Cover ImageCover ImageTruly obsessive readers (i.e. people like me) have been known, on occasion, to read two books at once.  There are really only two successful ways to do this a) you can read two completely different books (one nonfiction and one fiction is a good idea) or b) you can read two books that complement each other, but only if one requires less “work” than the other.  This past week, in an attempt to fill the Harry Potter void, I chose option b and I picked my two books carefully – Reading like a Writer and The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

Books about books (or about reading) are the sole realm of serious bibliophiles.  Readers wandering into Barnes and Noble or mindlessly exploring aren’t intrigued by these titles.  More often than not, they can’t even find them.  My favorite independent book store appreciates this small subset of readers and has a shelf entirely for us (entitled, obviously – Books about Books), but that’s unusual.  There are no book clubs for these kinds of books and even if there was, there is no cool way to tell someone you’re reading a book about reading (believe me, I tried this morning. Fortunately I outed myself to a fellow enthusiast), unless in the context of a class assignment (which, though it’s an adequate explanation and will save you some face, precludes it being “cool”)

 The Top Ten really just a book of lists by famous authors, each choosing their top ten greatest works.  As far as I’ve seen this book consists merely of a section on the lists (interspersed occasionally with a brief essay) and then a section that summarizes the top chosen works.  Nice racket; I wish I had thought of it.  This isn’t a book that you read so much as peruse or skim.  It’s been sitting by my bed, waiting to be read for those few moments each night before my exhaustion takes over.  It helps that many of the lists are the same, though often the order is transposed.

Reading like a Writer is completely the opposite.  The author, Francine Prose (who can resist a writer with such a name?) is a writing teacher and while this is a guide for reading, I can’t help but sit up taller, pay more attention and reach for a nonexistent pen to take notes.  There’s an undeniable teacher voice here.   Reading is serious business, particularly for writers (or wanna be writers) and Ms. Prose’s insistence upon close reading certainly translates to her own words.  She’s been traveling in my work bag with me all week and I still feel like I haven’t devoted enough time;  she is not an easy grader.  Her homework is arduous – to read the classic works, closely, studiously and carefully.  She’s telling a sprinter like me to do the old man shuffle.

Ms. Prose has her own list in Top Ten, which is fortunately much shorter than the “Books to be Read Immediately” of her own book.  Looking at these lists, I can’t help but suspect a literary conspiracy.  Most of the authors agree on several great works (there is a top ten of the Top Ten) but even with Ms. Prose demonstrating their inherent value, I can’t help but strongly disagree.  I willing to admit I may have overlooked Madame Bovary or underestimated The Great Gatsby but I cannot reconcile myself with the idea that Anna Karenina, War and Peace or One Hundred Years of Solitude are anything but excruciatingly painful.  Thank goodness for David Foster Wallace and his list (which included Thomas Harris and Tom Clancy) otherwise I would have been swept under the powerful tide of Russian-verbosity-induced ennui. 

One would think that asking writers for their favorites would be a good idea.  However, I’m inclined to say that there is an unignorable amount of pressure to play role of writer.  If you want to be admitted into the club, here is your required reading (basically the top ten).  If you already are a part of the club, you don’t want to be caught looking silly if you haven’t finished your assigned syllabus.  How many people have read in its entirety (let alone enjoyed) Ulysses?  I’d venture to guess it’s less than the number of people who tout this title in the aisles of bookstores and in the pages of literary criticism. 

I wholeheartedly accept Ms. Prose’s premise that sentences and words should be studied and respected for themselves, as separate from plot and storytelling.  You can read a book for its language even if the story is bad and you can read a good story if the language is bad.  But I stand by the fact that good writing doesn’t have to be painful, boring or arduous.  Toward that end I offer up some more reader-friendly works that offer beautiful language.  I have no other qualification than I read a lot, for both language and plot.  But I have no tolerance for pretension or unrealistic expectations and I won’t be bullied by the implication that I am not smart enough or good enough.  I’m a reader and so my opinion counts.

 Jessica’s Top Ten (and nary a Russian author among them)

1.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith   The first time I read this book I was close to Francie’s age at the beginning of the book.  The second time I read it I was closer to her age at the end. Now I read it and identify with her mother.  That’s what I love about this book.  It has a story for everyone at every moment, besides being vividly and beautifully written.                            

2.  A River Runs through it by Norman MacLean  Forget the movie (OK, keep picturing Brad, he is purty!).  This book reads like (in fact it really is) poetry.  Moreover it’s a heartrending story of love, duty and family.   It breaks my heart every time. I just love it,               

3.  A Curious Incident With a Dog at Nighttime by Mark Haddon    A poignant journey taken with a young man with autism.  I love the language and point of view of this book.  I’ve never felt so in tune with a character. I felt every emotion he couldn’t.

4.  Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand     Even non animal people should read this book.  It’s gorgeously written and it’s so amazing that the author was housebound and never even went to the places she writes about.  This book reads like fiction and is way more than a book about a racehorse.                                               

5.  Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt   Short stories I enjoyed, despite myself.  A.S. Byatt is a painter with words.  Her descriptions are potent.  I love her when she’s writing about fantasy, rather than about drippy Shakespeare students or incestuous rich people.   

6.   The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly*  

7.    Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl*  I STILL think about this book.      

8.    Who will run the Frog Hospital?  by Lorrie Moore     This book read like a series of short stories more than a novel, but I loved it anyway.  An intriguing look into a friendship between two girls as a flashback from one girl’s middle aged self.  The part that results in the title was my favorite.  Speaking of which, isn’t that the best title EVER?

 9.   Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides  Everyone should read this book.  Well written, fantastic characters, a great story.  I even appreciated the somewhat accurate sounding sciency parts that explain Cal’s “condition.” 

10.  Emma by Jane Austen      I know it’s a classical soap opera, but I don’t care.  Austen is laugh out loud funny.   Her perceptions on her characters are impressive and dead accurate.  She’s so good they shouldn’t teach her in school. 

**I previously blogged about these two.  No need to belabor the point.