November 15, 2005

Reflections on 1000 Books

Tonight is something of a momentous occasion for me. It is a night that I have been anticipating for over nine years, and that I originally expected to arrive four or five years ago. On July 1st, 1996, when I was 12 years old (nearly two months shy of 13) and about to enter 7th grade, I set out for the umpteenth time to see how quickly I could read The Chronicles of Narnia all the way through.

Before I was even halfway done with them, I had already decided to see how many fantasy books in general I could read over the course of one month. And shortly after that, I just decided that I'd keep a record of every book I read, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, from then until the end of time. I've kept a "Booklist" in a Microsoft Excel or Works spreadsheet ever since (okay, actually I started in Word, but my dad recommended the switch, then helped me make it, before the first year was out).

For the past nine years I've celebrated the New Year twice. As January 1st approaches, I enjoy the Christmas holiday, consider what I have accomplished in the past year, and think about what the next 365 days will bring. As July 1st approaches, I begin to read furiously (I can generally do that in the midst of the summer with no trouble) so that I will have as many books as possible "logged" for that year of reading. I take a look at my reading progress for the past year, and resolve to read even more next year. Usually I have my eye on a number of books that I'd like to have read by then, as well. The tradition changes the way my entire midsummer works.

Tonight, November 15th, 2005, at age 22 and well into my senior year of college, I completed The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, which is the thousandth book on my list (specially selected from half a dozen candidates to fill that particular role). I have a vague idea that this was the number I was aiming at back in '96. I have no idea what I intended to do once I'd reached it . . . I think I just wanted to see how fast I could get there. Well, now I know. But I've been reading fewer books every year, and so presumably I couldn't do it that fast again.

Anyway, I know what to do with it now: Tuck it away and set out for the second thousand. Maybe I'll see how long it takes me to catch up to the present year AD or something. Then, at least, I'd have some kind of representation in terms of reading material for every year since the time of Christ. Because if there's one thing I've realized with the completion of every book I've ever read, it's the fact of how many I haven't. No one warned me, at the tender age of four when I first began to read, or at any point after that, that reading is a Lernean hydra. You can't read a book without having thirty you haven't read thrust rudely into your conscious awareness.

This may come as a nasty shock to Rachel, who earlier wondered aloud whether, perhaps, I might be able to "stop" now, but as far as I'm concerned, I'll never be well-read, but I'll always be trying to be.

Meanwhile, now that I have reached the magic number 1000, and found it to be (as I have suspected for quite some time now) inadequate even as a bare beginning, I can at least launch a special project here on my blog which I have been planning ever since the arrival of the thousandth book became a tangible reality rather than a mere concept. Beginning very soon and continuing over the course of the next few weeks, I will post a listing of my 50 favorite books (the top 5%) off of my Booklist in small, bite-size chunks.

The list has been mostly assembled (though, of course, always subject to change) for some time now, after I had reflected extensively on how best to compile and present such a list. First, I had to decide which books belonged on the list.

Of course, my Booklist itself is by no means populated exclusively by "good literature." For example, over 5% of the list is made up of Hardy Boys mysteries. Star Wars novels comprise nearly 10% of the list. However, the top five most represented authors (not counting Franklin W. Dixon, of course, as that is a pen name used by numerous authors), are as follows: Agatha Christie (32), William Shakespeare (25), Beverly Cleary (20), Sigmund Brouwer (18), and Isaac Asimov and C. S. Lewis (both 17).

My Booklist records a work's title, author, and the rating (out of 100) that I gave it. The ratings have shifted so drastically over the years, and were so totally bizzare to begin with, that they are now meaningless to everyone except (sometimes) me. I soon realized that, out of the 38 books I have given a perfect score, only a little over half of them would make it to my top 50. More deserving books have been given lower ratings in the past. Also, I realized that over 25% of all books I have read have received a rating of 90 or higher. This is clearly ridiculous. I mean, I get a great deal of pleasure out of the simple act of reading, and that is certainly a factor, but come on . . .

Then I wondered about order. At first I had them ranked from least to most favorite, but I played with them and played with them and finally realized that it was silly to try that. In the end, I dropped them all into a spreadsheet, categorized them every which way from Tuesday, and sorted them to see what worked best. I decided that I would present them in chronological order, as I read them. I think it shows best how my tastes have changed, along with how what I'm reading has changed, but also what has remained the same.

All that to say, I had a fun time of it selecting my 50 favorite books of all time and listing them off. There are four things to keep in mind as I post them in the days ahead:

-I limited myself to only one work per author on the list. This allows the list to reflect more of the authors I enjoy reading, so that it is implied that some of their other works are among my favorites as well, and I can keep the list more diverse. It also really helped me wittle down the candidates.

-In a few very special cases, I have counted books which were published seperately as a single work. I have tried not to let this get out of control, and only used it with the works that are available in a single-volume edition. There were certain cases where I truly felt that either a single, favorite book could not be separated from others without losing part of what makes it a favorite, or that the books must be taken together to be complete. In a few cases, I felt that a single volume was, perhaps, not a favorite, but that the whole definitely was. That's just the way it is sometimes, and my list reflects that.

-This is not a list of The Best Books I Have Ever Read. I wouldn't presume to judge that . . . I wouldn't dare. These are simply the books that I have gotten the most pleasure from reading over the years, and which I most heartily recommend to others or enjoy discussing with fellow fans. I would like to think that, in a sense, there is at least one book or author on this list for everyone. In other words, I would hope that everyone might find at least one of their own favorite authors on this list (if not their most favorite), or that (if they haven't read them all) there is at least one book or author which would number among their favorites.

-In the spirit of that last observation, I would very much relish any commentary from my audience regarding my list. Congratulate me for including a particular book. Tell me I'm crazy for including a particular book. Shake your fist at me for not including a particular book, or (as it is quite possible that I haven't read it) recommend that I go find myself a copy. But, most importantly, say something. I've had a great time pulling this together, and it exists for me, chiefly, but I love talking about this stuff with others. Let me know what you think.

Posted by Jared at November 15, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack