Compulsory Reading

June 25th, 2008 | Uncategorized

index 2 FINAL

Okay, I feel bad for Ellen O and anyone else who was out combing th’ convenience store aisles for Entertainment Weekly. I got the go-ahead to post this essay I just did for their 1000th issue. I forgot to mention the best part–my memoir Fun Home is number 68 on their list of “new classic” books from the past 25 years. (There are 4 pages, I’ve tried to put some space between each one so you can tell where each one stops.)

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242 Responses to “Compulsory Reading”

  1. Anna says:

    Thank you thank you… for making this essay and posting it here.
    New classic sounds classy, wondering what else is on the list I better check it out but then I probably end up having more books on my must read list again.

  2. Tina says:

    Absolutely enjoyable 🙂

  3. Suz says:

    That is so cool.

    Thanks for posting it, AB.

  4. kate mck says:

    sounds like we had much the same reading habits as kids. I actually wore out a copy of Harriet the Spy, from re-reading it so frequently.

  5. Maggie Jochild says:

    I came to E. Nesbit as an adult — never too late. I have all her books and re-read them every year. She’s eternal. As is Oswald Bastable.

  6. Ellen O. says:

    This graphic essay seems to be an odd alter-ego to FUN HOME. Hmm…

    Growing up, I must have read _A Tree Grows in Brooklyn_ five times.

    Middlemarch has been on my To Read list for years now. I promised myself that I’d read it in 2008. I’m 100 pages along and still not drawn in. I did finish two Edith Wharton novels though.

    I’m curious what books remain endlessly on the To Read lists of other people here.

  7. The Cat Pimp says:

    I have to say I feel nagging guilt because my reading list is stuff like “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched”, “What Shamu Taught Me About Life…”, “Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals”, “Biological Exuberance…”, and the latest Oprah magazine. My mind’s gone to the dogs, the lions, the giraffes, and self-help…

  8. Farah says:

    How the hell did you know how I was feeling this week? We have a book to write this month, and I am currently trying to “schedule” some time to just sit down and read a book, because I am so sick of reading in bits and pieces.

    And yes: all those great classics? Disappeared in the wonderful joy of discovering science fiction and history (non-fic). One day maybe.

  9. Sudro says:

    Hey, is that the new Harry Potter book? Can I borrow that when you’re done? I can read it instead of the copy of the Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay that a friend loaned me three months ago…

  10. sk in london says:

    awesome essay AB – thank you for sharing it. brilliant!

    ..and thinking about what ellen O says – which books remain on the To Read lists and also which ones were repeatedly readable?..

    growing up..Phantom Tollbooth – could read and re-read that.

    i imagine there are life-mythic meanings in what really grabs us in childhood… what do our earliest ‘favorites’ tell us about the adults we become? …that kind of thing.

    thanks again AB – hilarious and thought provoking as ever 🙂

  11. Suz says:

    I justified Harry Potter as basic cultural literacy. All seven volumes, of course. I’m very culturally literate.

    Meanwhile, I’ve had the most recent Pynchon and DeLillo’s Underworld on my nightstand for, like, forever.

  12. dzieger says:

    My To Read list has gotten completely out of hand.

    From the time I could read proficiently to about age 30, I tore through books as fast as I could get my hands on them. Even at my busiest – such as a period when I was involved in the opening of two new theaters, maintaining a late night weekend gig with an improv group, and getting up a 5 am to bake bagels at a local deli 6 days a week – I wouldn’t let a week go by without getting though at least one novel, even if I had to sacrifice sleep or hygiene to do it.

    These days, I’m lucky if I read three new novels a year. I think the cause is some combination of raising young kids and doing too much of my reading on the Internet. I’m not sure why this is more of a deterrent than working a 70 hour week, but there you are.

    I’ve given up trying to keep track of new material, much less actually read it. And it’s going to be several years before I can make any sort of progress in filling in the gaps my knowledge of classical literature.

    I’m rambling, probably due to sleep deprivation, but what I set out to say was that I am determined to get through at least one Pynchon book before I die, even if it’s doing so that kills me.

    Not because I hold his work in particularly high regard — no one has yet convinced me that it’s actually good literature, though I’m open to the possibility.

    But I’ll be dammed if I’m going to let the reclusive bastard defeat me. I got through Ulysses when I was 10, dammit. But as an adult, I let myself give up on Gravity’s Rainbow just because after 120 pages I hadn’t noticed any characters or plot. In fact, if anything had happened in the book, anything at all, I hadn’t noticed.

    Seriously, what is that #^$%*ing book even about? Am I just not as smart as I think I am, or does the book simply hate us for having the temerity to try to read it?

    Okay, I’ve regressed from rambling to ranting. I’m going to go mix myself a NyQuil and Melatonin smoothie and see if I can induce somnia. Sorry for subjecting everyone to the preceding brain dump – but not sorry enough not to post it 😛

    In conclusion: I like pie.

  13. Lishevita says:

    Hmmm… Now I’m wondering if putting this graphic essay on a list of things for my son to read will cause him not to read it. 🙂

    Nahhhh… Actually, as a parent who home-/un-schools, I find that the way to get my kids to read what I want them too is to just talk about the book in an interesting way. I reference one book while we discuss some other book we’re reading, and that sets off a chain reaction.

    I hated reading as a kid, and I didn’t start reading for pleasure until my favorite comics (ElfQuest) came out as a novel. I was shocked the first time I finished that book. I didn’t think I *could* read a novel from cover to cover before that. I always got bored before the end with other books. That’s when I discovered that reading had to be about what I wanted, not about what someone else wanted.

    And, yeah, my kids don’t always get into the books that I think they’ll like, but I don’t push, and they don’t *have* to read anything on my list of “classics”. In exchange, they often discover books that they tell me about and I find myself learning from them about what qualifies as a really great book.

  14. Matron says:

    My dad tried exactly the same tack with me. At age 11 he spotted me reading Enid Blyton books and suggested Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe (I am German)instead.

    His skilled mix of sarcasm and incredulity that any thinking being could not WANT to read these books, worked like a charm (I am obviously easily impressed). I read Mary Stuart when I was 12, the Shakespeare comedies and the Count of Monte Christo at 13 (I’ll save the tragedies for retirement). Aged 16, when my English was good enough, I moved on to The Lord of the Rings, Pearl S Buck and Herman Wouk.

    I now hardly get the time to read anything and when my girlfriend and I travelled around the world a few years ago (I was 35 at the time), I went into every second hand book shop along the way until I managed to re-read every single Enid Blyton book of my childhood. Both my girlfriend and I are complete Harry Potter addicts. I am also rather partial to Artemis Fowl. I sometimes feel that my dad, who died a few years ago, is looking over my shoulder and is shaking his head in disbelief. And then I grin and stick two fingers up to him.

    Why? Because sometimes book keep me prisoner just because they are pure and simple narrative. Enjoyment of the process of reading the way it used to be when I was a child and went through 8 books a week.

    I think I have long since decided that I do not read books just because I am supposed to, if they bore the life out of me (a sad farewell to Ulysses then). Somebody else’s opinion of what is a good book or a worthy read, doesn’t interest me. I have no problem with reading books that people tell me are “not worth reading” (I am not easily embarrassed into doing or not doing things generally). There are only books that I enjoy and those that I don’t. And by now I feel that I am old enough to know the difference and not to waste time on the latter category.

    I am always on the lookout for books that make me sit in my chair and forget everything else. Apart from Harry Potter that last happened to me when I read The Timetraveller’s Wife. I also love weird things: sometimes for the language (Dorian Grey), sometimes for the quirkyness (Die Vermessung der Welt), sometimes for both (Jeanette Winterson’s Gut Symetries)

    Life is precious and time is scarce, so if anyone out there has any suggestions for exactly that sort of book (German novels and children’s books welcome), lets hear them.

    Alison, you will just have to decide not to read any comments which include book suggestions, lest we spoil your exposure to world literatur for years to come.

  15. Ian says:

    I’ve never quite been able to get ‘into’ the classics. It’s the same thing – being told I ought to read them. Ok, I read Christmas Carol when I was a kid (though I preferred the Muppet version), I distinctly remember starting “A Tale of Two Cities” and losing patience by the middle of the 2nd page. I desperately struggled with Cider With Rosie at school, but loved the WWI poetry. Ironically, I found out later that a few of those WWI poets were gay. I think I tried some DH Lawrence once at a friend’s house, but I didn’t inhale. On the other hand I liked Beowulf (in translation).

    I’m afraid I’m one of those people that stands in the fiction section and looks at the loooong rows of books and has no confidence in what to choose or how to determine whether a book “will be any good”. Yet I read constantly. However, I stick to favourite authors or subjects rather than being brave and branching out.

    At the moment I’m reading Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale (about a bipolar artist/distant mother and her family) as fic and the Dead Sea Scrolls in English by Geza Vermes as non-fic. That’s after re-reading HP7 of course!

    What are people reading right now? I’d love to know.

    Just don’t “recommend” them …

  16. VL says:


    The books I was forced to read in the school were mainly the kind of thing that were likely to turn kids away from reading anything at all. So, exactly. Don’t force your kids to read so they may actually like it in the end.

  17. Ian says:

    P.S. Thank you so much for posting this! It’s fantastic!

  18. Alex K says:

    @Ian: Yes. It is fantastic. AB, let me join Ian – and everyone else – in saying “Thank you!”

    Torpid. Mmmmm.

    “What are people reading right now?” Erm, HARRY POTTER A KAMEN MUDRCU. No, I don’t speak a word of Czech, but with the English original beside me I can pick out the bits that I need to throw (in Czech), for humorous contrast, into a talk that I have to give (in English) this autumn in Prague. Hint for you fellow non-Slavs out there: “KAMEN” is “STONE”.

    OK, you wanted what I’m really really reading right now? Jeezo man, make me feel bad! I just finished some bog-roll by Jeffrey Archer. (Well, I was on holiday at the time. And I was in the airport, and I was desperate for printed matter…and I was drunk. And the mean boys were bigger than me, and as soon as I’d bought it they ran away laughing.) But I do fall asleep over Simenon / Maigret every night. He’s kind of canonical, I suppose.

