READ THE 100

Rabbit, Run: Aimless

“The truth is,” Eccles tells him with womanish excitement, in a voice embarrassed but determined, “you’re monstrously selfish. You’re a coward. You don’t care about right or wrong; you worship nothing except your own worst instincts.”

—John Updike, Rabbit, Run

 

Spoiler Alert—the following post discusses plot points that may spoil your own reading of the book, Rabbit, Run. But honestly, the book is not that enjoyable in the first place, so my spoilers won’t ruin your experience any more than Updike did by writing it in the first place.

John UpdikeFor some reason, Updike’s Rabbit series is one that I’ve wanted to read for a while. Mostly because I had no idea what they were about. I no longer have that desire.

I am certainly not the first person to say it, but Rabbit, Run is a hard book to like.

It drips with angst, disillusionment and desperation. Updike himself wrote that the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s last name was intended to convey the idea of “angst stream”.

Mission accomplished.

The constant stream of angst is off-putting. Which, I’m sure, is exactly what Updike was trying to communicate.

I’m probably old-fashioned in that I want a protagonist whom I can like. And if that’s not possible, a protagonist I can relate to.  Or an antagonist.

Or a deuteragonist. Or a tritagonist. Anybody.

None of the characters here are likeable. Not the always-drunk Janice who drowns her newborn. Not either set of in-laws. Not Ruth. Not Tothero. Not even Jack Eccles who seems to be the only person who is trying to do anything good (as he sees it).

And, I suppose if I can’t like the characters, I’d like a book to give me some kind of conflict resolution, or a moral of the story.

Not here.

It’s like Seinfeld reimagined as a tragedy. It’s not funny. No one learns anything. The characters don’t change or grow. There’s not even much of a plot. Just a host of damaged characters damaging each other further.

And Rabbit running away from it all.

Or not, because he even fails at running away.

The best word I can think of to describe this book is aimless. Or pointless. Like Rabbit’s life. But then fans of the book will say that is exactly the point.

I’m glad to check this one off the list. And despite its critical acclaim, I no longer believe Rabbit, Run belongs on a top 100 book list for any reason other than literary types and Updike fans say it does.  Now taking nominations for its replacement.

 

Media: Book, 264 pages
Rating: 1 Star (out of 5)

 

Books Mentioned in this Post:

Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Rabbit Series by John Updike

Literary Geography: Quentin Compson

Bridge WoodcutInteresting side note to my reading of Faulkner‘s The Sound and The Fury

Even though he is a fictional character in The Sound and The Fury and Absalom, Ablsalom!, there is a small brass plaque commemorating the death of Quentin Compson on the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River in Cambridge Massachusetts.  It reads simply:

QUENTIN COMPSON
Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle.
1891-1910

I’ve added it to my “Literary Places to Visit” list.

Woodcut by Dutch artist Peter Ursem.

 

Books Mentioned in this Post:

The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Literary Movies: The Sound and The Fury

The Sound and the Fury PosterThe list of books that have been made into movies must range in the thousands.

Sometimes the adaptations are great, like A River Runs through It or BlackHawk Down. Two fantastic books and movies.

Other times, the movie shares a title with a book, but not much of the plot, like The Bourne Identity. Both decent, but neither great.

Sometimes the movie ruins the book. Gulliver’s Travels anybody?

The movie adaptation of The Sound and The Fury falls into that second category. It shares a title and the character names are the same, but the plot will be entirely foreign to anyone who had read the book. The promising cast includes Yul Brynner and Joanne Woodward. However, the movie takes place long after the close of the book and is more about the redemption of the Compson family than its demise. A complete departure from the book.

Of course, if you’ve read The Sound and The Fury, you’ll wonder how in the world anyone could make a movie that is true to the book? Faulkner’s writing has often been called un-filmable (ironic that Faulkner once worked as a Hollywood screenwriter). But if HBO has its way, we may soon find out if its possible. That’s something to look forward to.

In the mean time, we’ll have to live with Martin Ritt’s 1959 movie of the same name.

