Saturday, April 7, 2012

Top 100 -- II

You have before your eyes, gentle reader, the 200th post of my blog about the ten-year reading plan I made for myself. Last June, for the 100th post, I thought first about listing my hundred favorite books, but decided that compiling the list was too daunting a task. In the end I opted for writing a short paragraph on seven of the books I think about the most. Today, I want to write about seven more. The list includes some that are usually considered among the Great Books and some that aren’t, but I love them all and think about them often.

• Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth. This wonderful children’s book has a message: that learning is rewarding because words and numbers carry treasures. I agree with the message, but I love the book most when it demonstrates its message with creative wordplay rather than preaching its message. I rarely hear the phrases “jump to conclusions” or “see things from my point of view” without thinking of Juster’s literal interpretations.

• David McCullough, John Adams. I’ve read this book twice and watched the miniseries, and Adams’s intelligence, courage, and political savvy still astound me. It’s dangerous for me to think about John Adams too much, because he makes me want to fight for the sake of principle and forget the last phrase of the Serenity Prayer. Nevertheless, I do often think about Adams taking John Quincy with him to Europe for several years and homeschooling him in Latin, history, and mathematics. The Adams kids that didn’t get to go with their dad all led tragic lives, while Quincy rose to the Presidency, recognized as perhaps the most educated man in the United States.

• Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist. The best sequence in this classic deals with the phantom of guilt that hovers behind Bill Sikes's head after he kills poor Nancy. Sikes constantly senses someone staring at the back of his head, but can’t see the phantom because it turns along with his head and stays ever behind him. Sikes rolls on the ground on his back in an attempt to smash the looming presence, but to no avail. Brilliant! No matter what anyone says, guilt is not just a feeling.

• François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel. This series of novels is crude, crazy, cracked, crabby, crafty, cringeworthy, creepy, crooked, cryptic, creaky, and crusty. But it got me attuned to the power of creative, crebrous lists.

• Doris Kearns Goodwin, Wait Till Next Year. This loving memoir of a Brooklyn girl who grew up a Dodgers fan tells some deeply touching stories: Doris becoming an historian because of her love of keeping score and recreating games for her father, her girlfriend who became depressive because she grew tall, and of course the glorious 1955 World Series, when “next year” finally came to pass. But the most amazing story involves young Doris hearing of a nearby train crash and sneaking out of her bedroom to baptize the dying victims.

• Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read, Sterne’s classic offers the first-person attempt of the title character to recount every detail of his life. Naturally the attempt fails, but what with all his explanations and sidetracks, Tristram barely even gets to his birth. He tells us that his Uncle Toby often whistles “Lillibullero” when he gets frustrated, so three-fourths of the way through the book, where Tristram himself gets frustrated by his failures to make his autobiography progress, he presents, as a full “chapter,” the score to “Lillibullero.”

• James Michener, Alaska. I’ve known a few teachers who have gone to Alaska for a while because the state pays teachers so well. (They spend a lot of their oil money on education. Imagine.) I’ve been tempted to try it myself a time or two. The last story in Michener’s Michenerian saga tells of a young woman who responds to a job opening in a small Alaskan town above the Arctic Circle, a town that boasts of a new, seven-million-dollar school building (in the 1970s). She moves to her new home and finds everyone kind and helpful and grateful, but when they show her a small two-room schoolhouse made of concrete blocks, she asks about the new, seven-million-dollar facility. Her guide responds, “Do you have any idea how much it costs to ship concrete blocks above the Arctic Circle?”

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