    “Canonical”. I’ve never read anything by James Fenimore Cooper. And I glory in my shame.

  19. Aunt Soozie says:

    Thank you!!! I feel like a junkie who just got a fix… and it was the really good stuff, not cut with any crap! A NEW Bechdel cartoon and in color!?! Yummilicious.
    That stuff in the tube that we smeared on our bodies so we could have skin cancer later in life… ah, I remember that well.
    I’m just reading Leaves of Grass for the first time ever… I was worried that Bill Clinton would have ruined it for me forever. I was actually embarrassed by my reaction to I Sing the Body Electric… as in, WOW… this is really good! Hey, have you read this? Oh, yeah, I guess you all have…

  20. Mabel says:

    Damn, that was fabulous!

    It made me miss the strip even more…

  21. smutti says:

    The books you read for work are all amazing. I JUST read Persepolis yesterday and now I am craving a good graphic novel.

  22. Mighty Ponygirl says:

    That was such a familiar rant! 😀

    I’m a very slow reader–I like to read, and I devoured books as a child, but it takes me forever to get through a book. This is partly due to my dedication to “Canon” — I’m currently about to finish up Horatio Hornblower. Recent reads have included Middlemarch and Rebecca. I’m going to retry Jane Austen after a faulty start with Emma back in college. But these books will take me _months_ to get through.

    It’s gotten to the point where I’m thinking I won’t talk about books with friends and family, because it invariably leads to “have you read ____? No? Here it is… read it!” …The pressure! I could spend a month and a half of my life reading something that I’m not really invested in, or I could tackle Jude the Obscure. I wish there were a polite way to turn people down when they try to get me to read their favorite book!

  23. Liza Cowan says:

    Oh good grief. My daughter’s seventh grade summer reading list from school just arrived yesterday. She has to read (minimum) three books and be ready to do a report on them when school begins. To peak her interest I will have to tell her they are all horror stories.

    The thing that got me reading as a kid was insomnia. I wasn’t allowed to keep a light on past my bedtime, so I read the entire Oz series under the covers with a flashlight. And I adored The Five Children and It, and those Childhood of Famous Americans. Just the sight of those orange covers thrills me to this day.

  24. Mouse says:

    We had that card game too?

    No idea where it is now. Pretty sure I haven’t read many of the books it listed.

  25. Dr. Empirical says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Alison! and thanks to the editors of Entertainment Weekly for letting you.

    I recently got my tattered childhood copy of The Phantom Tollbooth signed by Jules Feiffer. A charming gentleman.

    Twice a year, the local libraries have a fundraiser where they sell off donated books. I can get a shopping bag full for under twenty bucks! That’s my main source of reading material, and it encourages eclectic reading. If a book only costs a quarter, why not pick it up nd try it out? I usually go home with a nice mix of classics and crap, and once something lands on my to-be-read shelf it usually manages to get read. So that’s my secret: Don’t keep a list, keep a shelf!

  26. Suz in HK says:

    Hey, I just bought a copy of the mag in Hong Kong… you are a genius. Reckon I scored about 50% on half of the other celeb lists in the publication… but love yours.

  27. Lucía says:

    oh, how enjoying for a morning before going to college! thank youuu, alison!
    this reminds me, last year i got nostalgic and googled the author of a series of books i loved “bomba, the jungle boy”, and i found out the most horrible thing: roy rockwood didn´t exist! he was invented by some book selling company so different people wrote his adventure books!
    it really broke my heart, even more than when i found out that lobsang rampa, the one who wrote “the third eye” wasn´t a monk from tibet but a weird english guy who said his cat talked to him and told him the stories he wrote.

  28. Duncan says:

    I take books with me when I travel. For this summer’s trip to Korea I took, and read, the new Precious Ramotswe book by Alexander McCall; The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein; The Romance of Leonard Da Vince by Dmitri Merezhkovski; Exotics at Home by Micaela di Leonardo; Moderan by David R. Bunch; The Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert; and The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine. On my return home I stumbled on Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader at the library, and read it too. I’m also reading through a series of short books on Korean film directors that I bought while I was in Korea. (And I still had time to blog daily on the candlelight vigils there:

    Dr Empirical, I keep a shelf too. In fact I keep two of them. 😎 It doesn’t help. The books to be read keep piling up. I’m beginning to realize I’ll never read everything, which is painful.

    I don’t keep a list, but I’m working on the “classics” — a tricky concept anyway. I’ve read all of Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, some Frances Burney, a fair number of Virago Modern classics … I pretty much taught myself literary modernism in junior high and high school, going on my own through much of Faulkner, Hemingway, Lawrence, Joyce, Steinbeck, Cocteau, Gide, Pound, Eliot, Cummings, and so on. (I got a good grounding in Golden Age science fiction then, and in the 70s I got back into it via the mostly female sf writers who revitalized the field, plus Samuel Delany and a few others.) I’ve finished two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, but forgot to stick another one in the suitcase this year. I’d like to get to George Eliot and Dickens, Cooper, and more of Cather.

  29. julissa says:

    I really enjoyed that. you did a really good job with the color 🙂

  30. --MC says:

    I’d always hoped I’d bottom out at simony, but I see that I’m closer the center than I’d hoped .. sure, my DJ bag is full of books, but they’re all Dashiell Hammetts, I’m writing an essay on the Continental Op ..
    I hope you’ve doubled back and picked up E. Nesbit. Have you read “Don’t Tell The Grown-Ups” by Alison Lurie? She put me wise to Nesbit, and to so much else.

  31. Kate L says:

    I had the opposite experience – I would read the library books my father read, after he was finished with them. That’s how I read Jan Morris’s biography in the early 70’s. Hmmm… was Dad trying to tell me something?

  32. Kate L says:

    …Oh, and kudos on how A.B. graphically portrayed the effects of a Catholic childhood!

  33. Susan D says:

    Anyone looking for a way to annoy your friends? Go to and list all the books you have read. Rate those and send email reminders to all your friends.
    It doesnt help having a partner who is a librarian that lets her friends, also librarians, send me their posts/emails.

  34. Carry T says:

    How I wish that I had known there were others like me when I was growing up! And I’m not talking about other lesbians. I was the odd duck in my family with the reading, my mother would actually take books out of my hands and tell me to play with the other kids. I didn’t like those kids!

    Thank you for sharing your essay, it reminded me of how much I loved reading and how much I miss it these days.

    Oh, and Susan D? I just got on GoodReads and *have* been having fun annoying my friends!!!

  35. Patience says:

    Very cool to see the reference to the Childhood of Famous Americans Series. I too read the entire series (or at least every one that my elementary school library owned) and recently purchased an old copy of _Babe Didrikson, Girl Athlete_, which I read with great joy (and self recognition) as a young girl.

  36. grrljock says:

    Thanks for sharing the strip. You look like Tintin in the first panel. And speaking of, Captain Haddock was my favorite character of the series (though I did enjoy Thompson and Thomson’s pratfalls). Oh, and that reminds me of the time my high school classmates got their hands on an x-rated Tintin ripoff. I declined to join them, because I prefer to have my memories of Captain Haddock (Blistering barnacles!) unsoiled.

  37. Dr. Empirical says:

    One of my favorite books from the black&white comics boom of the ’80s was The Trouble With Girls. One running gag was that the titular hero, Lester Girls, was forever trying to read Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, but kept getting interrupted by ninjas, natural disasters, or supermodels breaking into his house and wanting to have sex with him. At one point he gets shipwrecked, and is shown frantically running up and down the beach, waving his arms in the air and shouting “Does the pony die? Does it?!”

    After that, I simply HAD to read The Red Pony. I was so enchanted that I’ve since read every word John Steinbeck ever published, including letters and journals. Great stuff.

  38. Ed says:

    Sudro, I saw you post before and your post gave enough clues to who you were, so i knw we attended UMASS together. That said, you should definitely read “Kavalier and Clay.”

    Who am I to talk? I’ve been trying tor ead “Gone with the Wind” for twenty years now. Still cannot make it past the barbecue.

  39. devoted says:

    It is scrumptious to see your work in color, Alison! This is a great strip and really beautiful. I am as dazzled as Dorothy in her technicolor Oz, though that is a clear reference of a movie take on a book!

    My problem with reading is that I find myself so absorbed in a book it is really hard to stop to do elemental things like wash, go to sleep, eat, go to work, etc. I find I want to climb inside the covers of the book and just live there. This has meant lately a certain tendency toward children’s books or books I have read before (no being gripped by the plot for the latter, brevity for the former). I am noticing all these paeans to Harry Potter here and it makes me want to… uh… point out, not recommend–my favorite British fantasy children’s book author, Dianna Wynne Jones. Since I had my son & have really had no time to read anything more complex than the NYTimes (and Alison, of COURSE) I have been gobbling up her books, and I think they are ravishingly funny & silly and far superior to HP. For all of you, by the way, who eschew Jane Austen because she is (somewhat) canonized, give her a try. She is so funny & readable and better than even the best movie made of her work will imply. My guilty non reads? War and Peace and The Iliad. Yikes!

  40. Anonymous says:

    OMG, thanks for posting! It’s really bizarre how I identify with this on multiple levels- I was constantly reading in elementary school (I even used to get in trouble for reading in school- that is, reading under my desk when I was supposed to be doing something else) and my teachers always used to tell me that I could get lots of extra credit if I would just write reports on them, but nothing doing- I didn’t want anything to interfere with the pleasure of reading.
    This also especially rings true in light of the fact that I have a huge heap of Ph.D preliminary exam readings at home that I have been loathe to touch.
    The fact that Orwell’s allegory was lost on you as a child also reminds me of a peculiar thing that happened in second grade- we had a theatre troupe come to our school and ennact _Animal Farm_, complete with animal suits. Obviously, none of us got it because we had no idea what Communism was- we just thought it was a play about a bunch of animals.
    You’re looking more like Harry Potter than ever, BTW!

