Cover Essay: What to Read?

COVER-ESSAYI’m a lover of books, great ones and not-so-great ones. And I also love lists. So it didn’t surprise me when Amazon recently came out with its “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.”

I was, however, more than a little shocked by the list, which included a few classics, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, squeezed alongside Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Really? And do you think The Very Hungry Caterpillar should sit on the shelf of must-reads-before-dying with Pride and Prejudice, the great masterpiece by Jane Austen?

If you’re looking for guidance on the books that you should read in your lifetime—and are considering using the summer to get started—this topic is worth exploring further.

In the novel category, should one read Jacqueline Susann’s truly terrible Valley of the Dolls instead of, say, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or—the greatest of all novels— Middlemarch by George Eliot? For poetry, Amazon recommends Shel Silverstein instead of the poems of Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, or Emily Dickinson. For a great biography, we get Robert A. Caro’s admirable life of Robert Moses. But what about James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, arguably the finest biography ever published?

Certain books here are familiar to high school students, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Catcher in the Rye. I don’t like any of these much, if truth be told. One of my sons recently graduated from high school, and he complained that in the past six years he had been asked every single year to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Surely there are other books about race relations in the American South?

I did like certain choices that Amazon made: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is certainly the best book about Vietnam; more than that, it’s a dazzling work of art. John Irving’s The World According to Garp will always deserve readers, as will The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

So, if this is the summer to get started on your reading quest, I suggest reading Thoreau’s Walden, which didn’t make Amazon’s list. It’s a sublime work of literature, better than any of the memoirs included here. And read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin before you read The Liars’ Club by Mary Carr or The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The latter are fine books, but they should not crowd out Thoreau or Franklin.

It’s sad to see that Shakespeare and Tolstoy don’t make Amazon’s 100. Nor do Updike or Bellow. I’d say that only about a third of the books on Amazon’s list are in any way essential reading. Now, I’m not arguing that you should spend vacation time reading work that I or others consider essential. But if you are interested in “must reads”—life is short, after all—rip this page out of the magazine and take it to your local bookstore. Or order online, if you must—just don’t let the online store choose the selections for you.

This essay first appeared as commentary on CNN.com.

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