I haven’t read many books recently because I’ve been reading Bleak House, Charles Dickens’s 800-page novel of 1853. It was supposed to be my winter break project, but I started it late, after New Years, and it’s seeped into the second semester, which started two weeks ago. I’m surprised it’s taking me this long, but I think playing on my phone, doing schoolwork, and socializing have generally cut into my reading time. Also, I’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 the original, 1976 assignment to read Dickens’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, “Feel free to consult any critical works you deem worthwhile or necessary and, of course, I am available during office hours for consultation.”
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. Lewis’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: “Beware, Thorin and all, the day of the Orcs’ attack under the Misty Mountain!” That’s not right, of course. I enjoy Tolkien but can’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, or possibly two, since then.
So Bleak House is on Barb’s list, and I read it and loved it back then, after we had gone our separate ways, but never reread it till now. It’s number thirteen on the list. In her pedantic way, Barb instructed me in what order to proceed. I was to start with Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, move on to Cyrano de Bergerac, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I’ll include the remaining titles below.
Maybe you’re wondering what books I told Barb to read. Unfortunately, I can’t remember, especially since we were including only books the other person hadn’t yet read. I can surmise I included Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and James Agee’s A Death in the Family and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I’m pretty sure she read my recommendations, and I know I eventually completed her entire list. I enjoyed and admired them all. Barb’s taste ran more to Brit lit than mine, and she challenged and deepened my taste. At the end of Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White says, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” I’d add a third criterion, “a good reader,” 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 Hallow’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