 

Books Mentioned in this Post:

A River Runs through It by Norman Maclean
Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden
The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum
Gulliver’s Travels by  Jonathan Swift

Surprise: I Like Faulkner

“I seed de beginnin, en now I sees de endin”

—William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, April Eighth, 1928

 

William FaulknerFor more than twenty years, I have considered reading something by Faulkner. It’s one of those reading tasks that everyone should do.

That I should do.

Then the moment would pass, and I would opt for something more approachable. Like War and Peace. Or, more likely, something along the lines of Small Vices.

I wanted to say I had read Faulkner. But I didn’t actually want to read Faulkner*.

Blame high school.

The best part of this project is that I get to read a lot of books that I might not read otherwise. Which is where The Sound and The Fury comes in.

My high school friends were right.

This book is hard to read. Even harder to understand.

My first time through, I kept asking: what in the crap is going on?

The experimental stream of consciousness told by an autistic child and a mentally ill and suicidal adult is, at times, impenetrable.

By the end of the story, the detail was lost on me.

So I turned to a plot summary and went back to the book for a second go. (Which incidentally, shouldn’t be required to enjoy a book, but in this case, it helped.)

The second time through was different. Better.

The time jumps in the first two sections made more sense. I could follow the unwinding of the Compson family more closely.

I wasn’t trying to understand the metaphor of the muddy drawers. Or the meaning of the showman’s red tie. Or what Quentin meant calling the Italian girl “sister”.

I just enjoyed the story.

A lot.

I love the disjointed way Benjy remembers the story. Same is true for Quentin. I even felt sorry for Jason, despite his nastiness. How would you feel if the bulk of your inheritance was sold to pay for your brother’s education—leaving nothing for you but the responsibility for the rest of the family, most of whom are pretty nasty people themselves?

I’d feel stuck.

Like so many of the characters in this book.

Except for Caddy, who somehow escapes the fate of her family and whom Faulkner considered the hero of the story. And maybe Dilsey.

Most people don’t enjoy The Sound and The Fury. Because it is hard.

But it is also great.

Now I understand why it makes so many “Best Book Lists”.  And I’m looking forward to reading more Faulkner in the future.

Faulkner wrote that in The Sound and The Fury, he had written “the only thing in literature which would ever move me very much: Caddy climbing the pear tree to look in the window at her grandmother’s funeral while Quentin and Jason and Benjy and the negroes looked up at the muddy seat of her drawers.”

Spend some extra time with this book and it might move you too.

 

Media: Audiobook
Rating:  4 Stars (out of 5)

 

* This is actually the second book by Faulkner to make my reading list in the past couple of months. Late last year, as I was contemplating the READTHE100 project, I picked up a copy of As I Lay Dying. That book is far easier to read and understand. It captures the language of the southern poor beautifully and might be worth considering as an “gateway drug” for other works by Faulkner.

 

Books mentioned in this post:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Small Vices by Robert B. Parker
The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Our Reading List

Looking for something to read? Look no farther.

Below you’ll find the 100 books that made our “100 Best Books to Read” list.

Here’s how we picked the books on the list.

And for those who like pictures, here’s the same list with a photo of each book cover.

Books at the top of the list appeared on more “best book lists” than those at the bottom.

 

THE LIST:

#1 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

#2 1984 by George Orwell

#3 Beloved by Toni Morrison.

#4 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

#5 The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

#6 A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

#7 Animal Farm by George Orwell

#8 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

#9 The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

#10 All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warrn

#11 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

#12 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

#13 Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

#14 I, Claudius by Robert Graves

#15 Invisible Man by Raph Ellison

#16 Lord of the Flies by William Golding

#17 On the Road by Jack Carouak

#18 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

#19 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

#20 The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

#21 The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

#22 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

#23 To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

#24 A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

#25 A Passage to India by E.M. Forester

#26 A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

#27 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

#28 Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

#29 My Antonia by Willa Cather

#30 Native Son by Richard Wright

#31 Rabbit, Run by John Updike

#32 The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

#33 The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

#34 The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

#35 The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

#36 Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

#37 Ulysses by James Joyce

#38 Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

#39 American Pastoral by Phillip Roth

#40 An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

#41 Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

#42 Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

#43 Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

#44 Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

#45 Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

#46 Deliverance by James Dickey

#47 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

#48 Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

#49 Ironweed by William Kennedy

#50 Light in August by William Faulkner

#51 Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

#52 Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

#53 Naked Lunch by Willaim S. Burroughs

#54 Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

#55 Portnoy’s Complaint by Phillip Roth

#56 Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

#57 Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence

#58 Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

#59 Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

#60 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

#61 The Call of the Wild by Jack London

#62 The Color Purple by Alice Walker

#63 The Day of the Locust by Nathaniel West

#64 The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

#65 The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCulers

#66 The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

#67 The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

#68 The Prince by Nicolo Machievelli

#69 The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

#70 Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

#71 Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

#72 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig

#73 Anna Kerenina by Leo Tolstoy

#74 Atonement by Ian McEwan

#75 Bel Canto by Anne Patchet

#76 Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

#77 Cathedral by Raymond Carver

#78 The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas

#79 Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

#80 Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

#81 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

#82 Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

#83 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

#84 In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

#85 Kim by Rudyard Kipling

#86 Lonsome Dove by Larry McMurtry

#87 The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy

#88 Middlemarch by George Elliot

#89 Moby Dick by Herman Melville

#90 My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

#91 One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

#92 Roots by Alex Haley

#93 The Plague by Albert Camus

#94 The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

#95 The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

#96 The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever

#97 The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

#98 The World According to Garp by John Irving

#99 Them by Joyce Carol Oates

#100 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John LeCarre

 

Books, E-Books, and Audiobooks

Couple ReadingIn taking on the challenge of reading all 100 books on our list of best novels, I am adopting a somewhat broader definition of reading than I might otherwise use.

There are, after all, lots of ways to enjoy a good book.

My preferred method would be to curl up on the couch with a book on my lap, hot cocoa in a nearby cup, and perhaps some music.

But I rarely get a few hours on the  couch. And never with cocoa and music.

On the other hand, I can often steal a few minutes to read an e-book here and there.

And with a rather lengthy commute every day, I listen to several audiobooks a month.

Yes, I would prefer to forgo my commute and read words on a printed page.

But that doesn’t happen.

So for the purpose of this project, I’m bending the definition of reading to include audiobooks.

You may think this doesn’t count. I disagree.

In my experience, an audiobook is often a better way to enjoy a book than my own reading.

Ever hear Jim Dale’s award-winning reading of Harry Potter?

Or Stefan Rudnicki’s narration of Ender’s Game?

My favorite audio narration is Cold Mountain, read by the author, Charles Frazier. His soft, southern voice adds a stillness to the story that I would have missed reading it myself. It’s haunting. (That last link goes to the book, not the audio, which is no longer available. Sorry.)

And, it the case of a difficult book like The Sound and The Fury, a gifted narrator can help the reader/listener distinguish between the characters using different voices where the printed page doesn’t. Faulkner originally intended to show each shift in voice in The Sound and the Fury with different colors of ink. The audio version of the book accomplishes the same thing with changing voices.

So is listening to an audiobook reading?

In this case, I’m going to say yes. Go ahead and disagree in the comments.

Note: At the end of any post reviewing a book, I will note the media I used to “read” it: book, e-book, or audiobook. Movies definitely don’t count.

 

Books Mentioned in this Post:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Looking for the Best 100 Books…

So what are the 100 best books of all time?

Google “100 Best Books” and you’ll get plenty of results. About 1.4 billion as of today.

That’s a lot of lists to choose from.

The most popular seems to be the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels.

What do they know about the subject? A lot, we presume, although their list suffers from at least a little selection bias. Arthur Schlesinger, a member of the selection panel, described the panel as “entirely white, predominately male, and somewhat doddering”. Seems true of a panel made up of literary types with an average age of 69.

Understandably, the Modern Library list was met by some disagreement, derision, and even disgust by readers, who cast nearly 250,000 votes for their own list of the best novels of all time. The two lists agree on just 32 books. That’s a lot of disagreement between the doddering old men and thousands of opinionated readers. On the other hand, the reader’s list includes some pretty dubious selections. Mission Earth by L. Ron Hubbard makes the top-10, for example. Forgive us for saying this LRH fans, but, um, no.

Of course, there are other lists.

