Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Tuesday Grab Bag o’ Bibliophilia

It took me a long, long time to get home last Tuesday. (Because of the earthquake. So two disasters ago, and I’m just getting around to it now. But anyway.) I left the office at the usual time after checking the VRE website and finding that trains would be running a little late. When I got to the platform it was crowded and steadily got more and moreso as people continued to arrive but no trains showed up to carry off the people who were already there. When the 3:57 pm train pulled in about 4:30, I did my level best to get on but it was already overflowing with riders and I wasn't close enough to the front of the mob to push myself through the doors. I had to wait for the next train, which on the one hand at least was an empty train that started at my station instead of two stops further up the line, but on the other hand didn't arrive until close to 6.

Anyway, the point is I was standing on the platform for about two hours and spent most of it reading The Grapes of Wrath. And at one point, perhaps inspired by the all-in-this-together spirit that commuters can sometimes develop during long periods of inconvenience brought on by natural disasters (is it weird that I recognize that as a recurring thing at this point in my life?), a man sitting on a bench near where I was standing said to me, "It is so good to see that people are still reading Steinbeck." As far as I could tell this was completely sincere on his part, like he was the kind of person who every day observes his fellow commuters reading the dumbed-down Express version of the Washington Post or Twilight novels or just kind of zoning out with their iDeviceOfChoice and laments the state of civilization. And we all know I read more than a little genre trash while I commute, but I still allowed myself to be inordinately pleased by the implied praise this random fellow rail-rider was granting me, however sanctimonious a place it might have originated. I smiled with a little aw-shucks and said "I feel like I'm a bit late catching up with this one, honestly" and he just replied "That's great, that's great."

At the beginning of the year I resolved to read 12 classics during 2012, and Grapes of Wrath is one of them, and I didn't do it to impress anybody but ... well if someone has their faith in western civilization restored an iota by me carrying around Steinbeck, I think that's not a bad thing at all.


Oh, incidentally, The Grapes of Wrath is pretty damn amazing. Also pretty damn depressing. Still should be required reading.


So if I'm reading classics does that mean that Beach Books on a Bus is over for the year? Not exactly. Even in high school I was exactly the kind of English-is-my-favorite-class nerd who would read ahead on the syllabus if at all possible. And it was very possible, since my girlfriend was a year ahead of me and the Honors English teachers rarely changed syllabi, so I knew eveyr summer what books would be covered the coming year. I’m pretty sure I read Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies at the beach between freshman and sophomore year. So, in general, the Western canon still feels like beach reading to me.

That said, though, BBB is definitely winding down. After I finished Grapes of Wrath I borrowed a book from a friend on his recommendation, and it’s kind of a time-tossed love story which may or may not require a belief in reincarnation and almost certainly owes a great debt to The Divine Comedy. (Which I have never read, but might very well make it onto my reading list soon, or possibly get rolled into next year’s BBB.) It’s the right feel, but after I finish it September will no doubt be upon us and I don’t have another book lined up next in the queue right now. On the one hand that means I will probably scramble for just about anything I can get my hands on. On the other hand, September is so inherently back-to-schoolish, which leads me inexorably back towards the classics yet again. Given the aforementioned 12-classics-in-2011 resolution, I should already have 8 checked off. The completed list currently stands at 6, so I’ve got some catching up to do and September feels like an optimal time to do it. I might even venture back to the town library, where fun and trashy stuff (that I haven’t already read) is harder to find but the classics are usually there for the taking.


But meanwhile … NPR.org recently (in the last month or so) held an on-line vote for the Top 100 Greatest Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books. I voted, but not before I snagged myself an electronic copy of the ballot, which had about 237 titles on it to be narrowed down to the century mark. I also went back through the archives and found some of the previous summer reading vote results, including the Top 100 Greatest Thrillers and Top 100 Beach Reads. Partly I did that to see how many of them I had already read, and partly to get ideas for the next time I’m cruising the aisles of the used book store.

The Thrillers list surprised me because I had only read 15 entries, despite having nothing against the genre at all (I mean, duh). But apparently there are a lot of really popular authors out there who just aren’t my cup of tea, and who are very prolific. There was no restriction on how many times an author could appear on a list, so whole swaths were outside my usual reference points. Lots of Tom Clancy; I read The Hunt For Red October in high school and never felt the urge to dig any deeper. The complete works of Dan Brown; I read one page of one of his books lying on someone else’s desk once and just backed away quietly, shaking my head. A few Ian Flemings; I’ve never read a Bond book, spoiled by the movies I suppose. More than a few Michael Chrichton; meh, I say. I did, however, pretty much run the table on the Stephen King thrillers that made the grade, so there’s that.

The Beach Reads were my best showing, which at first I thought was odd but I soon realized that since the list was pretty much genre-agnostic and simply admitted anything that constituted a good read, it’s pretty close to my own eclectic tastes anyway. 41 out of those 100 I’ve already checked off. Some of the other 59 I’ve been meaning to get around to, and some I never will. But I have some good fodder for next year’s BBB.

I had read 48 of the 237 nominees in sci-fi/fantasy and apparently I mostly skipped the right ones because when that was cut down to the top 100 my already-read number only dropped to 32. And really, that’s a bit misleading because given the nature of sci-fi and fantasy and its tendency towards the epic, the saga, and the multi-volume duodecology, many of the entries on the ballot and the final list were a single line encompassing an entire series of books, like Dune or Foundation or The Dark Tower. I haven’t quite managed to find the time yet for the task of figuring out exactly how many discrete books you would have to read to get through the entire Top 100 of books-n-series, and by comparison how many of those I’ve already read (I’m sure my ratio still works out somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/3 though).


I did find it particularly hilarious how the NPR.org comment threads ended up ringing with the howls of outraged book nerds who couldn't believe science-fiction and fantasy had to share a list, when clearly the genres are so VERY, VERY DIFFERENT and a Top 100 should have been established for each one.


Of course even with all these accessible resources for cheap books and reading recommendations, I’m not sure how long it will be until I make much of a dent in it. Depending on how easy or hard it turns out to be in practice to get some more books in my hands in the very near future, I may end up just DVD-binging on the train for a good chunk of September. I do actually have some books piled up at home but as it happens they are all specifically for my other annual tradition, Spooktoberfest. Highlights this year include the second installment of Guillermo del Toro’s vampire trilogy, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which kills two birds with one stone as a spooky Classic I’ve never read). Then there’s November and December, but after that …

… despite my obsessive urge to constantly add to the grand total number of books I allegedly have under my belt, I’m noticing more and more lately that I don’t remember a whole lot of the books I read. Maybe I’m just getting old and my brain is getting inelastic and my uptake isn’t quite what it used to be, but whatever the reason it’s kind of a drag. I’m seriously considering making 2012 the Year of the Re-Read and going back through a select number of books a second time in hopes that they’ll sink in a little more deeply. And there’s a couple of other motivators, as well: I got my wife to read The Name of the Wind this spring but it had been a few years since I read it myself and when she discussed certain segments with me it was maddeningly difficult to summon up the details in my mind. The sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, comes out in paperback in March and that will be my wife’s signal to read that volume; I should be able to re-read both TNOTW and TWMF by March myself and be much better prepared to talk about it then. I think volume five of A Song of Ice and Fire will be out in paperback next year, too, which is my cue to read that particular sequel, so I also want to fit in a re-read of parts one through four ahead of time as well. And so on – mostly I suppose it’s a lot of brushing up before moving onward in popular fantasy sagas, but hey, that’s kind of my thing.

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