Saturday, July 7, 2012
You MUST Read This!
The past few days I've been reading Arnold Samuelson's With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba (1984). In 1934, Samuelson, 22, an aspiring writer and admirer of some of Hemingway's stories, decided he would go to Key West to see if he could meet his hero. He hitchhiked, hopped trains, walked ... arrived. Knocked on the front door. Which Ernest Hemingway opened. And said, "What do you want?" Hemingway, by the way, was at one of the peaks in his mountain range of fame.
Shocked, Samuelson fumbled around for an answer, came up with something ("I just want to visit"), and before long he was working on Hemingway's new fishing boat (Pilar), was taking informal writing lessons from Papa himself. Samuelson kept a journal, did some writing (successfully) with Hem's tutelage, then took off when it looked as if he was in Love Trouble. Over the years, he wrote--but never published--a rough memoir, a manuscript his daughter later found after her father's death in 1981. She arranged for publication.
1. Stephen Crane ("The Blue Hotel" and "The Open Boat")
2. James Joyce (Dubliners)
3. Stendhal (The Red and the Black)
4. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage)
5. Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina)
6. Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)
7. Thomas Mann (Buddenbrooks)
8. George Moore (Hail and Farewell)
9. Dostoevsky (Brothers Karamazov)
10. The Oxford Book of English Verse
11. E. E. Cummings (The Enormous Room)
12. Emile Brontë (Wuthering Heights)
13. W. H. Hudson (Far Away and Long Ago)
14. Henry James (The American)
And so ... I'm not educated.
In fact, I'm just 10/14 educated (that's 71.4%, a C-, if I recall). (And I ain't tellin' you which ones I ain't read--yet.) But it's interesting, isn't it, what's not on his list ... the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Bible, Shakespeare, and on and on and on.
Lists like this have been around as long as some people have read books that other people haven't. "You're just not educated," says the Sumerian, "if you haven't read [the books I have read]." In fact, one of Hem's rough contemporaries, F. Scott Fitzgerald, prepared what he called the "College of One" for his lover Sheila Graham, a Hollywood columnist. (This always makes me think of that line from Kiss Me, Kate when Lois, the young performer who's "involved" with Fred Graham, the older star, says: "He's been culturing me." That's one word for it.)
Anyway, on Fitzgerald's list (too long to reproduce) were Thackeray, Shaw, Dickens, Wharton, Cather, Wells, Dreiser, Shakespeare, and numerous others. Presumably, if Sheila read these books, she would be more interesting to talk with, afterwards.
Both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, by the way, were very insecure about their lack of formal education. Hem never went to college; Fitzgerald bombed in Princeton. And Hemingway throughout his career had vicious things to say about academics (i.e., educated people).
As a student, of course, I faced reading lists every year--from Dick and Jane to Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. The books got longer and harder. At Hiram College in the mid-1960s it was not uncommon in a literature class to have fifteen or more titles on the required reading list. (And, oh, those "suggested" readings--"suggested," in my mind, meant "never read these.") Before I even entered Hiram, the college sent a reading list to the new frosh--some required titles (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution) and some suggested ones (I read only A Farewell to Arms; the others looked and sounded too hard).
My wife once wrote an article for Seventeen about the books that high school graduates should have read, and the magazine bought it--then never published it because the editors kept squabbling over the list. Shouldn't this be on it? And not this?
For much of my teaching career, I got to make up my own lists--my choices often circumscribed, of course, by cost and by the school district's purchase of literature anthologies, a couple of which were really good--i.e., they contained things I'd read.
At Western Reserve Academy, where I spent my final ten years of teaching, those of us who taught the juniors agreed on some common texts (we all taught American literature ... plus Hamlet; don't ask), but for the rest of the year we could do pretty much what we wanted, what we loved. So ... we all taught Hamlet, The Scarlet Letter, The Awakening, and The Great Gatsby. We also agreed on a "summer reading" list, sometimes featuring Crane or Cather or Hemingway but, more recently, some standard plays in the canon (The Glass Menagerie, etc.). The odd thing is: There were three or four of us teaching the juniors, and we didn't really overlap all that much: I taught things the others didn't, and vice-versa. (Some saw this as a weakness in our program; I felt quite the opposite.)
But the Great Secret that everyone knows (and, thus, is no secret) is that all reading lists are fairly random. Sure, to read Western literature with intelligence and understanding you need the Bible, the Greeks and Romans. But which Shakespeare plays? Which Dickens novel (if any)? Thackeray? Trollope? In American literature, do you read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? (Some of us at WRA taught it; some didn't.) Which Melville? (Do you want to spend half the year on Moby-Dick?) Which Hawthorne? What about contemporaries? Who's significant, enduring? Who isn't? How do you know? And the canon for years excluded many women and minority writers ... which ones to include?
We all probably carry around with us mental lists of books we think everyone ought to read (when I finished In Search of Lost Time a few years ago, I ran around braying like a donkey about its magnificence; the principal effect of my braying? glazed eyes of my auditors)--and books which we really like but are too ashamed to admit it in public (like Oscar, "I Love Trash!" I read lots of books with little literary merit--just as I go to films where I hope I'm not seen--no, not that kind).
And so we're left with Dyer's Law: If you've read the books I've read, you're educated. If you haven't, well, you've pretty much been wasting your pathetic little life.