This list of one hundred (so-called) best books is everywhere on the web. I don’t much like the dopey thing because it’s so simple minded. You’re supposed to bold face the ones you’ve read, never mind if you forgot it immediately, or tried to read it but fell asleep, or couldn’t read it as a twenty year old but loved it at forty. Lists like this are just ways of broadcasting biases and pretensions — but they do make for some great arguments, like the one I am having currently with my almost-fifteen year old daughter.
She reads, a lot, widely. Stephen King and James Baldwin, Ann Patchett and Louisa May Alcott. Dante and the unedited Anne Frank. I encourage, always, or I did, until she came home from the library with Ulysses under her arm, announcing that it was the best book of the last century, and she was going to read it.
The first question is, why didn’t I just say good on you! let me know what you think! — inclusive of exclamation marks. Why did I say oh no, not Ulysses.
What a dopey thing to do; she’ll be fifteen next week, and she lives to challenge me. She insisted on knowing why I don’t like this novel that minds greater than mine have decreed to be a masterpiece. So I told her: I dare you to find ten people who have actually read it, all the way through. You can’t, because it’s just plain hard to read, and not worth the effort. To which she said: I am going to read it. To which I said (mea culpa): Don’t do it just to vex me, you’ve got better ways to spend your time. Like emptying the dishwasher.
And why did I get all crazy? Because Ulysses is supposed to be one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century, and that says to me that things were pretty messed up, and still are. To me Ulysses is the ultimate literary sacred cow. With one long egocentric, blathering rant sprinkled with some vivid images, Joyce brought in the era of form-before-story, which the literati still hold dear, and which I will always protest. So I told my daughter this, and she laughed. Of course. Wow mama, said she. Ulysses gets you wound up. To which I said, finally, go ahead and read it, and see if you can figure out whether it really is a masterpiece.
A half hour later she came back and asked me to make up my own list of a hundred best novels (or even just fifteen) that she should read. Which threw me, for a moment, until I thought to ask her to define ‘best’. She’s off contemplating that now. I hope she gets distracted, but I fear she won’t. Then I will present her with this list, and ask her to pick one to start with.
My list of fifteen best books that
- you’d be glad to have with you on a long plane trip
- you should know something about if you happen to run into Noam Chomsky when he has an hour to talk
- are good to read when you need to laugh
- I personally consider true classics
- are still read in high school and college courses, but don’t deserve to be
- I read because I had to as a student, but am glad to have read
- I read because I had to as a student, and have forgotten almost completely, despite the fact that I wrote long papers about them
- everybody says I should read, but can’t make myself pick up
- I tried to like, but couldn’t
- made me think harder than I wanted to
- helped me understand the way men think, and are different from women
- made me see the way monsters live inside all of us
- I re-read, because they give me hope