  41. Donna says:

    Matron Says:

    Life is precious and time is scarce, so if anyone out there has any suggestions for exactly that sort of book (German novels and children’s books welcome), lets hear them…

    So then:

    Anything written by Lorrie Moore. Which Brings Me to You by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott.
    Small press short story anthologies ( I’m constantly discovering new writers who are amazing).
    Right now – among other things – I am reading a book of essays and stories by Poe Ballantine.
    Alice Adams, Miranda July, Suzanne Rivecca (she’s only published a few short stories but her talent – in my opinion – is off the charts).

  42. Anonymous says:

    Oh, I forgot- also, most of the most valuable information I ever attained about sex was from reading the “forbidden shelf” of my Mom’s library (which I don’t think was actually really forbidden- I image she was tickled that I was reading _Our Bodies, Our Selves._) I also learned stuff from the various trashy adult novels from the seventies in her collection, but OBOS helped me find my clit, a discovery for which I am eternally grateful.

  43. Donna says:

    I don’t think being told to read something has made me not like something. Maybe I was not in the mood for that particular book at that particular time, so maybe I went back to a book if I felt that I didn’t extract everything I wanted to at the time I was required to read it. The stars did align for me on one “classic” though, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. One of the most treasured memories from my entire four years of college was my feelings for that book.

  44. rusty says:

    I just read– and loved– The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

  45. K says:

    Oh, the joy of reading books you’re pretty sure your parents wouldn’t approve of. I recall surreptitiously reading The Catcher in the Rye when I was ten and Neuromancer the next year – both of which my teacher mother had left lying about. (I’m pretty sure a student must have lent Neuromancer to her. Not her sort of thing.) I’m not sure anyone would have objected to my reading Catcher, but I thought they would at the time.

    My mental block is with modern mimetic novels. Especially the ones that everyone’s talking about. I know that Shakespeare or Dickens or Amelia Opie isn’t going to provide me with much opportunity for social discussion (unless I want to look like a show-off), and neither is fantasy and SF, unless I pick my audience. But somehow I find it much easier to get down to classics or SF than the mainstream stuff (which I still enjoy when I do get around to it). Maybe it’s a case of not wanting to join in with everyone else…

    We had the Cities of Europe card game. “Have you got Mont-Saint-Michel?”

  46. Suz says:

    Pynchon, for dzieger:

    1. Yes, GR has a traditional plot. It’s mostly in parts 2 and 3– you’re just meeting the players and learning who they are in part 1. (Part 4, well, things fall apart, the center cannot hold and all that.)
    2. Check for chapter summaries as you go. The deadpan style makes it very easy to miss major plot points. (It also makes it very easy to miss the humor.)
    3. Use the character references linked at (they’re by last name, pretty much) to keep track of who these people are and where you’ve seen them before– it matters. The page-by-page references there are good, too.
    4. Truth be told, I’d never have gotten through GR if I hadn’t read V first. They’re not directly related, but by reading V I learned how to read Pynchon.
    5. Take it slow.
    6. Have fun. If you’re not finding it funny, put it down and try again some other year.

  47. Nana says:

    OOOh that’s sooo cool!! thank you very much. I had already been pounding the streets of Berlin in search of a decent newspaper kiosk selling “entertainment weekly”–in vain…

  48. Dale says:

    Reading this and “Fun Home” reminds me that I need to start on some classics. Can anyone recommend some good classic novels?

  49. Rosa says:


    Sorry, just kidding. Though Beloved is awesome, and of course all of Morrison’s work is pretty canonical at this point. But I think Song of Solomon is more approachable anyway, and it’s definitely less gory.

    I have the same hatred of anything I’m “supposed” to read, but luckily when I was in school nobody ever tried to make me read anything by white women other than Virginia Woolfe, or writers of color of any gender, so when I laid hands on their work it was free reading. And now that I have a kid, I’m rediscovering all the kids novels I skipped while I was busy sneaking smut & sci fi out of the library in my pre-teens. Plus a *lot* of great YA stuff written since then.

    Thank you for posting the comic, Allison! I’m going to track down a copy to give to my favorite children’s librarian.

  50. Bre says:

    I read Animal Farm when I was too young for it as well and it was all lost on me, though I did think it was an exciting book about talking animals. I re-read it later on to enjoy it much more, same with Watership Down.

  51. sk in london says:

    mmm, a signed copy of The Phantom Tollbooth… nice…

    and smutti check out Palestine, Blanket, Maus and We Are On our own… all incredibly drawn/written graphic novels… god (father of you know who) knows there must be so many more but these are some that have really touched me in my reading.

    just read The Legend Of Colton H Bryant.
    cried on the top of the double decker bus.
    heart breaking.

  52. Ian says:

    I was very competitive with my siblings about reading and wanted to read everything my sister (who is 8 years older than me) read rather than “age-appropriate” books. Therefore I skipped over things like “5 Children and It” and “Treasure Island”, etc. So recently I’ve started reading them and discovered “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett who is a very interesting woman and it’s a wonderful read. The way she describes the excitement and therapeutic value of getting things to grow is just spot on and struck a strong chord with me at the moment.

    My favourite as a child was a story about an Anglo-Saxon warrior who fought for Harold Hardrada and his battles with the Danes in the North and William Conqueror in the South. It was so exciting but I’ve no idea what it was called or who it was by.

  53. cb says:

    Ian – was it Hereward the Wake?

  54. Ian says:

    No, I don’t think so cb. What I liked about it at the time was that it was all written from the point of view of an ordinary axeman in Harold’s army. There was nothing special about him, he was just a soldier. I’ll check out Hereward though.

  55. ready2agitate says:

    I never finished 100 Years of Solitude, about which I still feel badly (I read at least half in 1993, so that’s how long I’ve felt bad about it). But if Alison hasn’t read Beloved, then I don’t feel quite so bad (wank). (I just made that up: “wank” means something said teasingly, kind of bratty-like. Nothing to do with gaming, I assure you ;))

    Has anyone else read “The History of Love” by Nicole Krauss (who lives in Park Slope)? I just loved it. Oh my, I can’t wait to go back and read all these entries. How fun, reedy reedy people! (I mean, “read, read, people!”)

  56. Jana C.H. says:

    Saith Devoted: “I find myself so absorbed in a book it is really hard to stop to do elemental things like wash, go to sleep, eat, go to work, etc.”

    Yep, that’s me, all right. Fortunately my cat doesn’t care that I haven’t vacuumed the carpet in two months, though I did get the vacuum cleaner out of the closet a few weeks ago. That’s a step in the right direction, eh?

    The Iliad? Well, you have to be into that sort of thing—which, it so happens, I am. For the more casual reader I suggest Herodotus. He really knows how to spin a yarn! And there’s always Ovid or Lucian if you want something your parents won’t approve of.

    I did manage to read War and Peace, once. Some years ago Seattle Opera produced the operatic version of War and Peace as their big summer event. At the end of the preceding season, the woman who usually sat next to me, knowing me to be a reading maniac, asked if I was going to “re-read” War and Peace over the summer. I didn’t dare mention I’ve never read it. So, I did read it over the summer, and enjoyed it, too. If you like Lord of the Rings (the book, not the film), you’ll find nothing to intimidate you in War and Peace. But it did not send me off on a Russian novel binge.

    Truth to tell, I generally prefer history to fiction. It’s so much more exciting than anything anyone could dream up. When something amazing happens in a novel I just think, “Yeah, the author just made that up to fit.” But when it happens in real life… Wow! (I also confess to a weakness for trashy science fiction, particularly Star Trek novels, but that’s another kettle of lutefisk.)

    There’s an interesting article in this month’s Atlantic Monthly on the decline of book reading. The thesis is that reading on the Internet, hopping from link-to-link, shortens one’s attention span, making it harder to get absorbed in a book for hours on end, even when one has time available. I think there’s some truth to it, though counter-examples will abound among followers of this blog. One of the reasons I prefer dead-tree reading is physical: lying pale and torpid on the sofa with a book is relaxing and comfortable, while sitting in a desk chair reading a screen and clicking a mouse for an hour leaves me with aching back, shoulders, and wrists. After a session on the web, I need to lie down with a book for a couple of hours, just to recover.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith JcH: Some people drink, some people gamble, some like whips and chains– I buy books.

  57. cybercita says:


    classical novels to read?

    i loved tess of the durbervilles by thomas hardy and all of jane austen but especially sense and sensibility and pride and prejudice.

    i also really enjoyed the razor’s edge, the moon and sixpence, and of human bondage by somerset maugham, and carrie by theodore dreiser.

    if you haven’t read little women, the secret garden, or a little princess, i suggest you do so at once.

  58. siena says:

    people have recommended jane austin to me so many times that i don’t even pretend that i’ll try anymore.

    on the other hand, i’ve found that it is actually possible to overcome the hump of having a book recommended and actually read and enjoy it, although it takes a certain extreme level of humility and discipline, to be executed only out of devotion to those you love the most. i managed to read “the plague”, despite its placement on my mom’s list of books i must read, which she gave me for christmas one year (the list, in addition to the book), and it did become one of my favorite books. same for M.F.K. Fisher, who my friend just gave me for my birthday, after a year of telling me i had to read her.

    …on the other hand, i am definitely sending my mom the link to this page, and hopefully she’ll finally get the message to stop telling me to read russian novels.

  59. siena says:

    also, for parents –
    when i was little and my mother was trying to get me to read books i might actually enjoy (but still refused to read), her trick was to start reading them aloud to me, just until i was hooked and had to finish reading the book. this was embarrassingly effective.

  60. Sophie in Montreal says:

    I was the same type of kid, and was lucky enough to be left alone by my (otherwise very dysfonctional) parents. Now I make a living as a literary translator, and when I’m done I can’t wait to snuggle up with a good novel… a rather hopeless case.

    Alison, are you familiar with Daniel Pennac’s work? He’s a former teacher who is very militant about the right _not_ to read, and has even written a book about it, aside from his famous Malaussène series.
    Here’s an article about the English version.
    I forbid you to read this!,,1933210,00.html

  61. shadocat says:

    My school banned “Catcher In The Rye”, “The Scarlett Letter” and “Go Ask Alice”, and I promptly read them all.

