Thursday, August 17, 2017

What I Learned From the 100 Best Novels - Picking Favorites

If you've been hanging around this week, you know I have been reflecting on my time spent reading Modern Library's 100 Best Novels list. It took me four and a half years to finish this monstrous challenge, so it's not surprising I have a lot to say about it. Check out my posts from earlier this week regarding what makes a classic and diversity in literature

On this last day of retrospection, I want to hit on the two questions I got asked most often when I told people about this challenge: What has been your favorite book? and What has been your least favorite book?

My reflections the last two days were broader in scope, but today I want to get granular. I've spent time talking about big picture stuff and recognizing why books matter even if they aren't to my personal taste. Today, however, is my 30th birthday and, thus, I find it perfectly acceptable 

Picking Favorites

Let's start with my least favorites. I want to get them out of the way. Ugh. I'd be perfectly happy never thinking of these books again. 

My Least Favorites

  • Ulysses (James Joyce) - Look, Modern Library put this one at #1. I totally get why. The thing is a work of literary art when you consider all its layers, symbolism, and intricacies. It is, however, nearly incomprehensible to even a seasoned reader such as myself. I know now I should have read it alongside some sort of guide. But I didn't. And I don't believe you should have to have a guide to enjoy a book. Guides can enhance, but shouldn't be required. I'm including it here because it was just such a disappointment. 
  • Everything Joseph Conrad wrote. I can't believe he had four books on this list. Ugh. He's just not for me. Sorry not sorry. 
  • Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller) - Just because a book makes a cultural impact doesn't mean it should be considered amazing. I know this book made a splash because of its lascivious content, but I did not think the writing was good enough to justify the content. Sexual content purely for shock value is not something I'm interested in. 
  • Portnoy's Complaint (Philip Roth) - Same song, second verse. I get that this book exemplifies the sexual revolution, but I found it gratuitous and vulgar while also lacking in depth and development. 
  • From Here to Eternity (James Jones) - I'm just not really interested in reading about WWII soldiers bar hopping and saving money to visit the island brothel. 
  • The Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger) - I know, I know. This is controversial. But I found the protagonist of this book uniquely insufferable. 
  • A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) - Newsflash: I think it takes more skill to depict character depravity and desperation without graphic sex and violence. It's the violence that gets me with this one. Way beyond my comfort zone. 

Ok, those are over with. Let's both on to the ones I really enjoyed. I know this is a long-ish list, but that's why you're here, right? You want to take advantage of my acquired knowledge and skip to the good stuff. Well, here it is:

My Favorites 

  • The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night (F. Scott Fitzgerald) -  In my mind, the fight for Great American Novel comes down to Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (shockingly not on the list - I'll never get over that). Fitzgerald was a masterful writer. Tender is the Night gets overshadowed by Gatsby, but I thought it was just as good. 
  • An American Tragedy and Sister Carrie (Theodore Dreiser) - Dreiser is the master of both developing and unraveling his characters. If you told me he wrote Breaking Bad, I wouldn't even be surprised. He is a master of the journey. 
  • Native Son (Richard Wright) - I had no real clue what this book was about before starting it. It not only kept me in total suspense, but it really made me think, too. This is exactly the type of book I expected and desired from the list. 
  • The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton) - I found Wharton's writing to be so beautiful and restrained. Plus, I'm a sucker for the Gilded Era. 
  • Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather) - Speaking of beautiful and restrained... 
  • Main Street (Sinclair Lewis) - If you've ever lived in a small town, this book will speak to you.
  • A High Wind in Jamaica (Richard Hughes) - It's a book about kids and pirates and confusion. It's rich in character and symbolism while retaining an engaging plot.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys) - Lovely and heartbreaking. I really liked the connection with Jean Eyre
  • Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner) - I was entranced by this book. I've recommended it quite a bit as well. It portrays life on the western frontier with skilled reverence. 
  • Ragtime (E. L. Doctorow) - I can't fully quantify why I liked this one. I just did. It was just unique.
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (Booth Tarkington) - This one isn't for everyone, but it hit all my buttons. 
While it was not a favorite, I do feel as though I also need to recognize Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov). Look, the story is gross. There is no getting around that. It's so uncomfortable to read about a man grooming and abusing his step-daughter. Only Nabokov could have written it so you almost feel for the predatory creep. Azar Nafisi really helped me understand just how well written this is. I'll never read it again, but I'm quite glad I have.

Finally, more for my own posterity than anything, here are the books from the list I would like to take another go at some time. I think all of these would benefit from a slower, thoughtful, second reading. 

Other Books I Want To Read Again

So there you have it. Four and a half years of reading in a nutshell. I hope these reflections have been enjoyable for you. If you've read any of these books, I would love to chat with you about them and your thoughts. As I mentioned earlier in the week, it is so hard to quantify and qualify literature without bringing major personal bias to the table. I fully recognize that these are the books I liked. You can always read through the list and make your own determinations. In fact, I encourage it!

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