This assignment began innocently enough. "Top 10 books!" I thought. "Nothing to it. I've been reading for years! Almost decades! This is the easiest assignment I've ever done." I set about to write my list, thinking to myself, "Now what books are great? What books have inspired me?" This was a stipulation for the list set down by my instructor. I chewed my pencil, doodled headings onto my paper, and looked around the room at my fellow students, who were alternating between scribbling furiously and doing the same thing I was -- looking lost. I tried to run through books in my head that I had read recently. I couldn't think of any. I thought about books I had read in middle school and high school. Nothing came to mind. I wondered to myself what exactly I had been reading for so many years if I couldn't even think of one book. I started to write down classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gastby -- because those are the things that people think should be on a Top 10 list -- then realized that I never really liked those books that much; at least not enough to identify them as works that had inspired me in any way.
As I struggled to remember any books that I had read in the past 10 years that had affected me in any way, I came to a startling and extremely embarrassing realization: I haven't read any good books. And by good I mean great. And by great I mean books that stick in my head, allowing me to recall scenes and plots and themes and characters from them; books that move me and enlighten me and inspire me to do or be or write great things.
Eventually a few came to mind. I wrote down things like Ulysses and Frankenstein and Jane Eyre and things by Ayn Rand. As we looked at each other's lists, we fed off each other and jogged each other's memories. I suddenly remembered how good the Harry Potter series was, and how taken in I was by The Hobbit.
But mostly I remembered all the books I want to read. The ones sitting on my shelf at home half-started or not even looked at, collecting layers of dust as I spend money here at school learning that I need to go home and read them. Arabian Nights, Pride and Prejudice, The Chocolate War, Gone With the Wind, The World According to Garp, The Princess Bride, Through the Looking-Glass, Lady Chatterly's Lover.... The list goes on and on. Then there are the books that I really need to reread: Ayn Rand, James Joyce, Jane Austin, John Steinbeck, Les Misérables, The Canturbury Tales...this list is more extensive and harder to think of.
This exercise gave me an opportunity to discover something about myself that I couldn't even have guessed at. I haven't read the books I want to, and the books I have read I hardly remember. Is this a comment on the way I read? Do I read too fast, too glancingly, not thorough enough, not enough like an English major (taking notes in the margins, etc.), not enough like a reader, not enough like a writer? I haven't had time to read anything at all this semester; I'm only 50 or so pages into a great book by Jhumpa Lahiri, a wonderful author whose books everyone should read at some point.
My spring/summer project: read all the great books I want and compile a new and improved Top 10 (or 50 or 100) list.