Time magazine came up with a list of the top novels published since the fist issue of Time hit the newsstands.

Not to be out done, NPR’s literary critic, Dick Meyer, published his own list.

Here’s the Penguin Classic’s 100 Classic Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Or, The Best 100 Novels.

Or, The 100 Essential Books You Should Have Read in College (unless you were a math major, one supposes).

And Bookcrossing’s List of the Top 100 Books of all Time. Or BookStove’s List. Or The World Library’s List. Or BookRiot. Or The Reading Room. Or this guy.

This is perhaps our favorite: The Essential Man’s Library. Who doesn’t love a book list that includes Teddy Roosevelt’s The Rough Riders and Kurt Vonnegut’s Blue Beard?

And then there’s Newsweek, which took 10 different lists and combined them into their own. Oddly, that link to Newsweek‘s description of the list doesn’t include the actual list, or even a link to it, which you can find by clicking here.

So what about the READ THE 100 list?

We took the Newsweek approach to creating our list. We combined several of the lists above (plus the Pulizter winners). Any book that made at least 3 of the lists automatically made our list. But of those books, three were by Faulkner and E.M. Forester. That seems like too many from just two authors on a list of 100. While several authors had two books on the list, three is too many. And we’re just not willing to give E.M. Forester more than one spot (and that is generous). So out went A Room with a ViewHoward’s End and As I Lay Dying. In addition, we took out the Illiad and the Odyssey, which really don’t fit our list. Last to go was Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Same reason, though we are quite fond of Vogon poetry. That left us with 72 books.

Then we compared our list to Newsweek‘s and added a few. After that, we cherry-picked more of the books from our combined list that didn’t get the necessary 3 votes for automatic inclusion. That took us to 80.

The last 20 books on our list are a combination of books that appeared on the lists we compared, or favorites that we are surprised aren’t on any of the lists. Like Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

There you have it. Our selection methodology.

So where’s the list? Right here.

 

Books Mentioned in this Post:

Mission Earth by L. Ron Hubbard
The Rough Riders by Theodore Roosevelt
Blue Beard by Kurt Vonnegut
A Room with a View by E.M. Forester
Howard’s End by E.M. Forester
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Illiad by Homer
The Odyssey by Homer
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

 

The Idea

Open on a person (maybe it’s you) browsing the shelves of their local bookstore. Searching not just for a book, but for that feeling.

You know, the feeling you get when you discover a great new book. Or even better, a great new (or new to you) writer with a whole stack of books you’ve never read.

You devour everything they’ve written and then begin the search for the next great writer, or the next great book, to feed the addiction.

Pat Conroy. Wallace Stegner. John Irving.

Yeah, we’re always looking for something good to read.

Cut to last month…

We stumbled across Shelf Actualization, a new blog about writing and reading, and found a lot to like.

One of the posts, Read Something Good, struck a nerve. And got us thinking.

What are the 100 Best Books?

Google it and you get lots of helpful suggestions.

But after reading through the lists, we were unsatisfied.

Sure there are a lot of really good and iconic books on those lists: To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Beloved, The Catcher in the Rye.

But there among the roses are lots of weeds: Starship Troopers? Or, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret? One list includes all seven books in the Harry Potter series in their Top 100. Seriously? Of the millions of books written in the past 3 centuries, J.K. Rowling wrote seven of the top 100? Was James Patterson too busy for consideration?

Like mother used to say, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

So we’ve created our own list (the details of which we will share soon).

And we’re going to read them—all of them—then write about the experience.

Who knows where this will all end up? Or how long it will take? Or who will come along for the ride?

The only thing we’re sure of at this point is we’re going to savor a lot of great books and possibly suffer through a few stinkers. (Yes, I’m thinking about you, E. M. Forster.)

 

Books Mentioned in this Post:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
1984  by George Orwell.
Beloved by Toni Morrison.
The Cather in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Bloom.
Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling

About READ THE 100

READ THE 100 is a reading project in which we read all of the books from our list of 100 best novels, then write about the experience. No book reports, just a few thoughts about the author, story, and style. Or, in the case of anything by
E. M. Forster, how dreadful the experience was.

  See the list here.

  Read our methodology here.

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