Welcome to my newest blog feature, “Ask Mrs. Odie.” Sometimes in the comments, readers ask me questions that inspire me. Without any further ado, here is this week’s question:
“Just curious, since you are an English teacher. What do you think the top must read books are?” –Mrs.Dubose of http://upontheheart.blogspot.com
“Must read books” fall into two categories for me. One is books I enjoyed so completely, I feel like they are part of me. The other is books I love telling people I read because it makes me feel superior to them. If we were to use the Double Bubble Map discussed in the comments section of a recent post, we would discover some overlap.
If your question is, “Mrs. Odie, which books should I read in order to not only think like you, but really understand how your literary mind was formed?”
I’m flattered you asked. When I was in college studying Comparative Literature, I had a moment of enlightenment. I got it. I understood the literary references I’d been hearing all my life. Tilting at windmills. Beware the ides of March. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
I felt like I was IN THE CLUB. The best club you could ever be in. Here are the books that make you feel like you finally get what everyone is alluding to:
The New Testament
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Don Quixote, Cervantes
The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
The Odyssey, Homer
Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Dubliners, James Joyce (preferably read in Dublin pubs while drinking Guinness, like I did) I read Ulysses, and while I used to feel quite haughty about it, I’d never recommend it to another person unless you are studying it with a professor doing his doctoral dissertation on it, like I was.
The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne
The Fall of the House of Usher, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Raven”, Edgar Allan Poe
Poems by Emily Dickinson
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Stranger, The Plague, Albert Camus
Maus I and II, Art Spiegelman
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
I just realized that this list could go on for a very long time. I’m sitting here in a euphoric remembrance, as though I’d just taken a nibble of a Madeleine and had my whole intellectual life wash over me in a wave of pleasure. Typing the titles of these books causes me to remember not only their content but who I was when I read them. The smell of books. My favorite coffee-house in Davis, California, before Starbucks was a household word.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that I loved or even liked every one of these books. I do believe, though, that a person who wants to be culturally literate ought to be familiar with them.
Notice any glaring omissions? I have purposely not included The Great Gatsby. I think it’s over-rated. I don’t enjoy teaching it, and I never understood why so many name it as their favorite book they read in high school. It is The Fair Gatsby, at best. The Ghastly Gatsby, at worst.
Now, for my favorite books ever. The books I loved. I read voraciously. It’s a cliché to say so, but how does a cliché become a cliché? When I was nursing Pringles, I got my first Nook Color (I now have the much ligher Nook HD), and I have read over seventy books since I began. Pringles is 20 months old. I’m ashamed to admit that those books include all 11 “Sookie Stackhouse” novels (pure drek, but entertaining) and all 7 of the “Outlander Series,” which is like time-travelling lady-porn.
The book I read most recently, or rather inhaled in two days, is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Here are some others, in no particular order.
The Shining, Misery, Insomnia, Carrie and pretty much everything by Stephen King
The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence (I don’t know how Ethan Frome is the only Edith Wharton approved book on our school list)
Gone with the Wind
The Color Purple
The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven
A Song of Fire and Ice (the Game of Thrones series)
A Drink Before the War, and all of Dennis LeHane
I Feel Bad About my Neck, Nora Ephron
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
Elements of Style, Strunk and White
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Widow for One Year, John Irving. Everything he writes is fantastic. Shockingly so. Enviously so.
I recommend Still Life with Rice by Lee when people ask me for memoirs.
Finally, it is with pride and in a tone that’s snide I declare to you that I have read neither Fifty Shades of Gray (Grey?) nor the Twilight series.
Thank you for asking, Mrs. Dubose. It was fun to think about.