Woefully Under-read

I’m not even sure “under-read” is actually a word, perhaps because I am so under-read, but I am truly woeful of my lack of readness? Come to think of it, my vocabulary might be lacking as well!

I discovered my malady after my friend Jeff, who just happens to be an awesomely cool librarian, texted me “Bronte was a genius.” He was in the midst of Wuthering Heights and was expressing his admiration. I answered, “Yes, the Bronte sisters were geniuses.” What a snarky thing to say, as if I actually know more than he does. I received my comeuppance (All you non-southern people should know that this is, indeed, a real word). I received my comeuppance when Jeff asked me to send him two lists:

  1.   Top 20 must-read 19th-century UK novels.
  2.   Same for American Lit. but 19th and 20th centuries pre-1940.

At this point, it ocurred to me that I wasn’t sure I could come up with these lists. I quickly Googled! I looked up the top 50 19th-century novels. I had read dismally few of them. Is my Master’s degree in Literature a farce? Oh, woe is me!

Here are my excuses: I started my college career out majoring in Sports Psychology. Then, I decided I didn’t have the drive and ambition to make it in that career, so I switched to Creative Writing, because everyone knows writing takes zero drive and ambition, right? Stop calling me an idiot, all you writers out there!

Anyway, said degree consisted of a few literature courses and many workshop-type classes that were extremely well-taught by extremely talented professors and left me feeling slightly inadequate. I decided a graduate degree in English Literature would let me use my love of literature in academia. The thing is, working toward a degree in English means studying a smattering of work from a number of different genres and time periods and really becoming an expert in a field only while working on a thesis. My area of expertise is Restoration Drama. Who but an English teacher knows anything about Restoration Drama? I chose the era because Dr. Katherine Keller, the most amazing professor who ever walked university halls, taught the class, and because I wrote about place setting, which is my favorite topic. But that’s a subject for anther time.

The important idea here is that I have read precious little. I know quite a bit about 19th-century poetry, and I have read many of the famous Russian and French novels of that century, but there is so much I do not know.

So, Jeff, here is your stinkin list, and now I have to go read stuff. I’m trying to decide if I should thank you for the fire under my tush!

UK Novels (not in order because that is asking way too much)

1. and 2. We’ll start with the Brontes (there are actually 3 of them, but I haven’t read the 3rd, whose name is Anne). Jane Eyre is Charlotte, and Wuthering Heights is Emily. Both amazing!

3. and 4. Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, two profound and beautiful works by Joseph Conrad, for whom Enlgish was a second language. Blows my mind every time!

5., 6. and 7. So Jane Austin was just genius of geniuses. Anything she wrote is perfect, but my three favorites are Pride and Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and Emma.

8., 9. and 10. Another absolute genius is Dickens, of course. The problem is, I have read precious little of his work. So, I can recommend A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carolbecause they are awesome, and I may be one of few who actually loved Great Expectations. My daughter performed in the musical Oliver when she was in kindergarten, but that doesn’t count.

11. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Enough said. I mean, it’s Frankenstein after all.

(You couldn’t have asked for 10? You had to ask for 20?)

12. Is it cheating to include children’s books? I hope not because I love them. So, I recommend Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

13. and 14. Is Lewis Carroll for children or for adults? Hm. Anyway, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is good, but I love Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, mostly because it contains “Jabberwocky”!

15. to 20. Confession: I’m rounding out the list with books I veaguely remember, and it’s highly likely that I never finished because I was too busy. I do think they are worthy of another read. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’urbervilles, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, William Thackery’s Vanity Fair, Sir Walter Scott’s IvanhoeTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevens, and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells.

(I wanted to include James Joyce, whom I love, but my favorite A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was 1916 I think. Too late for the UK list. Sigh.)

American Novels

1. My mom’s favorite book My Antonia by Will Cather

2. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

3., 4., and 5.  There are lots of great Hemingways. I have read many, but I picked some pre-WWII ones: The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and Green Hills of Africa.

6. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

8. and 9. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by the great Mark Twain.

10. Jack London’s The Call of the Wild

11. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables

12. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. This is technically a book of short stories rather than a novel, but it’s great. So sue me!

13. I love Ayn Rand, but the only book that is pre-WWII is We the Living. No matter; it is a book worthy of recommendation.

14. While I remember the details of D.H. Lawrence’s short stories, the novels didn’t stick with me so long. I do remember enjoying Lady Chatterly’s Lover, but I think it was mostly because I knew it had been banned when it was first published!

15. and 16. Henry James is another author I remember appreciating, mostly because his long sentences were so masterfully put together. I can’t say I loved any of the books, though. I’m recommending The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors.

17. I am going to put The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder here only because I can’t list his plays, which are amazing!

18. to 20. Again, I am going to round out the list with books I sort of, kind of remember and probably need to read again: Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, and Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser.

(I’m sorry, I just don’t like Melville or Faulkner. Should I admit that? Many others do, however, so don’t let me discourage you.)

Okay, Jeff. That’s it. I need to read more! I think I might start with George Eliot. Anyone else have better suggestions?

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