Friday, May 7, 2010

O The Books I Haven't Read!

Hi guys! Wassup? We all know what I haven't been doing, so we won't even go there, sister, but one thing I can tell you that I *have* been doing a lot lately--due to a springtime hibernation mode--is reading. I was reading so much, in fact, that I decided to get hip with the Internet thing and sign up over at Goodreads. Just so I could start tracking stuff, and just be all anal about everything. You know, the way geeks do. And I gave you that link there so you can be friends with me there. Go ahead! Be not shy! I shall accept your friendship, and we shall talk about books, and all shall be good.

So, as I was adding books to my collection, and looking through others, and, while simultaneously looking at books that my kid is reading in school this year, I realized something quite shocking: There are a whole bunch of classics I've never read. Okay, maybe it's not shocking at all. I suppose it's true for a great many of us. Still, I like, in general, to think of myself as "well read," given that I've been steadily reading since, well, I learned how to read. And ya know, I was an English major at UC Berkeley. That was four (okay five) years of reading right there. But once I started making a list of those classics that we've supposedly all read, I realized how many I missed. This is just off the top of my head (there are many more):

Jeff Green's Pile of Shame
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (now read)
The Catcher in the Rye (reading now)
Moby Dick
The Grapes of Wrath
War And Peace
East of Eden
A Tale of Two Cities
Les Miserables
Most of Hemingway
...and this is not to mention all sorts of old Greek stuff, etc (though I did read the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid.)

Really, this list could go on and on. I think what I've been most bummed about is the American classics I've missed, especially Huckleberry Finn, which is what started this whole "I can't believe I haven't read that" thing in the first place. I've spent a whole lot of time reading humorists and other funny/satirical writers (Flann O'Brien, Bill Bryson, Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, etc etc, but to have missed out on this book, and on Mark Twain in general, feels like such a gigantic fail. And now that I've read Huckleberry Finn, the fail is even more confirmed: It's a masterpiece, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny in places and an absolute triumph of a unique, sustained, unreliable narrator voice. Yeah, I agree with the general consensus that the last section with Tom Sawyer gets fairly insufferable, but there is so much that is so good up until that point, that, for me anyway, all is forgiven. That he wrote this over 100 years ago and still is as biting as ever makes it--like Don Quixote, another comic classic--genius in its timeless portrayal of human behavior in all its clueless, hapless indignity.

Interestingly, from here I've gone straight to Catcher in the Rye, and without ever having taken a course on either book or read one hifalutin' academic treatise on the subject, the link between Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield is palpable and obvious. What I wasn't expecting out of this book, since all I knew about it was that it's the bible of teen angst, is how damn funny it is, too.

In fact, though I'm beating myself for not having read these when younger, I think the greater truth is that I'm glad I'm reading them now, in my 40s, when it's a matter of choice, rather than a forced class assignment, with no one telling me how I should think or feel, or Why These Books Are Important. Also, I've just lived a lot more life myself. I can differentiate and appreciate better between what Huck and Holden are saying, and what the authors are saying about what they're saying. Reading reader comments about Catcher in the Rye, I see so many complaints about how unpleasant and screwed up Holden is, how he is not some kind of arbiter of cool teen angst, but all I can see is, well, yes, of course, because Salinger doesn't see him that way either. Is it not clear, from somewhere around page 3, that this kid is writing from some kind of loony bin/retreat, that his life has completely broken down? It's the very definition of an unreliable narrator. So though Holden makes us laugh, though we can cheer on his cutting dismissal of phonies and hot shots, the fact is, he's a mess, he's pathetic, and he's completely in denial of his own misery.

But, hey. Now I'm writing an English paper. Yikes. SCREW THAT. All I wanted to report here was how much I am enjoying my belated foray into the American classics. I've got two sitting on my nightstand coming up next: The Grapes of Wrath, and Faulkner's Light in August. All I've read of Steinbeck is Of Mice and Men. Faulkner, I'm a tad better on, having read a few in college, as well as The Unvanquished a few weeks ago. But I'm looking forward to continuing on.

And don't worry, I'm not forsaking my geeky and/or lowbrow reading! If I can't quite muster up the energy to go straight into Steinbeck, I may sneak in Jim Butcher's first book in the Dresden series, or maybe Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon. I will always be "slumming." Right now, though, I'm enjoying the meatier stuff. It's coinciding well with my hibernation, my feeling of needing to regroup and reassess before going forward with my life.

Now all I need is a desert island, and an endless supply of coffee, and I could just read for the rest of my days.


Unknown said...

Growing up here in St. Louis, it's almost illegal to NOT read Mark Twain's catalogue front to back several times, though I also really, really enjoy Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn. Not only is it great storytelling, but it's amazing to have that period in time captured, and forever preserved.

