I havenâ€™t read many books recently because Iâ€™ve been reading Bleak House, Charles Dickensâ€™s 800-page novel of 1853. It was supposed to be my winter break project, but I started it late, after New Years, and itâ€™s seeped into the second semester, which started two weeks ago. Iâ€™m surprised itâ€™s taking me this long, but I think playing on my phone, doing schoolwork, and socializing have generally cut into my reading time. Also, Iâ€™m more confused by the abundant sub-plots than I remember being the first time I read it, but maybe my mind was fresher and clearer back in my twenties. You think?
Today, coincidentally, I was cleaning out my jewelry box where I keep theÂ original, 1976 assignment to read Dickensâ€™s novel. This memento, a large index card, contains fourteen typed titles and some instructions written in mock grad school mode. My friend Barb, who prepared the list for me, says, â€œFeel free to consult any critical works you deem worthwhile or necessary and, of course, I am available during office hours for consultation.â€
This was our deal: leaving grad school at Kent State University with a reading list of ten books (note how Barb cheated) for the other to read. Barb had already broadened my horizons considerably by making me read C.S. Lewisâ€™s The Chronicles of Narnia. And she was always harping on Tolkien. She used to leave cryptic notes in my mailbox at Satterfield Hall with dire warnings such as: â€œBeware, Thorin and all, the day of the Orcsâ€™ attack under the Misty Mountain!â€ Thatâ€™s not right, of course. I enjoy Tolkien but canâ€™t remember details like true fans. At the time, these notes were utterly mystifying, but I soon learned that Barb derived them from her Lord of the Rings calendar. I felt browbeaten into reading the trilogy but then appreciated it and have reread it several times, orÂ possibly two, since then.
So Bleak House is on Barbâ€™s list, and I read it and loved it back then, after we had gone our separate ways, but never reread it till now.Â Itâ€™s number thirteen on the list. In her pedantic way, Barb instructed me in what order to proceed. I was to start with Colin Wilsonâ€™s The Outsider, move on to Cyrano de Bergerac, Nabokovâ€™s Pale Fire, and Ayn Randâ€™s Atlas Shrugged. Iâ€™ll include the remaining titles below.
Maybe youâ€™re wondering what books I told Barb to read. Unfortunately, I canâ€™t remember, especially since we were including only books the other person hadnâ€™t yet read. I can surmise I included Annie Dillardâ€™s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and James Ageeâ€™s A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Iâ€™m pretty sure she read my recommendations, and I know I eventually completed her entire list. I enjoyed and admired them all. Barbâ€™s taste ran more to Brit lit than mine, and she challenged and deepened my taste. At the end of Charlotteâ€™s Web, E. B. White says, â€œIt is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.â€ Iâ€™d add a third criterion, â€œa good reader,â€ and declare that Barb is all three.
The rest of the list:
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
All Hallowâ€™s Eve by Charles Williams
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch
Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorned
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne