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Books to Read

July 2, 2010
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Reading is such a subjective experience.

However, even knowing this, I find it difficult to take people’s reading suggestions seriously if I have repeatedly discovered that what they find “wonderful” are, in fact, horrible, horrible books. I’m NOT talking about the well-read bibliophiles who count themselves among the Twi-hards (ugh…you should know how much strength it took to type that). I’m talking about people whose “I love these books” lists are riddled with things that I deplored, detested, and categorically loathe.

I’ll lob up this example. I really can’t stand Eat, Pray, Love. And, in general, I use this as a test to see if I could be friends with you. The lone exception to this rule is my friend Claudia — who spiritedly defended this book to me saying that she read it while she was going through her own divorce and could connect on that level to the author’s experiences. But I’ll give Claudia a pass.

You’ll find that for every book I hate, there are myriad reasons why. A common, often ignored factor, is that I’m jealous. As a writer, when I read a book that is just B-A-D, I can’t help but think to myself, “Seriously? This person gets their work published? And it’s hard to break into publishing? But they can publish this?” Other things that turn me off: Pretentiousness, fancy writing that substitutes for plot (tied in with pretentiousness), lazy storytelling, clichÊs that don’t attempt to be fresh, awful dialogue, and bad-uncomfortable-make-me-feel-icky sex. You’ll find hypocrisy in each of those examples — because there are books I love that fit into some of those accusations.

At any rate, when I see a list “Must Reads” it’s hard not to judge.

So, I was hesitant to read “Murray’s Books to Read” list, which was sent to me by a family friend. Murray is Ms. Murray: My high school AP English teacher, an institution at our school — a teacher who has been launched somewhere on the threshold of sainthood. As an adult and as a teacher, when I look back on what exactly made Ms. Murray such a great teacher, it — honestly — is hard to pinpoint, but I think her unbridled enthusiasm, coupled with just sheer knowledge made her an intimidating force. She gained a reputation for excellence and it stuck. Love her or hate her (she has her fans and her dissenters, of course), one thing is clear: Her students produce excellent work and most people leave her class feeling like they’ve made gains. Beyond that, she does what I HOPE to do — create real/genuine love for books.

A list made by someone who has such a profound ability to affect the reading habits of teenagers, is worth looking at. This list came to me after I discovered a thread on Facebook (oh, Facebook — how I love/hate you) from the above-mentioned family friend, who was a current senior English student of Murray’s. Many students were discussing the list and talking about organizing a Powell’s trip to buy some of the titles recommended to them. My brother, God bless him, said to me, “You probably have read ALL of these, Shelbi.” Ah, he has so much faith in my reading habits! Alas, I have not. Not even close.

This list is interesting to me — as a person who tries to guess what type of person you are by the books you recommend. (Whatever, y’all do it too.) There are some books on here that I didn’t love and some authors that I am opposed to on principle. But there are also some books in there that I, also, love. And this list is cognizant of era — classics, coupled with a few contemporary titles. She does say there are “obvious” omissions — but each omission had to be made on purpose. Seems like a conversation over coffee. Murray, are you a reader of this blog? Want to take me up on that?

I would have a really difficult time compiling a list like this without breaking it up into categories. And I’d probably agonize. Give up sleep. Painstakingly put books on, then take them off.

To put something out like this to the world is akin to baring your soul.

How many have you read? What do you think of the list? Are there other lists out there that capture quality books? (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered if I ever could get to all of the 1001 books to read before I die. Check out that one too!)

In full disclosure, I have read: 26 of the titles. And I’ve started/haven’t finished 4 more of them. And 3 on the list are tentatively slated for this particular challenge.

(The checks are not mine — as this was scanned and sent via a current student.)

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. SMM permalink
    July 2, 2010 10:49 am

    15…yikes. Though, I am not sure about about some of these titles and the exclusion of others–it would be a very interesting conversation with this lauded lady. Maybe she could be a guest speaker at a book club meeting? I also avoided using quotation marks at least three times in this post. I am proud of myself. 🙂

  2. Jessica permalink
    July 2, 2010 9:43 pm

    I miss Murray. Still the greatest teacher I ever had.

    I’ve read 29 of these books, if you count the Narnia books as seven individual titles. There are more on here that I’ve started and never finished (‘Woman in White’ for example) or gave up on (‘Anna Karenina’, for a book about sex and drugs you sure are boring and yes, Dickens, we know you got paid by the word) and I do admit that a lot of these were only read because I majored in English (‘Middlemarch,’ I’m looking at you and do I get extra points for having to read that giant book twice in college?). I will also cop to only having read the first of the Lord of the Rings books and when I finished it, spiked it to the ground like a football and shrieked that I would just watch the damn movies because oh my god, you can’t make me read the second one.

    As for “Eat, Pray, Love”… I haven’t read it. That book makes people glow… with either hatred or joy, and still it just doesn’t interest me. Can’t say why. Same with “The Kite Runner.” I hear how good it is, and it was a huge bestseller (though that doesn’t really mean anything about quality) and I still don’t care to pick it up.

    Right now, I’ve got the following books on my Kindle:

    Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel “Fly Away Home” which is like that show “The Good Wife” with Julianna Margulies.

    “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” which appears on lists that parents try to ban from schools. Which, you know, instantly makes me want to read it and it was just recently acquired for digital.

    “The Idiot Girls’ Action Adventure Guide” by Laurie Notaro. I like funny memoirs. What can I say? I’ve been meaning to read her stuff for awhile now too.

    Will any of these books appear on any must read books by Murray? Likely not. But that’s okay by me. 🙂

    • July 3, 2010 11:14 am

      I didn’t count the Narnia individually — yay! I just went up to 31.

      I’m impressed that you read “Middlemarch” TWICE. Talk about a book I have ZERO interest in reading.

      I think you’ll really enjoy “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” — it’s a fantastic read, popular with students, and pertinent for adults too. See? I think Murray’s list is lacking in those kinds of titles — it’s not that I would challenge that everyone has to read “Harry Potter” in their lifetime — but I do think there is something to be said for straying away occasionally from those lauded titles in the New York Times Book Review.

      HONESTLY…this list reads like a list for kids to read who are going to be English majors. But it’s HER list afterall — books that mean something to her — and I can’t judge that. No one’s list would look the same…and that’s the beauty of reading! Love it.

  3. Toni permalink
    July 4, 2010 9:27 am

    21 read.

    Interesting that I’ve read a lot more if you just go by the authors – I seem to always pick the lesser-known/less esteemed books by a given author. For example, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, rather than Beloved or Sula.

    These types of lists always interest me because of their inherent subjectivity. No one person can have read all the great books out there, so how can they choose the “must reads?”

    Of course, I’m a sucker for lists and always try to see how I stack up, so I guess that’s why they do them.

  4. July 13, 2010 11:59 pm

    hmmm… speaking of the 1001 books list, the new Full version of the 1001 books spreadsheet will actually tell you whether you are going to be able to read the list before you die.

    You can get a copy via the spreadsheet page on Arukiyomi.

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