  62. shadocat says:

    Jana-ha, another lettle of lutefisk, you old Norskie, you.

  63. Sophie in Montreal says:

    By the way, the link in the Guardian article is broken, the page where you can download the poster for “The Rights of the Reader” is here:

  64. katemck says:

    oh, yeah, “Go Ask Alice.” I forgot about that one.
    Banned = read.

  65. Anonymous says:

    Hey AB, Is “Interpreter of Maladies” just for comedic effect, or have you actually read it? I think it is a beautifully written book.

  66. Ellen O. says:

    Here’s another link to the “Rights of the Reader” poster in case you are having trouble seeing it. Hope it works.

    I’ve always felt bad skimming paragraphs, but I’ve begun doing so lately, especially when reading a non-engaging book for my book group. This way I can still be part of the discussion.

    I might not have read Beloved if my book group hadn’t chosen it. Eventually I re-read it for grad school, then taught it in Women’s Lit. Each time, I understood it a little better.

    I’m currently reading Helen Humphrey’s work. One of those “should I savor it or gobble it right up” dilemmas.

  67. Dr. Empirical says:

    Jana, have you ever caught the Too Much Coffee Man opera?


    Steinbeck: Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden
    Hemmingway: The Old Man and the Sea
    Twain: Roughing It (not as crafted as Huckleberry Finn, but funnier!)
    Ferber: Giant
    Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    Kerouac: Dr. Sax (On the Road is more famous, but I like this one better)

    All gripping, entertaining books that one can read in public without embarrassment.

  68. shadocat says:

    Oh, I just remembered; My parents made me do an extra year of catechism studies when they found I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint”. My classes didn’t keep me from reading “Goodbye Columbus” though.

  69. The Fatigues says:

    I remember my mother reading The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett to me and my sister when we were little kids. I still find that story very touching, so I would recommend that to the casual reader who havent read it.

    By the way, Shadocat, I’m from Norway and I find it somewhat peculiar that most of us hate lutefisk. Especially from kettles, not fresh in lefse.:)

    “In order to be a good writer, one must also be a good reader.” Reid Baer

    This memoir was fab, Allison.

  70. The Fatigues says:

    Dr. Empirical, I would like to recommend another Steinbeck-book in addition to those: The Winter of Our Discontent.
    Had me satisfied. In case one hasnt read it.

  71. shadocat says:

    that was supposed to be “kettle of lutefisk” and I’ve never eaten any that I’ve liked.

    Maybe if I didn’t have to look at it.

  72. Catherine says:

    This is wonderful. I saw myself as a child, as a parent, and my children and granddaughter in it. Great stuff.

  73. Suz says:

    Cuckoo’s Nest instead of Sometimes a Great Notion, Dr E? Why? (Not trying to be rude, just curious.)

  74. sillipitti says:

    OK, AB, why is your file on Flickr named for the genus of the Jujube tree? I never thought jujube was anything more than weird-tasting oblong candy!

  75. ready2agitate says:

    Anyone else unable to put down The Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver? I loved it.

    Duncan, scared ‘a you, girlfriend! (Actually, scared a a lot of you’s!)

    Don’t love him, but found Ian MacEwan hard to put down – real page-turners. But then again, mainstream.

    Um, and for about 20 years or so, I only read women writers. Part of changing my diet after the first 18 years of reading almost only men. I’m guessing I’m in some company here in that regard. I read a few male Latin American magical realist and revolutionary writers during this period, however. Now I read whatever tickles my fancy (although still often, it’s women).

  76. This is such a great conversation!

  77. Dr. Empirical says:

    I like the playful use of language in Cuckoo’s Nest, Suz. Great Notion, while a fine book, isn’t quite as much fun!

    One other point I’d like to add to this conversation: Don’t be afraid to own your trash! There’s nothing wrong with loving Star Trek novels, or Steven King, or even (he shudders) Vampire Romance Novels. Just don’t let it be the only thing you read!

  78. ksbel6 says:

    The first book I remember reading several times is The Mad Scientist Club…I think I was about 10…then came Terry Brooks and The Sword of Shanara. If you like Michael Chabon, Summerland is awesome and my 10 year old daughter absolutely loved it also. My current favorite author is Neil Gaiman (he also has several good kids books out)…but I’m currently reading Bonk by Mary Roach which is not only very interesting, but very funny…and Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.

  79. Mighty Ponygirl says:

    Has anyone else here read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson?

  80. Ellen O. says:

    Yes– Housekeeping was stunning. I haven’t read her new(ish) one yet though.

    Barbara Kingsolver, Louise Erdrich, Anne Tyler, Julia Glass, Jhumpra Lahiri, Sarah Waters, for pure pleasure (though The Namesake was disappointing.)

    Fanny Howe, Selah Saterstrom, Helen Humphries, Rebecca Brown, Amiee Bender, A.M. Homes, Kent Haruf for craft and language and inspiration.

    I’d never read any Marge Piercy (even though she was on my “you should read this” list) until Gone to Soldiers, which I found surprisingly inviting and captivating.

    Authors and books I swear (really) I’m going to read someday: Rikki Ducornet, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, House of Dawn by F. Scott Momoday, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, anything by the big Russian authors.

    And on and on and on.

    And this is just the fiction.

  81. Scotia says:

    Great essay, Alison! I know I’ve asked this before, but were we born at exactly the same moment? Harriet the Spy, Phantom Tollbooth, the Childhood of Great Americans series (They had their own little row in the back of our school library, and I went there to hide when I skipped out of gym class; it took them months to figure out where I went). Did anyone read Edward Eager (Half Magic, Knight’s Castle, Magic by the Lake)? I really loved him a lot.

    I actually turned out to be a high school English teacher, so I get to reread classics all the time. Last fall, however, having never taught anyone younger than 10th grade, I found myself a long-term sub in a 6th grade class. Since I had no idea of what to do with them pedagogically (aside from making them read and write, which in the long run is all an English teacher can ever do), I read Harriet the Spy aloud to them (it’s an all-boys school). They LOVED it. The collective gasp of horror when Harriet’s mother tells Ole Golly she’s fired made my semester. They all got their own spy notebooks and started writing comments on each other. Some of the boys rushed out and got The Long Secret, which kind of freaked them out.

    My plans for this summer: Anna Karenina and the last two Pallaser novels (The Prime Minister and The Duke’s Children).

  82. Maggie Jochild says:

    ksbel6, Blue Highways led me to River Horse and PrairyErth also by Least Heat Moon. Of the three, PrairyErth is the one that comes up in my thoughts at least once a week.

    I read Annie Dillard and Anne Lamott whenever they come out with a new book (not nearly often enough). Ditto John McPhee, Barry Lopez, Sue Hubbell, and Wendell Berry.

    I also read what are called mysteries but often are examples of the best fiction around these days: Laurie R. King (both the lesbian detective and the Mary Russell series), Martha Grimes, Elizabeth George, P.D. James, Ruth Rendell.

    Every six months for sheer entertainment I re-read the Chanur Series by C.J. Cherry; Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson; everything I’ve got by Maira Kalman; and the Frances and Richard Lockridge mysteries (yes, they were drunks but the Siamese cats are great, the description of the period is extraordinarily good and the whodunnit is enduring).

  83. --MC says:

    Stephen King? He’s on the Big List of Books from EW .. for his book on writing. I’ve recommended it before, and I’ll say it again, it’s a good book. Half tutorial, half mea culpa, as he writes about how he lost the plot due to his drug and drink habits. It’s a rare book on writing in which the author will discuss his coke nosebleeds, but there you have it.

  84. Maggie Jochild says:

    MC, you’re right, I highly recommend King’s book on writing. Also Bird by Bird by Lamott, and Starting From Scratch by Rita Mae Brown (much better how-to than her mysteries).

  85. Pam says:

    Another voracious reader here. I tried to read Huckleberry Finn when I was too young for it. Came back as a young teen and loved it. Though I grew up reading all the science fiction and fantasy I could get my hands on, I now find it much easier to get interested in non-fiction. When a novel can immerse me so deeply I read all night and come up for 4 am, it’s such rare event, I feel grateful.

    Since I’m currently trying to prune my reading list, I’d rather not add to yours, except to second the recommendation of Diana Wynn Jones.

  86. Aunt Soozie says:

    I found the library a very exciting place. My friend Ann and I discovered the Diaries of Anais Nin when we were in maybe 8th grade… we thought we were so evil… and mature… reading them. I also loved reading the dictionary, which completely amused my mother.

    Duncan, do you read quickly? Constantly? or both??
    I can’t imagine getting through all of those books during a trip, well, I don’t know how long you were in Korea but it would take me a year to get through that list!!

    Maybe if I shut down my computer…. or read online….

  87. Aunt Soozie says:

    Slightly off topic but the woman who won this year’s Beaver Queen Pageant was absolutely wild and out of control and… she’s a children’s librarian in her real life. (that made it just a bit easier to relinquish my crown)
    A photo of her in the competition

  88. Ginjoint says:

    Lately, I’ve been reading children’s literature, for some reason. I have no idea why. Thanks to everyone for all the good leads! As for the more adult stuff, I loved Housekeeping (the movie’s great, too), but The History of Love, I just couldn’t get into.

    ready2agitate, I was the same way about female writers after I escaped high school, where it was all men, all the time. I still definitely read more women than men, but I’m not so focussed on that.

    Someone mentioned Marge Piercy – we read Woman on the Edge of Time in my first Women’s Lit class, and it opened this white girl’s eyes to just one minority experience. Also, the sci fi aspects were quite cool.

    The Poisonwood Bible is on my list. As for owning my trash, one of my favorite books is The Talisman, by Stephen King and Peter Straub. It’s about a boy who “flips” from this world to a parallel one in order to save his mother, and the goodness and nastiness he encounters along the way.

