I am an inveterate list maker. Not just the daily “to do list,” but lists of books to read, authors to read, books I have read, needlework projects to finish, exercises I (should) do, movies to see, gardening projects to undertake, and on and on. My desks, both at home and work, each have a pile of lists, with some items crossed off. I know I’ve gone too far when I feel the need to make a list of the lists. When the piles get unwieldy, it’s time to consolidate the lists into new ones. A happy moment is finding an old list on which everything is done or no longer relevant. My compulsive list-making apparently began at an early age; several years ago, while cleaning out the house where I grew up and where my parents had lived for forty years, I found an old composition book in which I had written out my lists and plans for a long ago summer, including the books I was going to read. This list definitely fell in the “no longer relevant” category, although it certainly had sentimental value.
The problem with lists is that they just seem to get longer. There are always items to add, and lists made in some order of priority need to be redone as priorities shift. I have the shifting priorities problem most often with my list of “books to read next”; reading group is looming, or an author is coming to visit, or I have just read a review of a book that sounds really great, or the nominees for some award have just been released and there are some books I missed. No book ever becomes irrelevant, just lower on the list.
In addition to the self-created list of books I want to read, there is an abundance of lists created by others which dictate, or at least suggest, what we should be reading (or should have read if we are to be considered knowledgeable). Having both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English Literature, I considered myself well-read; these lists prescribed by others seem to point out the shallowness of my reading history. Classic examples are Harold Bloom’s Western Canon or the Modern Library’s selection of “The 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.” Even the New York Times Book Review recaps its 100 Notable Books of each year, in case we don’t feel guilty enough about what we missed.
I have faced the fact that I am never going to get through my own list, much less these intimidating prescriptions by self-styled experts. Working my way through one of these catalogs would turn reading into a chore, not a pleasure. I hated James Joyce in college; I have no desire to give him another chance. But rather than dismiss others who seem to seem to share my list-making neurosis, I use their work as suggestions. The sheer abundance of books available, despite all the hand-wringing currently going on about the publishing industry, makes a compilation of recommended works a handy tool for creating one’s own list, particularly if it is arranged in a practical way.
501 Must-Read Books (Bounty Books, London, 2006, ed. by Emma Beare) is a volume I was surprised to find appealing. The title is one of those intimidating “on, no, not another one” labels. When someone brought it to my store in as a possible “trade-in,” I almost turned it away. After a brief perusal, I kept it for myself. It is divided into eight sections, each containing reviews which stimulate interest without giving away too much. In Children’s Fiction, suggestions range from Beatrix Potter to Terry Pratchett. Other categories are Classic Fiction, History, Memoirs, Modern Fiction, Science Fiction, Thrillers and Travel. The bountiful Thrillers section covers authors from Hugh Walpole and Wilkie Collins, to Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Raymond Chandler, and on to P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Sara Paretsky. This book is full of possibilities for anyone’s personal list.
The current exhibition at the Library of Congress, though not strictly a list, is another source of suggestions. The Books That Shaped America, which runs until September 29, features books that when first published were greeted with shock, anger or dismay. It is designed as a tribute to our freedom to question and change things in a country that was founded on overturning the traditional order. The selections range from the expected (Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin) to the surprising (Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat, Alcoholics Anonymous and Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest). I doubt I will be able to get to Washington to see this exhibit, but I am tempted. I lived in the D. C. area in what seems another lifetime, and I used to love to go into the Library of Congress just to soak up the atmosphere, both the striking architecture and the nearness of such a vast collection of books. One of my treasured Christmas ornaments is made from the old copper roof; they were sold in a fund-raising effort when repairs were made. For those who can’t make it to the exhibit, an on-line version is available. Apparently the library staff had considerable difficulty in making the selections, and suggestions for additional works are solicited at the same location.
It’s time to get back to adding things to my lists, and possibly crossing some off. I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend, now that’s it’s finally cooler, at least here in New Jersey.