We all have books on our shelves that we want to get to.
I take mine very seriously. In fact, many years ago I decided that I absolutely was going to read those books. So I created some homework for myself.
I had a list of tomes that I required myself to read, start to finish. Most of them were books I'd been asked to buy in college but only assigned a chapter or two out of. I didn't have a time limit, but I wasn't going to declare myself "Free to read anything" until I completed all of the books on the list.
Tonight I finished the last book. It took me over twenty years to make it through the list.
Now, there are caveats. I did occasionally interrupt my list with other books that I couldn't resist, like Hunger Games. I also still have books on the shelf I've been waiting to get to, but I consider these a different sort: books I want to read, but won't force myself to read.
As of tonight, I'll no longer ever force myself to read a book start to finish. I'll read some books for pleasure...maybe some Stephen King or Michael Crichton. You wouldn't believe how many well-known authors I've passed up in the name of getting my list done.
But I don't regret it. Aside from the occasional book that really stunk (The Neighbors Are Scaring My Wolf - Jack Douglas) and the occasional book that wasn't as good as I hoped it would be (Walden - Thoreau), nearly all of them turned out to be great reads which I never would have explored had I not forced myself through them. In honor of tonight, I want to share the list with you, in case you're looking for some strange, out-of-the-way gems.
There are books I made myself read that aren't on this list - Paradise Lost, a number of plays by Ibsen, Catch 22. But these are the bulk of the works. Pay special notice to the anthologies, which are an incredibly good deal and a great way to read indispensible literature and learn about writing.
Classic Essays on 20th Century Music, A Continuing Symposium – a fabulous collection, more provocative than a simple survey.
The 20th Century – Ed. Morgan – Also good, but a little more standard
Music in the Western World – A History in Documents – Weiss/Taruskin – More valuable than reading a standard music history text. It’ll give you a great sense of the history of Western Music.
What’s So Important About Music Education – Goble – A very tough read, but amazing. He answers some very profoundly difficult questions about music and music ed that a lot of people gloss over. “Music is a universal language? Realllllly? Why?”
Musical Sound – Pierce – a good book on musical acoustics, more interesting than the usual scientific survey
Sound Structure in Music – For the serious student of sound as it relates to composition. Advanced orchestrational ideas plus other 20th century thoughts.
American Poets – From the Puritans to the Present – Hyatt Waggonner – If I had to recommend one book about poetry, this would be it. The most valuable survey of American Poetry I think you’re likely to find. Refreshingly but respectfully honest about poets who, in his opinion, are lauded but not necessarily great.
Literature – Structure, Sound and Sense – Perrine
Literature, An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama – Kennedy
The Bedford Introduction to Literature – Meyer
The above three anthologies may be out of print and hard to find, but taken as a group they collect, and discuss very well, both classics and lesser known gems that you’d be hard-pressed to discover on your own. They don’t tend to overlap too much, surprisingly, and when they do, it’s using pieces you’d want to re-read anyway.
Ten Modern Masters – Anthology of the Short Story
Norton Introduction to the Short Novel
Classics of Modern Fiction – Howe
The three above are just good collections. I love anthologies.
An Approach to Literature – Brooks, Purser, Warren – This one is more antiquated, but has the distinction of being co-edited by Robert Penn Warren. While its outlook may be considered passé by literary critics today, it’s still a clear and concise approach.
The World of the Short Story – Clifton Fadiman – I found this at a yard sale. It’s a great collection, and Fadiman is a great person to have around.
The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor – Not a bad story in the bunch. She’s amazing.
The Annotated Sherlock Holmes – William Baring-Gould – Yes, I had to read every single Conan-Doyle Sherlock Holmes story and novel (because Commander Data did). This is the anthology to own, because it’s full of ridiculous footnotes discussing speculations on what day of the week and year, according to arguments done by Holmes Scholars, each of the stories must have taken place. Really, though, it goes for cheap considering how thick it is.
Dasheill Hammett – Five Complete Novels – The last three, including The Maltese Falcon, are well worth their weight in gold.
Emily Dickinson – Selected Letters – Got more and more interesting as they went on.
In Forme of Speech is Chaunge – Fisher/Bornstein – An anthology of English readings from 1000 years ago to the present
The Origins and Development of the English Language – Pyles and Algeo – a tough read, but phenomenal if you like linguistics. You’ll never consider “language rules” to be sacrosanct again.
Language –Edward Sapir – a classic
Language and Myth – Sapir – interesting connections…what does Myth mean?
Language, Thought and Reality – Whorf – more good stuff on language
Philosophy and Culture
The Dehumanization of Art – Y Gasset – interesting essays. One of the few philosophers I’ve read
Against Interpretation – Sontag – as well written and provocative as you think it ought to be.
A Distant Mirror – Tuchman – amazing historical study on the frightening 14th century, which isn’t that different in some ways from...
De Profundus and Other Writings – Oscar Wilde – better than I thought it would be
Connections – Burke – the companion to the old TV show from the 1970’s. Good for opening up your mind and making connections.
African American Studies
Black Women in 19th Century American Life – Loewenberg and Bogin
Black Sister – Stetson – These last two are amazing anthologies of little-heard black women writers. Very compelling and a great window on what life was like back then and up now.
The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers – Calvin Hernton – I studied with Cal back at Oberlin and loved it. He has a really interesting perspective on these topics.
Black Writers of America – Barksdale and Kinnamon – A great way to read more than the two or three token offerings in regular anthologies, and the writing is always amazing.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass – Much more exciting than you’d think (unless you already know…)
Catch 22 – Heller – Wow, is this good. The ending pours down on you like grain in a silo.
Call It Sleep – Henry Roth – His one great book, now generally forgotten. He’s got a remarkable ear for accents and the book is very compelling.
The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick - Far and away, his best book, though the Valis series is good too.
The Alexandria Quartet – Durrell – I got tired of these, but they are interesting as a collection of interrelated books.
E Pluribus Unicorn – Sturgeon – (Short stories) Much better than average science fiction.
So there you have it. Do you have suggestions for me? Well, I'll take them, but I won't force myself to read them!