  89. Ian says:

    I’m not sure if I was taught it or not, but I seem to have garnered the rather OCD-esque habit from childhood that if I pick up a book I have to finish it before I read anything else and not to finish is to admit failure. If I read more than one thing at a time my life turns to chaos. It was a real shock to the system when I got to Uni to find out that no one reads academic texts from cover to cover, only bits of them. It felt like cheating …

  90. Ginjoint says:

    Also? Thanks Alison for posting this strip. Very generous. I laughed at the suntan/burn part – growing up in the ’70’s, I partook in that as well. Part of what I loved about summer was the time to go to the library for pleasure – stepping from the heat and humidity of the outdoors into the cool, quiet interior, with the delicious smell of the books. Ahhhhh….

  91. Leda says:

    Wonderful, I had given up hope of seeing EW piece as I’m in the UK!

    Phenomenology of Spirit? Cripes! The staff in my university Philosophy department are still arguing over that one in their Hegel reading group. Of course they’ll argue over anything…..

    But books and reading god how I love them. My parents never really pressed any books on me (but strongly encouraged reading) and we were free to read anything we liked from their vast collection, (Oh yes, I remember Our Bodies Ourselves and the bit about what lesbians do in bed….) and it was an approach that worked. Me and my brothers and sisters all read for pleasure and books are always popular presents. My brother-in-law works for Faber which is great as I get my hands loads of new books and the Faber ones are always so beautifully designed as well.

    An amazing book that my brother-in-law passed on was The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall. It is set in Cumbria in the UK, in the not to distant future and is about an army of women who rise up when the government begin to control the reproductive and other freedoms of the population following economic and political collapse due to shortage of fuel. Its similar ground to the Handmaid’s Tale but what I found so compelling was how brilliantly Sarah Hall describes what it might be that would make you prepared to kill and die yourself in order to disrupt and attempt to overthrow a dominant power, i.e. not just a process of politicisation but an immediate response which is to fight. I personally have never read anything where this is explored in women, and its not always comfortable reading but it gave me so much to think about, not least my own assumptions….. and if that’s not the definition of a good book then I don’t know what is!

    And there are other reasons why readers of this blog may well enjoy it…

  92. amyfaith says:

    AB: Thanks for transporting me (so many of us!) back to our quirky, bookish childhoods! I, for one, would spend *all* day, on saturdays, at our small-town library, polishing off entire authors and genres (Bobbsey Twins and Happy Hollisters, anyone?) in the process. And when I got sleepy, I’d just lay down on the couch in the childrens’ area and nap. In public. Regardless of who else was around. And all the librarians loved me (I suspect, because they had all been quirky, bookish kids themselves!).

    Aunt Soozie: I could lose myself in the dictionary for ages as a child too – and it must be genetic. Two years ago, my son found a used, but still in good condition Merriam-Websters Collegiate on an outdoor rack at our local used bookstore and begged my husband to buy it for him (and, yes, he did know how to use it). A month later, on the first day of Kindergarten, he INSISTED that the book go into his backpack, because he would DEFINITELY need it for “big kids school”. Two weeks later, the school moved him up to first grade 😉
    (These days, he’s gone slightly more down-market, ever since discovering Calvin and Hobbes compilations – which he uses pretty much as training manuals. sigh…)

    A question: I deeply loved a book called Mistress Masham’s Repose (by T.H. White), which I dug out of an elderly neighbor’s trash can when I was about 7 yo. However, I have NEVER met anyone else who knew this book – has anyone out there ever read this?

  93. Ian says:

    @amyfaith: you mean Calvin & Hobbes *isn’t* a manual for how to live your life? Except I no longer throw slushballs at girls who are smarter than I am.

  94. Cate says:

    Alison, I did find this on the shelf, but I’m so glad to see it here too. What struck me about this conversation is that I’m oddly fine with not “tackling canon” anymore — I love how much different things that fit into “canon” resonant with different people. (That said, I think that any child who doesn’t read Harriet the Spy is missing something fierce ;-)).

  95. Elf says:

    When we moved to Britain three years ago, we went through a massive book cull–the shipping charges for our 10,000+ books would have been prohibitive. We got it down to about 3000… and it was hard, in one way, and easy in another. I held every book I owned in my hand–the yellowing Scholastics from fifth grade, the Ray Bradburys from high school, the stacks of wonderful novels gleaned from seven years working at Borders–and asked myself, “Will I ever read this again?” Seven times out of ten, somehow, the answer was no. Either I’d read it once (or never finished it) and been made replete, or it was one of those books that I’d read over and over and knew deep inside that I’d never have enough of. Pathetic, in a way, to have kept so many children’s novels (Joan Aiken!) and discarded so many classics of adult literature… and horrible to consider all the no-doubt wonderful novels which I’ll never have time to read in however many years are still allotted to me. But it’s supposed to be about pleasure, not duty. That which we are obliged to do is rarely at the top of the list of what we’d like to be doing. So–merci, mais non to Eliot and Dante and anyone on the Nobel list… I’ll be busy re-reading Armistead Maupin for the twelfth time and Mary Renault for the twentieth and Robin McKinley and Robert Heinlein and Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley for the umpteeth. Literature is an art, and I am an art-lover–and I gravitate, whether in a gallery or a bookstore, towards what I love. No guilt, no repercussions, and no looking back.

  96. Nurse Ingrid says:

    Rock on, bookish dykes and dyke pals!

    I’m with Jana C.H. in that I prefer truth to fiction. These days I mostly read memoirs (Augusten Burroughs’ latest is on my bedside table at the moment), essays/cultural criticism (especially the so-called “New Atheists”), and my most guilty pleasure, true crime.

    There is actually some really well written true crime out there these days, in the fine tradition of “In Cold Blood.” I suggest “Halfway Heaven” by Melanie Thernstrom, “Party Monster” by James St. James, or “The Red Parts” by Maggie Nelson.

    Novels I actually did love, and read again and again: “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn, “White Noise” by Don DeLillo, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston. And I was a late convert to “Pride and Prejudice;” my wife is a huge Austen fan and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It was amazing.

    My favorite author of all time will always be Douglas Adams. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” changed my life when I was fourteen, and I don’t even know how many copies I’ve worn out since then.

    Finally, to the childhood hall of fame, I will add E.L. Konigsburg for “The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and “Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth.” And I, too, was an Edward Eager fan, Scotia!

    Oh, and all you “Harriet the Spy” fans know that Louise Fitzhugh came out as a dyke, right?

  97. Ellen O. says:

    For those who say they prefer truth to fiction…. Fiction is full of truth.
    Perhaps you mean you prefer facts to fiction.
    Of course, non-fiction selects, pares, and reshapes facts all the time.

    I love the blur of it all.

    And I loved “The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” too.

  98. --MC says:

    Amyfaith, I think a copy of “Mistress Masham’s Repose” is currently on our bookshelves — I hope so. I may have to go out and get a copy, if not, because you’ve piqued my interest — I know I had one for a while, but now I can’t remember if I’ve read it or not!
    As much as I loved “Harriet The Spy” when younger (and she initiated me into the cult of Notebook People, and I still write in them to this day), I turn time and again to her later book “Nobody’s Family Is Going To Change”, which reminds me of my own messed-up upbringing, and that I turned out all right despite it.

  99. Michelle says:

    Wonderful comic. Very amusing. As a voracious reader myself, the ‘pale,’ and ‘torpid,’ panel was most poignant.

  100. liza Cowan says:

    Amyfaith – I adored Mistress Masham’s Repose. Childhood favorite. Great illustations, too. I also adored his Once And Future King series.

  101. cybercita says:

    i just recommended mistress masham’s repose to a little girl i know who likes to read. one of my all time favorites!

  102. Jana C.H. says:

    An anecdote from my youth:

    When I was in my early teens, my mother read one of those “Learn About Your Family” tests that still show up in women’s magazines. This one suggested that all the members of the family draw pictures of the other members of the family; it was supposed to tell you something about how each viewed the others. This was the Sixties, so the test-writer’s assumption was that everyone would draw mom in the kitchen. Not us, despite the fact that my mother was a full-time housewife and an excellent cook. Every single member of my family drew my mother sitting in her favorite chair with a book in her lap.

    My brothers and I all read for fun, and my brothers have to some extent converted their wives to the practice. That’s the way to get kids to read: by example. We weren’t given any guidance on what to read, either, though I do remember having Balzac’s “Droll Stories” taken away from me when I was 11 or 12. I wouldn’t have understood them anyway.

    By the way, twenty or thirty years ago, my mother realized she just didn’t feel like reading books by men any more, so she pretty much quit. She figured by that time she’d read her quota.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith Martha F.H.: Ovens are for baking, not for cleaning.

  103. maker says:

    i really like the colors. i suppose working in color is a bit of a departure from the usual. you pulled it off really well.

  104. April says:

    Super. Thanks ever so.
    Emma’s lists cracked me up too.

  105. Kate Evans says:

    When I was in high school, my mom was reading Fear of Flying and laughing and laughing. I asked her if I could read it. When she finished it, she just handed it over. That’s the best kind of adult support of a young person’s reading we need more of!

  106. Duncan says:

    Aunt Soozie, I read spasmodically. I’ve slowed down a lot this year, for some reason. Partly because I was blogging a lot.

    I’m a fast reader, though, particularly of fiction. I’m also lucky in being able to read in moving vehicles. I read Miracle at Speedy Drive (McCall Smith) on the plane to Korea, finished it in a couple of hours. I read The Hakawati on the flight back, which took most of the trip. It’s very readable. I kept thinking, Well, that’s enough, I’ll stop for a while. Then I’d think, What the hell, and continue reading.

    I was on vacation in Korea, so I had lots of free time. My friends work during the day, which left me on my own to read and write. (In past years I’ve used my trips to read things like The Tale of Genji, which took a couple of weeks, or Lord of the Rings.)

    On the other hand, I just finished reading Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, an amazing work of literary history by a great scholar. I started reading it about three years ago, put it down (not out of boredom or dislike — it was more because I found it overwhelming, one of those books that really speak to me), and didn’t pick it up back up until last week. Reading this book made me want all the more to read more ‘classic’ writers, and I’m about to start The Mayor of Casterbridge. But it also alerted me to a book called Brother to the Ox by Fred Kitchen, a farm worker who became a writer in the 1930s, which I’m going to get from the library tomorrow. So many books, so little time. But as a confirmed bachelor who doesn’t watch TV, I have more free time for reading than most people.

  107. shadocat says:

    What about Vonnegut? I devoured everything he wrote—and William Kotzwinkle? Wasn’t “The Fan Man” terrific?

  108. Deena in OR says:

    Ah, childhod books. Oh, my, yes…the Childhood of Young Americans series! I still remember vividly the Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Juliette Low, Jane Addams and Thomas Jefferson entries.

    Also…the Encyclopedia Brown and Danny Dunn series, all of Louisa May Alcott, anything Beverly Cleary wrote, the Roald Dahl canon, the “Little House” books (Grandmamma had the boxed set, and I read it every summer…). Also, any periodical that my parents set down within my reach 🙂 By junior high, I’d moved on to biographies and historical fiction. Babysitting clients had a set of “the Great Books” with a complete works of Shakespeare in them. I plowed through the comedies after I’d put the baby to bed. There was a lot of bad “modern” teen fiction out there in the early ’70’s. I managed to read a fair portion of it. Oh, and also (as a seventh grader) “I’m OK, You’re OK”, for some reason. I read the novel of “The Princess Bride” long before it was a movie.

    As an adult, I’m still a periodical junkie. Also…Laurie R. King (all of her stuff…), Alison of course, :), Louise Erdich, Harry Potter (gotta keep up with the kids, ya know…) I’ve tried James Joyce countless times, and just can’t read him for some reason. I’m rediscovering Jane Austen, George Eliot, and many of those wonderful books that I never got around to earlier.

    A fun one that my son turned me on to? “The Gospel according to Biff.” Not for the easily offended, that one.

    Oh, and then there’s the “duty reads”. A relative by marriage is the ghostwriter for the Jessica Fletcher “Murder She Wrote” books.(And ghost wrote that late sixties scurrilous classic “Coffee, Tea or Me?”.) So our family reads those out of loyalty. 🙂

  109. Bodark says:

    I’d forgotten all those Childhood of Famous Americans books; I got on a jag and read dozens of them in 6th grade, and because they were all written/censored the same way, they later all kind of blurred together, becoming one big Horatio Alger-kind of story where the bright kid works hard and makes a bundle..which one was Mark Twain, George Pullman, Florence Nightengale? Who could remember?

    Breaking away from suggestions of cutting-edge literature, for the hopelessly reading backlogged I suggest Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. You don’t read it cover to cover, you put it in the bathroom and read a page or two at random when, er, time permits. John Aubrey’s Brief Lives is good for this, too.

  110. Dr. Empirical says:

    I don’t pay conscious attention to the gender of authors I read, but I do find I read a lot more men than women. Surprising, since I have a lot more women as friends than men. Still, I never got into the Brontes or Austen, and the George Eliot I recently read struck me as Dickens without the vivid characters. Harriet the Spy never spoke to me, either. To each their own.

    I find Marion Zimmer Bradley every bit as sexist as John Norman, and I can’t read either of them.

    I read a lot of science fiction & fantasy, and I find that all too much of the woman-authored stuff has the female protagonist loudly proclaiming her ability to do anything a man can on every page, until I want to tell her to shut up and DO IT already! If there are those who find that empowering, they’re welcome to it, but I’ll seek my entertainment elsewhere.

    Still, there’s Margaret Atwood, Anne McCaffery, Patricia Mckillip, Diana Wynne Jones, Katherine Dunn, Kate Wilhelm, Connie Willis, Edna Ferber and Dorothy Parker, off the top of my head without getting up to check spelling.

  111. Suz says:

    Childhood favorites that I haven’t seen mentioned yet– Anne of Green Gables series. Witch of Blackbird Pond. A whole bunch of Judy Blume and Norma Klein. The All of a Kind Family series.

    Now, I tend to go for either modern canon or everyone’s-talking-about for fiction, plus miscellaneous nonfiction (McPhee, Tracy Kidder, and so on) and travel lit.

  112. Maggie Jochild says:

    MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE! I, too, thought I was the only one. Reread it regularly — it’s an old edition, with fabulous illustrations. T.H. White, how can you miss? (And, figures, Liza, you and I share that as well.)

    Yes to Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Donna Parker, The Five Little Peppers, The Tuckers, Freckels and Girl of the Limberlost, and all the great stuff by Troy Nesbit (he was a radical Socialist activist, did you know that?) Ginger Pye, Pinky Pye, The Bully of Markham Street, and The Hundred Dresses — deep thinking about classism for kids. The Green Knowe series, Swallows and Amazons, Sounder, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, And Now Miguel, plus all the Born Free books. Plus, bless my Aunt Sarah, the Villagers of Chelm.

  113. ready2agitate says:

    Yikes I have to get up early tomorrow morning and I’m looking at a slideshow of the Queen Beaver pageant and I don’t even know what I’m looking at! (altho it looks like awesome fun ~ Aunt S. are you in the pix?)

    Ellen O., I forget, you’re not in Boston are you? If so I have a copy of “Wide Sargasso Sea” (Jean Rhys) to borrow you. While thinking of women writers of the other Americas, how about Simone Schwarz-Bart, Paule Marshall, Edwige Danticat, Julia Alvarez, Cristina Garcia….

    How do you get your book titles to italicize Ginjoint & others?

  114. Maggie Jochild says:

    R2A, the itals are standard HTML — only trick is don’t forget to turn them off after, which I do too often.

    I can’t give you the symbols here because they’ll be read as code. But a google search will give them to you.

  115. Alex K says:

    @amyfaith / MISTRESS MASHAM’S REPOSE: Still in print; brought back, with the Fritz Eichenberg illustrations, through the N Y REVIEW OF BOOKS. A delight of which (along with GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES) I regularly make a house gift or Christmas present.

    Years after I first visited Malplaquet, the dictionary and phrase-book (“…the only copy in existence,” said the Professor modestly) delighted me unexpectedly with White’s research and cleverness. Somehow or other I’d picked up an omnibus of Swift’s Works, and had come to the Treatise on Polite Conversation. What did I find one fop saying to another but “Odd-so! I have broke the hinge of my snuff-box!” A phrase which, in the Lilliputian, I am sure Maria got perfectly by heart.

  116. Fräulein says:

    Oh yes, Suz, Anne of Green Gables! All of them!

    Scotia, you will love Anna Karenina. It is the most wonderful book and the neat thing for me was that it grew with me…the first time I read it I was all “Kitty” but then later it was all “Anna”. An amazing book.

  117. Dr. Empirical says:

    I love how the message of Alison’s strip was Don’t Make Lists, and we’ve all responded by making lists.

  118. Alex the Bold says:

    Absolutely, the best panel of the whole thing is of you sitting in a chaise longue slowly burning like one of Ron Popeil’s “Set it and forget it!” rotisserie chickens.

    Just a perfect bit of 1970s. Alison, I love you to little bits.

  119. cybercita says:

    speaking of childhood favorites, has anyone here read any janet lambert? particularly the jordon novels.

    {maggie, i own copies of ALL of gene stratton porter’s novels!}

  120. --MC says:

    Maggie — you may have portmanteaued Troy Nesbit with E. Nesbit — word is that “Troy Nesbit” was a house name for a series of Western adventures published by Whitman in the early 60s — and E. Nesbit and her husband Hubert Bland were founders of the British Fabian Society —

  121. Andrew B says:

    Alison is back to one of her favorite themes, our need to define ourselves in opposition to others without utterly alienating ourselves from them. My favorite panel:

    – What’s it about?
    – A magical bird girl who lives in the jungle.
    – That’s the most boring thing I ever heard of.

    Captures childish obstinacy perfectly.

    The one place where the coloring bothered me is that Alison’s pale and torpid younger self looks torpid, but not pale. Other than that, it looks ok to me.

    Completely off topic, but is Roz Chast’s latest New Yorker cover an instant classic or what? Wasn’t there some talk of Alison getting her stuff in the New Yorker at one point?

  122. JaymeBright says:

    You know, I always meant to make a list of classic books to read but never got around to it; I always worried that the books my teachers and peers deemed incredible would be a disappointment to me for some reason…or worse, that the books would be infinitely better than anything I could write and put me off my much-beloved track to becoming a master of english studies and an author, eventually. I didn’t even get halfway through 1984 at the point I was most motivated. I feel like a failure, actually when I think that conventional literary classics don’t excite me like perhaps they should…Lately I have been swept up by the writings of Chuck Palahniuk and have encountered Albert Camus’ “The Fall” while on a search to find something the least bit similar. Maybe there’s something there.

  123. Millie says:

    This was wonderful! It took me a loooooooong time to get into reading- my dad set up a schedule of children’s books that I should have liked ( based on toys I loved at the time) but it felt like just more homework. It took a long time for me to find the balance for myself (still working on it- I hardly ever touch non-fiction unless it’s work related).

  124. Ian says:

    Nothing can beat the pleasure of sneaking some contraband literature from your parents’ bookshelves and reading it under your blankets by torchlight.

  125. Jana C.H. says:

    Alison, thanks to your strip I have just started re-reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Boswell is a delight: sexist pig, arrogant elitist, and so full of human failings that one can’t help but love him. The Life of Johnson, however, is only for the hard-core. Normal people (as opposed to weirdos like me) are better off with the Tour of the Hebrides and the London Journal. This is the kind of non-fiction that has novels beat all hollow.

    Jana C.H.
    Saith James Boswell: If venereal delight and the power of propagating the species were permitted only to the virtuous, it would make the world very good.

  126. Ellen O. says:

    Okay, so I know I’m over-contributing this week, but how to response to people who suggest very popular books that I have no intention of reading. For example. _The Red Tent_ and _Eat, Pray, Love_?

