Monday, January 3, 2011

Playing Literary Catch-Up: Or, Year 2011 Reading Resolution

Most of my life feels like "catching up." I don't know that I'm trying to catch up to anybody else. The feeling I have is of trying to catch up to where I should be had I known what I know now. Ie., had I had siblings my age, had I gone to a public school, had I started college as an English major, had I not been afraid to talk to boys in high school, had I been comfortable in my own skin at an earlier age.

I wouldn't wish away the path my life has taken, the particular timing of everything. But when I do discover something about myself or about the world, or about the fiction we make of the world, I feel this urgency to make up for lost time.

In regards to books, I feel I am racing to make up for approximately 16 years of ignorance. I feel like one of the least well-read students in my creative writing program. Not that I hadn't read a lot of books since the age of four, when I purportedly taught myself to read. But I grew up amidst a culture of poor taste in books, music, and movies. To be fair, I'm sure I was free to read wider, read better, but I just didn't know. I didn't have anybody around me to show me the way, to say "You should read Alice Munro" or J.D. Salinger, or Raymond Carver, or Sylvia Plath, or Grace Paley. Additionally, if they had, I probably would have discounted half of the suggestions after running them through my particularly Puritanical filter. Swearing? Any suggestion of sex? Dark and unwholesome themes? Forget it. Again, I don't remember anybody telling me these were the standards I should have, I just conglomerated these ideas through bits and pieces of overheard conversations and articles in Focus on the Family magazines.

Drums of Change by Janette Oke (1997, Unabridged, Audio Cassette)Disclaimer and apology if I offend some of my friends here, but I'm gonna be honest. My idea of great fiction used to come from authors like Janette Oak, Francine Rivers, Lori Wick, Robin Jones Gunn, Lauraine Snelling. Feel-good Christian romances. Frank Peretti for the occasional suspense/thriller. Thank God I never could get into the Left Behind series. One author I don't regret spending time reading is C.S. Lewis: Till We Have Faces, Out of the Silent Planet, and a nostalgic favorite series of mine, The Chronicles of Narnia. He's kind of in a category with T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc.

Halfway through college, I realized that I was reading fluff for the most part. I started reading more world literature, more classic fiction. When I switched majors from biology to English, I dove headfirst into a world of great, mysteriously rich, heretofore unknown modern fiction. Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Andrea Barrett, Louise Erdrich, Lorrie Moore. After college, I kept trying to play catch-up. But my pace slowed considerably. Till I started grad school--then the fun really began!

I read at least 29 books in 2010. Probably more. This list also includes poetry, non-fiction, and books on writing, but still, I don't think I've read as much since high school. Here's the list. Not all of these were required for school, either. I put an asterisk by the books that met me at a time when I particularly needed to read them. For whatever reason, they changed the way I thought about fiction and writing, about personal history, about the world.

*Adrienne Kennedy The People Who Led to My Plays
Norma Jean and Carole Darden Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine
Grace Paley The Collected Stories
William Zinsser On Writing Well
Mary Oliver Poetry Handbook
A.J. Verdelle The Good Negress
Laura Esquivel Like Water for Chocolate
Bonni Goldberg Room to Write
Dorothea Brande Becoming a Writer
*Lydia Davis The Collected Stories
*Barbara Kingsolver The Poisonwood Bible
Amy Hepel The Collected Stories
Brenda Ueland If You Want to Write
Joyce Carol Oates Black Water
*Alice Munro Open Secrets
*Lorrie Moore Birds of America
J.D. Salinger Nine Stories
*Andrea Barrett Servants of the Map
Charles Baxter A Relative Stranger
Mary Gaitskill Don't Cry
Lorraine Lopez Homicide Survivor's Picnic
*Ernest Hemingway The Nick Adams Stories
*Willa Cather My Antonia
Eugene O'Neill The Iceman Cometh and *Long Day's Journey Into Night
Sam Shepard *Buried Child, True West, and Curse of the Starving Class
Natasha Trethewey Native Guard...

...Not to mention other books and stories I've read that I don't have a record of...

I plan to read even more in 2011. I've already started through the Collected Stories of Carson McCullers, which so far deserves an asterisk as well!

Now if I could just catch up on all the music I missed out on through the 90s and early 2000s when I was busy listening to oldies and christian rock. Any suggestions?


  1. Swa--Happy New Year! I would suggest Natalie Merchant, former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, as part of your re-discovering of "high school" music. :) I quietly listened to her during high school. I think you would like her stuff both lyrically and musically!

    I read mostly non-fiction these days, but I hear ya on the selection of fiction from the past. :) I was the same!

  2. Natalie Merchant recently released a whole album of other people's poems put to music. "Leave Your Sleep" I haven't heard it, but it looks good.

  3. Sarah -- Thank you for posting this list! I was about ready to pester you for it through email before I saw that you had included it as well. As I'm facing the second half of Senior year, I'm looking to round it all out and to keep growing. This sounds like a great resource.

    I'd recommend looking up a top forty list for whatever year you're looking for and plugging it into Pandora, which is a great source of background music.

    I'm so excited to be plugged into your blog. I should have asked earlier -- you've been such a valuable resource to me!

  4. Loved reading this - many similar thoughts in regards to fiction. Looking forward to referencing this list again when hunting down future reads. We need to do coffee soon! ~Kim V.

  5. Thanks "redhead" (I know who you are) ;) I'm glad I could be helpful. And I love Pandora. Didn't know about the list option there. Thanks!

    Kim--I love that we can talk books. :) I still have The Peabody Sisters you loaned me. Great biography so far! Just had to put it down for time's sake and keep forgetting to pick it up again.

  6. Um, I'll contend that Robin Jones Dunn's "Christy Miller Series" should be up there on the list of great literature along side anyone.


  7. Hey, Faith. I guess I never read the Christy Miller series, so I won't argue you on that one. I do keep a few nostalgic favorites, myself, and I don't care whether I'd still think they're good or not. Also, She&Him = adorable. Gotta love Zooey Deschanel. Did you see 500 Days of Summer?

  8. I did see it. She is too much cuteness for one person. The movie was not what I was expecting but I could appreciate it.

    I love her.