Also, I believe that every man should read Catcher in the Rye several times throughout his life, as his perspective on Holden will change several times as he, the reader, gets older. There's something about Holden that leaves more open to interpretation than nearly any other character in literature.

Also, I really dig 'The Dresden Files.' Jim Butcher does a good job of culling from various archetypes and wrapping what are essentially detective stories into a larger and deeply fascinating fictional realm.

Happy reading!

Alex said...

If you're courting Steinbeck, please do the universe a good turn and read Travels with Charley: In Search of America. For better or worse, I have a Steinbeck tattoo because of that book and the influence it had on me during college.

Dawg said...

I read "A Catcher in the Rye" in high school and remember enjoying it, although not near as much as "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest," but also considerably more than "The Iliad." :)

Thanks for the goodreads tip. I joined - it looks like a great site - I especially like that you can create trivia quizzes for books (and take them). I sent a friend request - hopefully you're not inundated. Keep up the reading - I'd love to read more of your English papers!

33eighty3 said...

Jeff, you absolutely need to read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Just read the Wikipedia entry about Toole and then read the book. My favorite book.

Jeff Green said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Green said...


Confederacy of Dunces is one of my favorite books of all time. :)

Unknown said...

Oh man, I cannot undisrecommend Les Miserables enough. I read that book in high school of my own volition (it's hard to admit this now, but I was a big fan of the theater show at the time), and it was grueling...just the most horrible reading experience I've ever had, because damn it, I was going to finish that book. I wish I hadn't.

At one point Hugo launches into a 100-page (in microscopic type) history of Paris's sewer system. And I know what you're thinking, you're thinking, "Well, I can see how that might be kind of inter--" IT SUCKS.

Also, I haven't read everything on your list either, but if the Hemingway you're missing out on is his short stories before they all became about bull fighting and safaris, you will thank yourself and me if you bump The Nick Adams Stories up ahead to right after Catcher in the Rye.

Salaryn's Sword said...

You sound like you have reading tastes similar to my husband's so maybe you'll like:

Kurt Vonnegut
Douglas Adams
Michael Chabon
Jonathan Stroud
David Rosenfelt
Eoin Colfer
He thought Catcher in the Rye was overrated.
My own taste in classics tends to be similar to other things I'd read:
Alexander Dumas, Baroness Orczy (Scarlet Pimpernel), Jack London, Mark Twain, Anthony Hope (Prisoner of Zenda), H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, that sort of stuff.

Unknown said...

Welp, was gonna mention Confederacy of Dunces, but it looks like that's been covered. I love Steinbeck, I'm be interested to see what you think about him.

Unknown said...

If you liked Huck Finn, I'd give Twain's autobiography a go. The wit and wisdom of his fiction translates nicely into stories of his own life.

What's nice is that, compared to his contemporaries, Twain had a very modern writing style. His autobiography does a nice job of capturing the cares and concerns of a very distinct place in time of our nation's history in a familiar manner.

Charles Ardai said...

Hey, Jeff --

Long time, no see! And no talk, and no e-mail, etc. Delighted to discover your home on the Web.

And three cheers for the rediscovery of classics (I'm halfway through a Steinbeck myself right now), but for whatever it's worth, I want to put in a word or two for slumming. Bet you didn't know, for instance, that the author of HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON is the spouse of one of your old freelancers. That's a reason to read the book if I've ever heard one...

Jeff Green said...

Charles! Nice to hear from you...and, yes....I did know who Naomi was married to, but only after I bought the book! :) You guys *both* hit it quite big in that respect...pretty awesome to see. (And you know I meant nothing negative by "slumming"! :) )

saadsspleen said...

You haven't read Moby Dick?!

I feel a weakening in the siamese ligature that forms our joint stock company of two.

Also, since you like Mastodon, you should also experience their second, and best album "Leviathan" which is all about Moby Dick.

Seriously, Jeff, I thought you was an Lit graduate =p.

Thomas Berton said...

The Catcher in the Rye is my favourite book ever, so I'm looking forward to reading more of your thoughts on it. A couple of years ago I decided to re-read it every December, just to remind myself why I love literature.

Unknown said...

Skip Catcher in the Rye & Grapes of Wrath.

If you want Salinger, go with Frankie and Zoey, and if you want Steinbeck skip to Travels with Charlie.

Anonymous said...

If you feel unprepared for the thick Steinbeck stuff, I recommend you check out The Moon Is Down and Cannery Row. Cannery Row is bar none my favorite Steinbeck, and The Moon is Down is a close second. They are both right around 100 pages or so as well, so you should take them on a flight and read them start to finish.

I read Catcher in the Rye last year for school And I think I'm alone in saying that I can't stand that book. if you want short, snappy american literature from that time period The Great Gatsby is by far a better choice. Just my opinion though, and the world seems to think otherwise.

Tristessa said...

Nice to hear you enjoyed Catcher In the Rye! I love that book...and I'm surprised that you never read it. It's endlessly fascinating how modern youth hate Holden so much. For some reason they can't seem to get beyond an opinion that he's an annoying whiner. Like you pointed out, I think a lot of people can't fathom the unreliable narrator.

If you plan on getting to Les Miserables, there is a new translation (by Julie Rose) that has much better flow than previous ones.

I've read all but three of Steinbeck's novels and East of Eden is one of the unread ones. I'm saving it for last. Cannery Row, Of Mice and Men are my favorites. The Wayward Bus is also quite good, though I'm never really able to pin down why I like it so much.

While in school I never read any of the classics. It was a protest statement I was making against the teaching staff. I refused to do any book related work until someone could give me a decent reason why a 'classic' made better writing/discussion material than recent works. Nobody would play along with my absurd challenge and I still managed to be an honor student for the bulk of my time at school. I really pissed off a few of my teachers =P

Good luck with the rest of your pile!

Jeff Green said...

What's your opinion of Grapes of Wrath? Just starting that one today. (Though the Jim Butcher novel is staring me in the face too. :) )


Tristessa said...

I enjoyed Grapes of Wrath quite a bit, though something tells me it might have hit higher on 'favorite list' had I read it before the bulk of his other books.

As a slice of cultural history, it's a treasure. It still gets some negative attention as being propaganda but that fails to give credit to the slice that felt the way Steinbeck did about the situation.

And of course the characters are great...but he had a great feel for human drama.

Joey Jo Jo Jr. Shabadoo said...

Don't feel bad Jeff - I have a doctoral degree and have only read one book on your entire list.

Oddly enough, the last books I read were the entire Dresden Files series (just finished the most recent book 3 days ago) and, prior to that, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. All of them were very enjoyable reads.

Anonymous said...

I read "The Catcher in the Rye" when I was sixteen, and felt that Holden Caulfield perfectly expressed who I was - I actually felt closer to this fictional character than I did to my closest friends.

As an adult, the book doesn't work for me because I'm not that person anymore.

There's a simple and fundamental lesson here that any aspiring novelist needs to be consciously aware of: the books we love the most are books that are about us.

If you were a high school custodian, and were to write a book about being a custodian, that book, if written truly, would become a best-seller amongst custodians - people just want to pick up a book and read about themselves.

The greatest songwriters are all masters of this - they'll write a song, and you'll think that the song is about you.

Bono, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, having mastered this, are some of the most manipulative contemporary writers - which is a good thing; if you're a songwriter then you're supposed to make people think your songs are about them.

When Bono sings: "... some people got high-rises on their backs..." - what person doesn't think of himself.

Likewise, what person, when having been humbled by life, doesn't guiltily feel that this sentence is somehow about them: "... once upon a time, you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime, didn't you..."

The Goose.

(By the way, I'm selling these fine Nike shoes...)

spate said...

I have to agree with Mr/Ms Anonymous; I loved Catcher in the Rye in high school, but I doubt I'd be able to slog through it again. Some books really take you on a journey, and for me that was one. I don't know that I could do it again.

Mr Green, I am currently reading for entertainment The Portrait of Dorian Gray. If, perchance, you've missed out on reading this fine work of fiction in the past, I might humbly recommend adding it to your noble list.

Anonymous said...

Holy toledo! It's Charles Ardai, my favorite "Computer Gaming World" writer of all time!

Hey, Charles, how are you!

You wrote one of the greatest gaming articles I've ever read: remember the one called 'Ardai on Infocom'. Jesus, I loved that company and that article - back in the day, of course, there was no internet, so we had to get our information from those magazine things. I poured over every word of that article.

WabeWalker - I stole that name from Professor Brian Moriarity's superb 'Trinity', and used it as my forum name whenever I could. Remember The Wabe in Trinity? As the player you had to circumnavigate that giant Wabe, entering all those portals. Trinity has to be one of the greatest games ever made.

Great to see that you're still alive Chuck.

The Goose.

Michael Auerswald said...

Oh I so know that feeling. Apart from the books you mentioned, being German there are also certain classics from Goethe and Schiller that I really should have read... but haven't. I'm always planning to, but.... well you know how it is.

Btw., a recommendation that I'd rate "middle brow" is Peter V. Brett's "The Painted Man", probably the best fantasy novel I've read in years.

Anonymous said...

LIke with videogames, you're not supposed to read the book before forming an opinion of it. Come on. Get with the program.

Nice to see you're alive.

Ben said...

Hi Jeff!

A year ago, I renewed my library card and started working my way through a massive backlog I tracked on a private Amazon wishlist, and it sounds a lot like what you're reading now. Punctuated by facepalm, I just added Huckleberry Finn to the list. I plead I was misled by having read an abridged version as a kid. It had pretty pictures on every other page!! :-D

Anyway, if as a complete stranger I might throw in my two cents, I just finished Foucault's Pendulum. It's intriguing as all heck. It's also a bit challenging as it sometimes reads like the author ground up a thesaurus and snorted it. Try a few pages at the bookstore!

And a good quick hit is Parker: The Hunter, as a graphic novel by Darwyn Cooke. Read with a martini in hand!

Disclaimer: I am also a consumer of Jeff Green's work, so take that as you may!

Student C said...

another important Twain to read: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Cobbler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cobbler said...

Catcher in the Rye is easily within my top 5 favorite books of all time. I have this old, pocket-sized hardback edition. I loved it so much, I stole it from my high school library in junior year because I couldn't find the same version anywhere else. I read your micro-review on Goodreads, and I'm glad you liked it.
Also, it's funny to that you are still hesitant to call something "perfect," even though it's been so long since you reviewed a game.

That being said, I need some Jeff Green on a podcast somewhere! I know you just released episode 21 of The EA Podcast, and I listened to it, but to be honest, I couldn't care less about the subject matter. Entertaining nonetheless.

Rebel FM had Robert and Matt Chandronait on recently and all I could think was "Where are Jeff and Ryan?" I mean, I know you guys don't all work together any more, but it would be awesome to have GFW mini reunions with the bros that are still in the area, like, a few times a year.

My first comment and I digress into wanting GFW back. Figures.

Unknown said...

Greatly approve of Steinbeck on your reading list.

Like one of your other commenters, Alex, I heartily recommend "Travels with Charley." I have great memories of reading Steinbeck's "slice of life" stories as he traveled around America in his trusty camper, Rocinante, his poodle at his side.

And for pure dissolute fun, "Tortilla Flat" is hard to beat. Who can argue with the laid back world of Mexican-Californian beatniks from the 1920s?

The two books were written about 30 years apart and it's interesting to see how Steinbeck as a writer and observer of life changed too.

Hope you get a chance to enjoy them.

Unknown said...

I think every teenager should read The Catcher in the Rye. But I don't know if I could take it now that I'm an adult and have kids of my own...

Nine Stories, on the other hand,is a fantastic read.

The Laughing Man is (IMHO of course) Salinger's best thing ever.

(@armagnac - it's Franny and Zooey)

gakon said...

Is your user image on Goodreads taken from your Wikipedia article? I'm vaguely honored because I uploaded that image. ;)

Marc said...

Mary Shelly's 'Frankenstein' and Nabokov's 'Lolita' are noticably absent from your list. Also, if you're going into modern classics, Neil Gaiman's 'American Gods' is fantastic.

dabe said...

Robin in the Rye:

I read Catcher in the Rye two years ago while sick from work. Really enjoyed it! I read more of Salinger's work after he died. Turns out I really like his stuff!

I'm ashamed that I haven't read Grapes of Wrath since I did grow up in Monterey county and all... How are you liking it so far? It was assigned reading for some of my classmates in high school and they didn't seem to appreciate it's 600+ pages very much :P

Harry Powers said...

Dear Jeff, First time long time. I read Moby Dick against the advice of my professor. The book is more important for its historical value rather than interesting story. For example, about 80 pages are simply an inaccurate encyclopedia entry about, “Whales.”
Please take my advice and either put it at the bottom of your list, watch the movie, or read the crib notes found in college bookstores.
Moby Dick’s 400 pages tell a convoluted story that is now part of society’s collective conscience.

xian said...

i totally disagree with naysayers on Moby-Dick. I read it (coincidentally, while backpacking around Europe at age 25 during a sabbatical from syb*x) and it is hilarious! It's a stirring tale, that ranges from comical to shakespearean. It is full of laugh out loud scenes, and all the complaints about "too much info about whales" or whatever is imho coming from a bored-highschooler perspective.

(sheesh, you get to read about how they flense the whale penis to make a raincoat!)

halojones-fan said...

"Catcher In The Rye" is an amusing Democrat/Republican litmus test.

If you read "Catcher" in high school and you absolutely loved it and it was your favoritest book ever, then you're a Democrat.

If you read "Catcher" later in life and Holden Caulfield comes across as the biggest asshole in God's creation, then you're a Republican.

Anonymous said...

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boros1124 said...

Les Miserables very good book. I read and have a very good story. Long book, but it's worth reading.

kamagra said...

I have been a long-time lover of Mark Twain's books.

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