    I was briefly in a discussion group that loved _The Life of Pi_ while I thought it was manipulative, shallow and disjointed. (Though the discussion of religion was interesting.) I dropped out of this group because the books lacked, for me anyway, backbone.

    When my writing students or friends in here in Boulder swoon over best-selling drek like _Tuesdays with Morrie_ and tell me since I’m a writer I must read it, I usually smile weakly. Do I have to read something just to prove its not something I want to read?

  127. Alex the Bold says:

    You know what I’m wondering? People can make arguments in support of Stephen King (his writing book is brilliant, there’s a scene in there that had me laughing so hard — something about a trick his brother pulled on him involving poison ivy for toilet paper — I thought I was going to start coughing up blood) or whatever “trash” writer they want, and they can always come up with something redeeming about the books in question: the dialogue crackles, or the plot is engaging, or, well something.

    But, what is it that attracts people to real, true dreck (e.g., Tuesdays with Morrie)? Is it narrow personal experience? Some need to self-degrade?

    And, on that vein, if you were trapped on a desert island with only one book, which one would cause you to walk into the ocean?

  128. Anonymous says:

    I’ve never even visited your site before, but I followed a link here and I enjoyed this strip so much I bought your book off of amazon immediately.

  129. Julia says:

    Ma semblable, ma soeur!

  130. --MC says:

    Julia: brilliant!

  131. cybercita says:

    ellen o, i agree with you about the red tent but i must say i’m a big fan of eat pray love.

  132. LondonBoy says:

    Scotia: In the name of all that’s holy, don’t read “Anna Karenina”! If there is any justice in the cosmos, my life will be extended by the numerous painful hours I invested in a dismal Penguin translation of that vile, self-satisfied screed. It is the second worst book ever written, beaten only by the equally Russian “The Idiot” by the eternally wanky Dostoevsky.

    Phew, I’m glad I got that out of my system…

    I did notice that someone didn’t care for “A Tale of Two Cities”. Neither did I, until I took it with me on a lazy holiday in France. I started reading as the train left Victoria, was crossing the Channel as the heroes did the same, and discovered ancient parts of Paris as the Bastille fell. Utter joy.

    Dickens is like John Locke: he writes beautifully, but in a style that is just archaic enough to require work to “get into”. (Locke writes sentences that cover pages, which seems strange to modern readers, but, oh, how beautiful they are!)

    There’s so much I want to say about books, but I’d better limit it to two more items.

    Current Reading:
    Right now I’m just starting “Cosmonaut Keep” by Ken Macleod. I was given his “Learning the World” for Christmas (it was on my list), and if you’re a fan of hard SF I cannot recommend it highly enough: there is a moment in it where I was literally reduced to lying on my bed repeating “Oh my God!” over and over again to myself, for ten or more minutes. (I mean literally ten minutes or more: he takes some of the most beloved words in SF and, with an audacity that has my mind boggling even as I type this, steals them in the service of his plot.) (I just had to go and re-read the relevant section again now… I can’t believe anyone would dare to do what he did! Utterly astonishing!)

    I’ve just finished “The Wee Free Men” by Terry Pratchett. Adored it. Perfect for a smart 10-14 year old girl who’s fed up with all those tedious fantasies with male heroes.

    True Dreck:
    Here in the UK we seem to be being bombarded with what I’ve started to mentally label “misery porn”: purportedly “true” stories of (generally) children being abused. They typically have titles like “Ugly” or “Abused” or “A Child Called It”. The last of these is by a guy called David Pelzer, who seems to be a big contributor to the genre, with several volumes (in each of which the abuse seems to get worse – though I’m guessing this from bookstore skimming, not from a serious read – with more and more of his family getting in on the act). They don’t appear to have any literary merit, and look to me like a symptom of the same voyeuristic fetishisation that fuels Britain’s periodic moral panics about paedophila and child abuse. Do you have these dreadful books in the USA, and, if so, can you shed any light on who reads them – nobody I know owns up to it, but they clearly sell, as there’s acreage of them in all the book chains – and why they are read? The entire genre looks to me like pornography.

  133. Ian says:

    I bought 2 of them once in a misplaced, morbid bid for I don’t know what. Just wondering how someone else with an abuse history coped (or not). One managed to get a whole book out of having a priest cop a feel once which brought out the very un-PC angry reaction of “is that it?” I read the Dave Pelzer self help book which was largely just more meaningless generalities. My local Wal-Mart (ASDA) has a whole bookcase stuffed with them. I’ve never actually seen anyone pick them up though.

    My own theory is that they’re just another method for the public to be thoroughly scandalised, even titillated, but still kept at a safe distance from the grim reality. I’m not minimising any genuine suffering, but it’s basically in the same vein as “vicar and tart, Madame Cyn’s sin in suburbia” type stories in the Sunday rags, just on a far less tasteful subject. People buy them for the same reason they buy books on Myra Hindley.

  134. dgc2 says:

    Mother of God but I really AM the gay male equivalent of you! Even the Italian part is the same, but pg. 2 panel 3 confirms it- I spent my entire youth in NY being torpid, bookladen and pale!

  135. LondonBoy says:

    OMG, a male equivalent of Alison! Have him wrapped up and sent over immediately… 😉

  136. Duncan says:

    I agree with Ian about “abuse porn.” The reader gets the thrill of reading about horrible things while feeling morally superior. I wrote a blog post about this sort of thing a few weeks ago, when I noticed that there’s what amounts to a genre of “I Was A Mormon Polygamist’s Sex Slave.” People _are_ reading them: my boss at work and one of the cooks are immersed in a couple of these.

    Here’s the link if anyone’s interested:

    It’s nothing new, of course. A hundred fifty to 200 years ago, the genre was “I Was a Sex Slave in a Papist Convent”, and of course books by former “Magdalens” always have a market. “White Slave” was a reliable hook in book titles. Before that it was the lives of the saints: a Roman or Saracen official horribly tortured to death (told in exciting detail) the white virgin, most often female but often male, who resisted his foul advances.

  137. dgc2 says:

    LondonBoy, egads sir, you make me blush! and here I am watching Bringing Up Baby and debating the bi/homosexuality of Hepburn and Grant whilst quaffing a Malbec Rose 😉

  138. Ginjoint says:

    Bringing Up Baby! One of my all-time favorites. I love the part when Cary Grant, dressed in a frilly woman’s robe, sarcastically says to another character, “NO! I just went GAY all of a sudden!” while jumping in the air. Ohhh, how I could quote from that movie. I’ll stop now.

    Ellen, I too have felt that awkwardness when someone recommends a book to me that I have zero interest in. Usually I just nod if it’s someone I don’t know well or only interact with periodically; otherwise I do try to find a polite way of saying why that book wouldn’t appeal to me. The trick, of course, is keeping it polite and not inadvertently crapping all over something they like. I have found that oftentimes this leads to an interesting discussion.

    Being polite about my reasons, I mean. Not crapping.


  139. Metal Prophet says:

    I actually read “A Child Called It” for my Child Abuse and Neglect class. It was pretty much endlessly miserable.

    I loved Phantom Tollbooth as a kid and I enjoyed it even more when I reread it recently. The best children’s literature and movies and other forms of entertainment can also be enjoyed by adults.

    And I was also fortunate to have some really good books in my various elementary school, middle school, and high school English classes. I read A Wrinkle in Time in 4th grade, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 6th grade, All Quiet on the Western Front in 7th grade, Lord of the Flies in 8th grade, Their Eyes Were Watching God in 9th grade, Huck Finn in 10th grade, and loads of other good stuff.

  140. shadocat says:

    Not to be morbid or depressing but Dave Pelzer’s book, “A Boy Called It”, was not fiction, but an autobiography. Maybe not great literature, but a true story nonetheless.

  141. Ian says:

    Actually, it was LondonBoy who called it “abuse porn”. In the context of the subject matter I’m not convinced it’s the appropriate phrase to use though it does describe it well. It’s a new variant on the “true crime” stuff that’s usually on the shelves next to it. The really objectionable thing is that it’s become a ‘market’, just like Da Vinci Code rip-offs (the Shakespeare Secret? Come on!).

    I love it that everyone here is so omnivorous when it comes to reading. I believe it goes against the principles laid out in “Compulsory Reading”, but I may have to investigate “The Phantom Tollbooth” after all these comments. I don’t feel obliged to do it though which is the difference! Then again, I always like it when someone can read Baudelaire, Proust or Moliere in the original then sneak off to watch “Kung Fu Panda”.

  142. Michelle says:

    In response to someone somewhere up there, people really DO get up on their high horses about Stephen King, don’t they?

    I have completely reformed my English teacher since the beginning of this year. She came over to me in my first week and complained that I was reading a ‘comic book,’ which was, incidentally, Fun Home, sent to me for my birthday by my beloved in Canada. Rather irritated, but with no defensive response she wouldn’t dismiss, I offered to lend it to her, and she was absolutely captivated and fascinated by it.

    Delirious with success, I have since then lent her a number of other books, including a few Stephen Kings, despite her having said that he was ‘airport fiction.’ She loved them. I knew she would.

    Some people, of course, will hate something just because they think they should hate something, which really pisses me off. A girl in my English class, whom I hate, and who is continually expressing either her jealousy for or her hatred of me, is currently hounding my reading habits, and it’s more than I can bear to think of her greasy fingers on the spines of books I love. Is it just me, or does it bother you to see horrible people reading good books more than it bothers you to see good people reading horrible books?

    I’ve never understood the lure of books like Jodi Picoult’s, or those dreadful observational comedy type things about falling in love with a man they meet in a café. I’ve always had this kind of incredulity about it all. ‘She’s doing what with his WHAT? WHY? Yuck!’ Give me Tolkien’s style of gritty realism any day.

  143. Michelle says:

    Oops, bit of an essay there, sorry.

  144. R says:

    I thought the official term for this genere was Mis Lit…like Chick Lit.

  145. john says:

    well,while everyone is on the topic of reading, I very much enjoyed “The Gutenberg Elegies”, which is a series of essays by Sven Birket, on the joys of reading.

