Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Top Ten

This week in my Reluctant Inspiration class (so named because of the reluctance I feel in being inspired by it; more on that later perhaps...all you need to know is that if I ever post anything written in a class, it's from that one) we were talking about the Modern Library's Top 100 Best Novels list. As an exercise in conjunction with this conversation we were asked to quickly compile our own Top 10 list, which would then (I assume) be turned into a class list intended to inspire us in our reading endeavors.

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.

1 comment:

Adam said...

I find strange little bits of inspiration in all sorts of authors. Ayn Rand is one of the few that I have read that profoundly changed my life(thanks again, by the way), but Hunter Thompson inspires me because he was a drug fueled madman that still wrote for Rolling Stone and ESPN. H.P. Lovecraft inspires some of my music. Even if a book sparks a little imagination, it has inspired you. What you do or don't do with that inspiration is your choice.

I dunno. It is kinda hard to think of the big life-changing books though. I recommend The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. It is absolutely the single most important thing I have ever read, and it is the closest I will ever come to having a holy text. It might not strike you like it did me, but wow.

I hereby nominate myself for the longest comment of the week award.