Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More on the "100 New England Books"

Continuing my musings from my previous post about The Boston Globe's "100 Essential New England Books" (I know I said I would stop — but who's running this blog?):

The "reader rankings" are kind of a mess. I suspect that many respondents didn't bother to rate the quality of the books they'd read, and so a small minority's tastes predominate (a minority with good reading comprehension skills, at least, since they followed directions). One of my personal favorites, Jean Stafford's Boston Adventure, bottoms out at #100, with Mary Baker Eddy's Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures just above. The former deserves more many more readers; the latter doesn't, except from a comparative religion point-of-view.

Readers ranked The Da Vinci Code at #96, just below Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. Since Dan Brown's book is one of the most-read novels, at #5, this shows some sensible discrimination on the part of the respondents. Yes, it was a fun read, but it was a stupid read. Dan Brown must have believed he was writing for morons; by the time his protagonists triumphantly solved a puzzle I was way ahead of them, having solved most of them immediately. (Yeah, I have a high IQ, but I still didn't need to use even one of my extra points.) It's great to see that readers can critically assess books that insult their intelligence even if they don't read a lot. (The average respondent had only read 5 books on the list when I took the survey.)

But I have to wonder why Ethan Frome is at #95. It's certainly not Edith Wharton's best novel; her "realist" period never did much for me although I adore her in general and consider her our finest female American author. I think Summer is her worst "great novel," and confess I haven't read some of her obscure, later works. But honestly, anything written by Wharton has to be better than The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which is up at 16! Perhaps it's because most people read Ethan Frome in high school, which is the wrong age to read this strange, pessimistic tale. Read it as an adult on a cold winter evening and it will cause chills.

The list of books people say they "most want" to read begins with David McCullough's John Adams. I would like to read it, too. But I can't seem to get into this guy. I've met him a couple of times, I like and admire him, and he writes on fascinating subjects. But I can never stay awake through his first few chapters. I tried to read 1776 but I couldn't make it through 1775. Then I picked up The Johnstown Flood, figuring that it had to be a gripping read on a subject I already know pretty well. But when he started listing every one of the 20-odd creeks and tributaries that flowed into the Conemaugh River, including a few that no one had ever bothered to name, I lost patience. McCullough is both a historian and an obsessive detail freak. I respect both, but I can't stay awake through it. Still, I might give John Adams a try; maybe he didn't spend a lot of time in creeks and tributaries.

The #2 "most-wanna-read" is Moby Dick. Good luck with that. I love 19th-century literature and even have a high tolerance for 18th-century literature, but Moby Dick is where I draw the line. It may be considered our greatest novel, but I still think it takes too much effort to be enjoyable. Which is what primarily all novels ought to be. (On the other end of the 19th-century timeline, I draw the line at the late novels of Henry James. Life is too short to spend that much time figuring out what he means. Not even he always knew what he was getting at — I figured out that much.)

I guess I'm really done ranting about this book list now. I promise. Heh heh.


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