' somewhat romanticized view of the underclasses, we segue into ugly socially conscious realism, so it was either Zola or Balzac. Or maybe Frank Norris; most of what he wrote was Imitation Zola.

Pick one. I don't care, except that...

16. Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. ...Zola et al begat The Jungle, which will simultaneously make you understand why the Food & Drug Administration is a good idea (Chinese pet food and toothpaste makers got nothing on Chicago meat packers) and make you look at sausage in a whole different light.

17. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. To wrap up our Depressing Socially Conscious Realism series.

18. George Orwell, Animal Farm. And then, to cure those communistic tendancies you're starting to develop after reading the foregoing four books, we watch as a master satirist sticks a fork in socialism. "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

19. Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book. Chronologically, this one should have gone in earlier, but I didn't want to break up the run from Oliver Twist to Animal Farm. And no watching the Disney cartoon and claiming you read the book, either. That never works.

20. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms. This was a tough pick. I'm inclined to think Hemingway was at his best in short stories, sort of like a musician who makes great hit singles but can never quite pull an album together, but I didn't want to cop out and do another imaginary anthology. So it was either this or the one about the fish, and I feel the same way about the one about the fish as I feel about the other one about the whale.

21. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment. As with Zola, I needed to select something to represent the Russian influence, and it was either this, War and Peace, or Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. But War and Peace is one seriously overweight book, and Lolita, while highly influential, is darned near kiddie porn. So the winner is...

Look, if nothing else, after you read Crime and Punishment, you'll understand why Karashnikov's "Another Christmas of Agony" is so incredibly blasted funny.

22. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. The best explanation ever of what it is like to be truly "up the creek."

23. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds. The ur science fiction story that thousands of writers and filmmakers have spent the last century retelling over and over and over and over...

24. Alduous Huxley, Brave New World. ...and by way of contrast, the science fiction novel that every day we seem to be closer to living.

25. Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Because of Rule Forty-Two. And because, after Huxley, I really needed to end this list on an upbeat note.

Your thoughts?

Original post: 5/13/07
For all the time I spend chattering about literacy, it occurs to me that I've never really offered up a good working definition of the term. Yes, I know what the dictionary says: "the state of being literate. To be educated, cultured, able to read and write; being well-versed in literature." Yeah, that's very nice, but it begs the follow-up question, what literature?

That's this week's Big Question. I'm not asking for much; just one book a year. Which are the 25 books that someone should read by the age of 25 in order to be considered properly literate?

I'll spot you the great book of your faith of choice, be it The Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Quran, The Bhagavad Gītā, Earth in the Balance, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or whatever. Which works of literature should be on this list, and why?