Thursday, August 23, 2007

Modernist, Schmodernist: What makes a book a good book?

It's Friday night. Ryan and I are at the Jolly Trolley, in Westfield, NJ, waiting for his sister to come home and let us into her house, where we're staying for the weekend. The Yankees are on TV, and I make the mistake of jokingly shouting "Yankeeeeeees suckkkkkk!!!!" before remembering that I'm in a land where this will get me lynched. "Ha ha, just kidding!" I murmur weakly, as three beefy men turn to stare at me from behind their Budweisers, which suddenly gleam in the neon light like imminent weapons.

Ryan's having a Dead Guy Ale (fitting, no?) and I'm having an Amstel Light. We don't fit in with the general vibe, which is more "Eat-this-stale-snack-mix-they-have-sitting-on-the-bar-in-refilled-
Mason-jars-and-stare-blindly-at-the-telly" than "slowly-sip-low-cal-beer-and-blather-about-how-much-you-don't-
remember-about-the-Modernists" -- which happens to be what we are doing. We don't do this all the time -- thank God -- but we went to the same college, both majored in English, and sometimes like to reflect back to the old days when we sat around and read books all day because We Were Required To. We started down this conversational track because I asked Ryan to name his top five favorite books. You'd think I'd know his top five favorite books, since we've known each other for a decade and spend a more-than-average amount of time talking about literature, but I don't.

R: I really don't know what my top five are.
W. You have to know. Just think about it.
R: [surly] I mean, it's an impossible question.
W: [condescending] Well, I just think of which five books I've re-read over the past ten years, and figure those must be my favorites. Are they the best books ever written? No. But they're MY favorites, and that's what I'm asking you.
R: Yeah, but it's a category mistake to lump Crime and Punishment and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy into the same top five list.
W: [as to a child] Not if those are your favorites.
R: I always thought that the Modernists were my favorite writers, but all I can think of is Joyce and Woolf, and neither of them would be in my top five.

This led us into a discussion of the Modernists. Who are they? Ryan was insisting Faulkner was a Modernist, I was disagreeing. Predictably, though, I was not able to refute his argument with actual fact, and just began mumbling that Pound and Eliot were the only Modernists I knew.

The Trolley was not the place to wrap up this discussion, and now that I'm back at a computer, I'm happy to report that Conrad, Rhys, Mansfield and Lawrence are Modernists, Faulkner is not, and we don't NEED to remember what we spent hours learning in college because we have Google to do it for us. Phew.

The more lingering question is what puts a book on someone's top 5 list? Is re-readability a useful criteria? How about recommendability? If a book's ability to be enjoyed when recommended is the top criterion to rate its worth, then I'd put Donna Tartt's The Secret History at the top of my list. If it was quotability, Hitchhiker's Guide would be at the top of Ryan's. Or what about a book that when you read it, you can feel a writer's entire soul wrapped up in it? If that's part of the scale, then let's put Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson or The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt on there.

For what it's worth, here are my five, in no particular order:

1. On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
2. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
3. Portrait of a Lady, Henry James
4. Feast of Love, Charles Baxter
5. Possession, A.S. Byatt

Ryan's still working on his. How about you?

In dread,
Whitney Scharer


Daniel said...

In no particular order:

1. Disgrace, JM Coetzee
2. Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
3. Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet
4. Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsburg
5. Love is a Dog from Hell, Charles Bukowski

dennis said...

Crossing to Safety! What a wonderful book! I read it in a leatherbound signed limited edition which somewhere along the line was lent and never returned. Absolutely a top five book in no particular order with
2. Something of Value, Robert Ruark
3. Arthur & George, Julian Barnes
4. Bluebeard, Kurt Vonnegut
5. Wonderland, Joyce Carol Oates

Christopher said...

This is an excellent post, Whitney. Here are mine, in no particular order, and I'm sure they'd be different if I listed them tomorrow...

1) One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

2) Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

3) Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

4) Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman and/or Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

5) The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien