WHO CHOSE THESE TITLES? THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, PART ONE

You may have heard of the PBS series, The Great American Read, in which a list of 100 books are presented to be chosen by Americans as their “favorite novel.”  The Field Library, among many others, has a display showcasing various books on the list for people to peruse and vote for.  There are three ways to vote, on the website, posting the hashtag on Facebook or Twitter, or texting the hashtag of the particular book to a particular number.  The list is here

I am not, at the moment, going to talk about the books on the list which I think shouldn’t be there if we’re talking about “great” books; that may be the subject of another post later on.  Right now I would like to talk about some of the head-scratching selections of books by authors who are (and should be) on the list.

The selection process is a bit opaque; the website claims that the initial list came from a statistically representative sampling of American readers, and then it was narrowed down by professionals. The criteria used are here.  I can understand wanting to limit an author to one book, but I do have some issues with the books this group has chosen in a couple of instances.

Let’s start with Mark Twain.  No question in my mind he should be on this list; he’s one of the greatest American writers.  But why would you choose The Adventures of Tom Sawyer over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? I realize there are issues about the language in Huckleberry Finn, but as a novel, it’s a much deeper, more powerful book than Tom Sawyer, which is a lightweight boy-coming-of-age story.  

Then we have Charles Dickens, another author who absolutely should be listed here. And I’m sure a case could be made for Great Expectations as the book to be representative of his work, but I have a feeling it’s included because a lot of high schools have made it required reading (not that they should; it’s long been my argument that high school kids don’t have the life experience that would make Great Expectations come alive for them), and not because it’s really Dickens’ best or even most representative book.  My personal favorite would be Bleak House, a towering examination of the British legal system, the vast gap between rich and poor, with suspense, mystery, and all the wonderful characters you expect to find in Dickens’ work.  But if Bleak House is too long and too little known (a shame!), why wouldn’t you choose Oliver Twist, or A Tale of Two Cities, both of which are incredibly memorable and both of which have given phrases to our culture that are still used (“Please, sir, could I have some more?” , and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” respectively)?  It seems completely arbitrary to me.

But the worst, in my opinion, is the choice of The Sirens of Titan for Kurt Vonnegut. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read The Sirens of Titan and enjoyed it, and there are memorable scenes in that book, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of his earlier works and not as good as his later (sometimes) better known books. Wouldn’t you think Slaughterhouse Five would be the choice?  A best-selling, best known book by Vonnegut, it’s much more representative of the things people love about his work.  And if you’re being a hipster and deliberately not choosing Slaughterhouse Five because it’s so famous, I can think of two other Vonnegut books off the top of my head which are better reads and more moving than The Sirens of Titan.  Specifically, Mother Night, a short but powerful book about an American who impersonates a Nazi in World War II Germany while secretly acting as an American spy, and what happens to him when he’s hiding out under a false identity in New York after the war (the book has a lot of good stuff in it, but the real takeaway is that we become what we pretend to be, so we should be careful what we pretend to be; tell me that’s not a good moral for this day and age!), or, if that’s not off the wall enough, Cat’s Cradle, a book about the end of the world, caused not by nuclear war but by the existence of a substance called Ice 9, an anti-war book (like so many of Vonnegut’s) absurd and funny and tragic at the same time.

Of course, I’m not finished going through the list and reacting to it, so keep watching this blog for more (I might even rant about the books that I believe should NOT be on the list no matter what).

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TIME TRAVEL FOR FUN AND PROFIT

So it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time that when I put together The Field Library 2018 Reading Challenge, one of the categories would have to be time travel.  I am, I freely confess it, a sucker for a good time travel book, and, in addition to the list of time travel books which I have posted on the Challenge page, I would like to provide some personal recommendations for particular books involving time travel which are dear to my heart (and excellent books as well, of course).

Strange as it seems, the Field Library does NOT have a copy of the original time travel book, H. G. Wells’ classic, The Time Machine (we do have a children’s retelling of that book, but it’s not quite the same, is it?).  However, don’t be too downhearted, because we have H. G. Wells himself as a character in one of my favorite time travel novels, The Map of Time, by Felix Palma. You don’t have to have read The Time Machine to appreciate Wells’ character in The Map of Time (though of course if you are familiar with his work, this book and its sequels become even more entertaining), because he’s quite an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character in his own right here.  The book involves several supposed time travel schemes, one to make money, one to save a person’s life, and one that involves real actual time travel.  The intertwining plots are surprisingly easy to follow, and it’s a lot of fun to read. This is in fact the first book in a trilogy, but I have to emphasize that it is a full-fledged and complete story in its own right.  As I was reading it the first time (it bears rereading, to appreciate exactly how Palma put the whole thing together) and I got close to the end of the book, I was afraid that there was no way he was going to make everything work (if I’d known it was the first book of a trilogy I would have been even more worried), but in fact, all the plots are resolved, and brilliantly (I was so delighted when I reached the climax of the book I actually laughed aloud when I was reading it).  You don’t have to read The Map of the Sky or The Map of Chaos, the next two books in the series, in order to love this book, but if you enjoy this one, you will LOVE the next two as well, even if they’re not part of this year’s challenge.

Want something simpler and more madcap?  Try the late great Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and no, even though this is the second in a series, you don’t have to have read the first one to enjoy or follow this one, and in fact this was the first book I read in the series (aside from one tiny spoiler which I didn’t grasp when I read this, I had no problems reading the first book after this one).  The first book explains why the earth was made, and the results from one set of characters’ time travel in this book explains what, exactly, the ancestors of human beings were (it also explains who really runs the universe, but a different set of characters discover that).  The restaurant of the title happens to be poised at the very edge of the total destruction of the universe at the end of time, and in the universe of this series, it makes perfect sense that someone would have figured out how to exploit that moment and make a fine dining experience out of it.  If you’re not too bound by logic and reality and if you have a warped sense of humor (this pretty much describes me), then you’re going to enjoy The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the other two books in the trilogy (if you like Adams, I recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this book, and Life, the Universe and Everything; while there are other books ostensibly in the series, the first three are, in my opinion, the best).

The thing about time travel is that it makes for really complicated plots, and I can’t think of another time travel book I’ve read that has a more complicated plot than The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Our protagonist, Henry, has a genetic condition whereby he will suddenly and without warning jump through time, appearing in different places at different ages. He and Claire, his wife, are very much in love despite the difficulties his chrono-displacement causes.  This is a moving, romantic book, and I have recommended it to dozens of people face to face, so I have no problem recommending it highly here as well. You should be warned, though: the plot jumps around in time and place the way Henry himself does.  Pay attention to the headings of each chapter, which tell you where and when you are with each character, and by the time you’ve gotten through the first fifty pages or so, you’ll get the swing of it. It’s absolutely worth the effort.

The opening line of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is : “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and that’s an accurate description of what’s going on in the book, but there’s so much more going on with the plot and with Billy Pilgrim than mere time travel. The book isn’t told sequentially because Billy Pilgrim, our protagonist, has been kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, aliens who live in four dimensions at once, to whom time is pretty irrelevant (their phrase, which Billy uses himself frequently, is “so it goes”, a fatalistic response to the wrongs of the world); we hop around from Billy’s youth to his early days in World War II to his capture by the Germans and his more or less accidental survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden to his death, then back to his marriage and the birth of his children, then to his experiences on Tralfamadore.  It’s actually easier to follow than the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I personally find it (along with Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night) one of the best books Vonnegut ever wrote.

For more of my thoughts on time travel books, you can check here and here and here.  But please do give the whole time travel genre a try, and not just because it’s one of the categories in this year’s challenge, but because it’s mind boggling and fun.