I have stayed away from Reading challenges – because in any case I read too much, if there is such a thing, and I am scared that a challenge would make me obsessive!! But I drifted into the ‘TIME All time 100 novels’ as a self-challenge because I found the list interesting So, around a year ago I decided to read these 100 books at my own pace.
At the outset, let me confess that my two big bang reading phases have been in my teens (the late 1950s and early 60s) and in these least few years after retirement. In between have been rather lean years – studies, marriage, family, professional demands although a book was always by my bedside! My first phase was of course influenced by the books available in my father’s library and access to the British Council Library, that was then housed on the top floor of the AIFACS building, on Rafi Marg. The lean years had the occasional spikes, mostly the summer holiday visits to my mother’s house, where all my father’s collection was housed. My father had agreat taste and his books ranged from the classics to poetry, history and biography. And although he read the usual best sellers of the day, his taste in fiction was wide ranging. The shelves had a host of English and American authors and a large number of European authors in translation. It was here that I was introduced to Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, John Cheever, Evelyn Waugh and more! These last few years, nomination lists for various awards and book reviews have been the usual resource for my reading. Of course, the issue of availability has been reduced with the advent of Amazon and Kindle into my life.
Glancing through the list with my limited reading experience, I felt that there was an American bias to the selection. And I was right, an actual count showed close to 2/3rd were by American authors, many I had heard of and many I had not. So I felt that this self challenge would be a good way to push me into areas away from contemporary authors and into exploring American writers.
On my first glance down the list, I felt ‘Oh! I’ve read a lot of these!’. But an actual count revealed that I had only read 1/3 of them, with a bias towards the English authors – 19 against 14 American. And so I started to go systematically down the list starting with A-B, reading the books I had not read. And over the year, I have covered 20 of these, recently going past the half way mark.
Let me start by admitting that of these 20, I abandoned 3 books, which is unusual for me , as finishing a book is a sort of challenge I seldom give up on. But Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy) was pointlessly violent, At Swim-Two-Birds (Flann O’Brien) had a style I could not get around and Death Comes for the Archibishop (Willa Carther) seemed long, pointless and too Catholic!! Of the rest, only 3 were by English authors – Brideshead revisited and A handful of dust by Evelyn Waugh and A death of the heart by Elizabeth Bowen.
The American authors ranged from the 1930s novels like The American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser), Call it sleep (Henry Roth), The day of the locust (Nathaniel West) and Appointment at Samarra (John O’Hara) to the 2001 novel The corrections (Jonathan Franzen). Each of the 1930s novels reflected the human state of the time in America – the immigrant experience, the Depression and its impact, the Class struggles and so forth in the outstanding language of these great Masters. And Franzen, a contemporary master, was a sharp contrast, reflecting the modern American family with all its foibles.
Then there was a group of books from the 1950s, The adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow), The assistant (Bernard Malamud), A death in the family (James Agee), Go tell it on the mountain (James Baldwin), each addressing sharply different themes, reflecting the issues of the post-war America. Falconer (John Cheever, 1977), dealt with the America of the 70s, the drugs and the high life and crime. The confessions of Nat Turner (William Styron) caught the reality of slavery in the 1860s in the American South while American Pastoral (Philip Roth) was set in the 1960s and told the story of a confused father, who cannot understand the motivation that drives his teenage daughter to place a bomb that kills the local doctor. She goes into hiding, only to re-surface many years later as a vegan, Buddhist of some sort.
It would be difficult to pick one over the other and they were all different in style and content. But, Philip Roth and James Agee were superb, addressing human emotions and bringing you so close to the events described, that you become part of the story. Many of the stories were timeless (Death in the family), while others which seem alien to present day America could well contemporary for us (The Assistant and The adventures of Augie March) as they address upward mobility, restlessness of youth, lower and middle class struggles…….
And now I am plunging on over the rest of the list, at my own steady pace. I am happy I ventured into this as it has given many hours of pleasure.