Tag Archives: reading lists

B is for Battling Books

B is for Battle. Why do books battle? Wherefore warfare in our metaphor? Of course, it isn’t only books that battle. People battle disease, notably cancer. What makes us so prone to warring metaphors?

Battling books came to life in Jonathan Swift’s Battle of the Books, a clash between Ancients and Moderns with no clear resolution. Since Swift’s account of this battle, fought in St. James’s Library, was published in 1704, we might now consider Swift’s “Moderns” rather out of date. Yet the battle over the Literary Canon rages on. Which books are big guns? Who should we read? How is ethnicity (or gender) involved (or implicated) in epistemology? How do we know what to read? Who do we trust to tell us what to read?

A couple of years ago, a friend asked me for a reading list. I’m usually happy to recommend reading, but I am reluctant to list things, as though that were some kind of Canon of Books To Be Read. Yet I get asked the question. This means that (some) people trust me to tell them about things that might be interesting to read. I am a fan of reading broadly, which means I like my reading to come from books both Ancient and Modern. New and old reading challenges me to think differently, to broaden my horizons. I don’t like fixed canons, though I do see the point of them. Common ground in reading gives people places to start in conversation. Instead of a battle, I’d rather the books (and their readers) sat down and had a real discussion, one that involved listening carefully and thoughtful replies, instead of entrenched positions and cutting remarks.

On the disease front, perhaps it would be healthier for everyone if we used life-giving rather than battle-drenched metaphor. Unfortunately the fighting words around disease are so entrenched (a battle-word if there ever was one), that I’m not sure what life-giving lively metaphor would even sound like. I’m open to ideas.


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I found a couple of new lists of books on the web this week. In case you need reading suggestions for July, here they are:

  • The Top 20 Novels Set in Toronto. Local Literature! How exciting. I’ve read five from this list, including the Fionavar Trilogy, which is actually three books. In this case “top” means popular, which explains the breadth of the list. It includes fantasy (the Fionavar Trilogy), graphic novels (Scott Pilgrim), and books by CanLit icons (Atwood, Ondaatje). (5/20 = 25% of this list I’ve read)
  • 100 Greatest American Novels. 100 years, 100 novels, “American” novels, though some of the USAians listed work abroad (ex. Plath, Hemingway), and buddy who wrote the list includes William Gibson (born in the USA works in Canada) but not Carol Shields (same pedigree) which I find a tiny bit odd. His criteria are clear, and he invites revisions to the list with the rule being to add something you must eliminate something else. I’ve read 8/100 or 8% of this list. I tend to prefer British or Canadian writers I think, which may skew these results.
  • Time 100 Best Novels since 1923 (the beginning of TIME, haha.) I’ve read 19% of this list. Lev Grossman was involved in making the list, so he included Possession, a critical inclusion in my books.
  • Modern Library 100 best novels list includes two lists on one page, how handy. One list is the Modern Library Board’s list, the other is a Reader’s list. I’ve read 12% of the Board’s list and 26% of the Reader’s list. The Reader’s list is oddly skewed toward science fiction, which may indicate that somewhere someone was stuffing the ballot box in some way, or that only scifi fans found a way to participate in making the list.

So there you go, handy dandy reading lists for this July weekend.

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L lives in your neighbourhood

L is just around the corner, the nice bit of the neighbourhood, the place you like to hang out.

Loldis for Local, local authors whose last names begin with L.

L is for Leddy, Mary Jo Leddy, an author who wrote about the neighbourhood where I lived for five years in Radical Gratitude. Mary Jo Leddy also teaches at the Toronto School of Theology, a place where I’ve been known to give a course or two.

L is also for Landsberg, Michele Landsberg, best known locally as a journalist and feminist. I really enjoyed her book Reading for the Love of It, and at first did not associate the author of that book with the newspaper columnist. Then I realized they were the same person! Landsberg has written other books that I think would be interesting to read, particularly the memoir of the time her husband was the Canadian ambassador to the US. (Landsberg’s husband is Stephen Lewis. One of their sons is Avi Lewis, who is married to Naomi Klein. Imagine family dinners at their house.)

Finally, a little further afield, L is for Little, Jean Little, an author who lives in Guelph, which is sort of near Toronto. Little writes mostly children’s books. I quite enjoyed her autobiography, Little by Little. I read more of Little when I was young, before I started obsessively writing down books read. In keeping with the theme of local non-fiction, though, I do recommend Little by Little. You should check it out.


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More LOST reading

Earlier in the year I made a list of books featured on LOST and started reading through them. I reported on The Chosen and Fahrenheit 451. I liked The Chosen and was not so fond of Fahrenheit 451. I can see why Bradbury is admired and the book widely read. I just didn’t like it so much. I feel much the same about the books on the LOST list I’ve just finished reading, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass both by Lewis Carroll.

True confessions: while I was exposed to some illustrations and excerpts from the Carroll books this is my first time reading them. I’m not 10, so that may explain some of my general indifference to the works. I can see why Carroll’s books are classics: there are some fun games with words, the poetry is amusing, the illustrations are good, some of the characters do amusing things. The thing is, there is no plot. Both the books are framed as dreams. This gives Carroll lots of freedom in the stories. Anything can happen in a dream! Plus, dreams are notorious for vague transitions. The books are full of vague transitions in which Alice finds herself suddenly transported into a new situation. There is a typographical convention for these dream-sequence shifts in the books — a river of ****** mark them. This feels lazy. Instead of producing a plot-driven book with transitions that work, Carroll frames the stories as dreams; transitions can thus be ignored.

I can see why the dreamy quality of the book might be psychologically interesting. I can also see how the dreamy quality of the stories might be appealing if one were on drugs or drunk. I was sober and riding the bus when I read the books. Possibly this added to my indifference. Maybe if I read the books when I was 10 or read them with an 8-year-old, I’d find them more amusing. Ah well, we’ll never know.

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Required Reading

Once upon a time, the Playwright, the Norwegian, and I tried a book group. It didn’t work. Why? you may legitimately ask. We are all people who love to read and talk about what we read. It was the Required part of the reading that made it all fall down. As soon as we decided on a book we all wanted to read it became undesirable because required. Oh the oddity.

I was put in mind of this failed experiment in reading by two incidents recently. First, I read a blog post in which the blogger decided to read the top selling book for every year from 1913 to 2013. Because some books made the top spot for more than one year, the reading list is 94 books long. I looked at the list and thought that is interesting. It sort of goes with my reading old books resolution. But not quite. You see I resolved to make sure I read books first published before 1970 1/3 of the time in 2013. I did not specify which old books I’d read. There are many possibilities. I own many possibilities. I just have to look around and select one of the possibilities. There is no requirement that I read any one particular book.

The second incident occurred in the bookshop where I work. A gentleman came in toting his recently published book to find out if we’d carry the book. He asked me if he could leave the book with me. I said NO very firmly. He made his pitch to my manager. My manager came back and put the book on my desk and informed me that it was my turn to assess a book as two of my colleagues already had reading assignments. Ugh. Required reading. How irksome. Oh well, I’d better give it a try.

Do you find that making a book “required” in some way deters you from reading the book? Or does it give you incentive to read? I wonder if it is a personality thing. Probably.

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