    Just to make you all shudder, the books I had to read in high school included Eleston Trevor’s “The Flight of the Phoenix, and “the Endless Steppe” by esther someone. I was totally dismayed when in my last year of high school I was allowed to borrow books from the English Department’s stash of class sets, and discovered “The Hobbit”…that would have beaten the above two anyday. We didn’t study/read Shakespeare until year 10 which was Julius Caesar, year 11 was Macbeth, then then the next year it was King Lear..which after the other two was really hard going (not helped by seeing King Lear in the most appallingly acted amateur production I have ever seen in my life).

    As for classics…a few years ago i was teaching English in Taiwan, and the only English language bookstore there at the time had an eclectic selection, to say the least, basically the latest movie adaptations/airport literature, children’s books and cheap paperback classics. I couldn’t finish Mill on the Floss, Lord Jim, or Little Women. I loved anything by Hardy and Henry James though. The next binge I went on was children’s books :-). I read the Phantom Tollbooth for the first time aged 36…fantastic. Still hate the Narnia series though.

    BTW, since this is Alison’s blog, I’ll take the chance to say thinks for “Fun Home” and “DTWOF”. Which reminds me, has anyone here read the “Leonard and Larry” strips by Tim Barella?

  146. ksbel6 says:

    Ian and Duncan: I’m not positive, but I think some of the allure of A Child Called It is that it was the first documented case of child abuse in either California, or the US…not sure which, maybe both. But if I remember correctly, Pelzer was the first child removed from his home and placed in foster care. The second two books are about his life after being removed and do not involve abuse in any manner consistent with the first. I have read all 3, and if you have any interest in the family dynamics that revolve around abusive parents (and I’m talking really abusive here, not, “I was hit in the back with a belt because I broke a window with my baseball”) they are worth reading.

    Calvin and Hobbes are just plain awesome…the look on Calvin’s face when his mother is screaming, “What are you doing?” as he pounds nail into the coffee table is priceless!!

  147. emaline says:

    I LOVE the essay! Reading was a huge part of my childhood until it was required. I don’t even want to think about all the amazing books I’ve missed because they were suggested by my high school english teacher or my mom.

  148. the squealer says:

    As I was required to read Boswell’s “Life of Johnson” for a English Literature degree focused upon 18th Century poetry, prose and Restoration Drama, I can tell you that an excellent shelf placement for said tome is on the back of the toilet…a precursor to multi-tasking, if you will.

  149. Anonymous says:

    My father used to write NFK on the book (Not for Kids). That was a sure way to get us to at least peek at it.

  150. Andrew B says:

    I feel like we need to be a little bit more selective about condemning misery memoirs. How about, “I had a miserable childhood because my father was a closeted gay man”? The value of the memoir depends on what the author does with it, and can’t be reduced to a genre.

    Ellen O, if you come up with a really good answer to your question, please let us know. One reply that sometimes works for me is to ask the person what they liked about the book. (That’s assuming that I truly like the person.) It shows interest in the person I like and gets them thinking. Maybe then they’ll realize that the book is schlock. Or, who knows, maybe they’ll convince me. Another possibility would be to tell them that you have so much reading to do for your work that you like to save the remaining time for other activities. If the individual is a persistent idiot, you may just have to accept that the idiot is going to think you’re a snob.

  151. shadocat says:

    Thanks for the clarification on The Child Called It, and the books that followed. I believe you’re right about the legal aspects of it; I saw a talk show afew years back where they had the teachers that originally reported the abuse, Pelzer, and a couple of attorneys discussing the case.

  152. Orange says:

    Omigod! Finally! Someone else who grooved on the Authors card game. Oh, how I loved that deck in its wee box.

    My bad habit is not finishing books. It’s literary ADD or something. I can keep up with magazines, sure, but I put so many books down halfway through. Hell, I’ve been halfway through Fun Home for months. Months! And now I will surely be taken out back of the blog and flogged. I buy new books in hardcover rather than going to the library (supporting authors and publishers), but have a zillion I have either not started or started but not finished. *sigh*

  153. Suz says:

    It’s not the nominal subject matter– he was an abused kid– that’s sneer-worthy so much as the treatment. I might be interested in reading about how this kid got a system that didn’t recognize abuse to take him seriously– that’s a pretty cool thing to do, however horrific the reason for having to do it. I might be interested in reading about how this kid realized that what he was living in wasn’t normal (whatever “normal” means in this context). But a book that just describes the dysfunction without any sort of inner journey, explicit or implicit? I can’t see the attraction there.

    Meanwhile, my current trash reading is some thriller that came from the dollar rack that has the smartest mass-murdered ever! and he’s richer than rich! and he’s supported by assorted titled aristocrats! and after he’s killed half a dozen police and civilians, a naive cop defends him against murderous police! and he and the naive cop escape a shootout in which someone being shot at is shot fatally in the throat! and then here are the Romanovs, wanting to restore a monarchy to Russia! It’s like every bad genre cliche ever created– had to have been written as a result of a bet. And I hate myself for not throwing it across the room or abandoning it at the coffee shop.

  154. Deena in OR says:

    @Michelle-My hope, when I see someone I detest (and I don’t detest many people-which can work to my detriment sometimes) reading a beloved book, I tend to hope that they’ll take something from it that will make them less detestable 🙂

  155. Deena in OR says:

    Oops, that should read “…book, is that they’ll…” The other thing is an ungramamatical mess.

  156. Namaimo says:

    As an avid child reader (in French), and later a career-long librarian, I enjoyed this “with a little spoon” (for special desserts, as the French say), and shared it with my special librarian friends. Are the times really a-changing?

  157. Katrina says:

    Reading this made me smile. When I was a kid the most effective way my dad ever found to get me to read anything was to say I wasn’t old enough to read it. Took me years to realize what he was up too. Classics are a funny thing, if your made to read a book it is like chewing chalk, but if you find your way to a book on your own it comes alive.

  158. Maggie Jochild says:

    “Abuse porn” is a thought-provoking phrase. Back in the late 1980s, when child abuse got “discovered” as a foundation element in American culture (but the feminist understanding promptly got denied), those of us doing activitism around it tended to divide writing about abuse into “victim” stories and “recovery” stories. We found the latter to be of much more value and readability, and I still do. I want stories to push my envelope, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually — to somehow, as Sharon Bridgforth puts it, “raise the energy”. It’s what I demand of myself as a writer as well.

    “Porn” is an apt descriptor, I think, because the pornification of mass culture has affected much more than sex. The point of porn is to sell something: It is intended to get you off in a way that will make you come back for more. Thus, actual growth and sexual expansion is counterproductive to its commercial goals. Porn is to real sex as McDonald’s is to real food: It temporarily appears to meets a need, but with articifial products that do you harm in the long run. (Super Size Me.) It damages the palate and makes objectification/power dynamics seem essential to sexual charge. It leaves most regular consumers LESS able to achieve genuine, expansive intimacy.

    Of course, such an attitude is immediately declared anti-sex, no matter how much one is arguing for excellent sex with an equal who has the ability to give meaningful consent.

    Corporate consumer culture wants us, as Americans, to keep settling for empty gratification. We want stories, so they give us pseudo-stories. We long to end our isolation and establish connection with “ordinary” people, so they give us “reality” TV. We are worried about the trouble others are in, so they give us “creative fiction” about abuse, racism, drug addiction, classism, gender conflict — thereby ensuring we won’t read real-life, well-written accounts which might spur us to action.

    And they make sure it’s in ever-smaller digestible bits, with product placement fully exploited.

    I can’t sit here and tell you which authors fit the “real” bill and which ones don’t, because that is, in fact, YOUR call to make for yourself. One of Stephen King’s books, Pet Sematary, completely altered how I looked at the fatherhood issues of young lower middle class males, for the better. If we choose to keep looking for something more than porn and McNuggets, I think we’ll find it, each in our own way.

  159. andrewo says:

    I was fortunate enough to score a hard copy (!) of the essay at my volunteer job, the GLBT National Hotline (shameless plug). Great stuff. I”m so glad to hear of other constant readers. Actually Middlemarch is one of my favorite books; read it at least twice. All of Dickens (great for traveling, but I recommend taking paperbacks along). I read the Freddy the Pig books many times as a child and still read them as an adult.

  160. Lizzie from London says:

    Lazy Sunday twitching around Facebook and then found Alison’s strip on reading. Wonderful!

    My earliest reads (full absorbing stuff rather than Janet and John) were What Katy Did – alas I’m sad enough to find myself sometimes expounding Cousin Helen’s view of life to people: …There’s a rough handle and a smooth handle … and Tales of King Arthur based on malory I suppose with gorgeous clour plates. I fell in love with galahad aged 7 and now I’m a druid, visiting Glastonbury, still looking for my Holy Grail(and Galahad). Hey ho.

    For a light but quirkily beautiful novel let me recommend The Book Thief – name of author escapes me at the moment.

    Remember reading books that were too old for you ? Glimpses of exotic realities that you didn’t understand. Aged 14 I though Iris Murdoch= books were set on another planet so foreign to me was the world they described. Re read one recnetly and was hugely disappointed.

    And one last thing on unsuitable boks for kids: an aunt gave me a nineteenth century book by Hesba Stretton called The Storm of Life about a girl who gets pregnant and ends up dead in the gutter. God I was traumatised ( aged 9 or thereabouts)

  161. shadocat says:

    Now there’s a book title for you; “Porn and McNuggets”.

  162. LondonBoy says:

    I think the phrase I used was “misery porn”, not “abuse porn”, but the idea is the same. I liked the comments from Suz and Maggie J. above (though I don’t think I fully agree with Maggie).

    Shadocat notes that Pelzer’s is a true story. Whilst this is true, at least in broad outline, I don’t think that impinges on the point I was trying to make. As Suz notes, it is not the subject matter but the treatment that is relevant. What books of this kind seem to do is simply provide a laundry-list of nastiness: reading them is rather like reading poor quality sexual pornography, in which the organs and orifices are treated simply as lego-bricks, and the aim is to fit them together in all possible ways. So with “misery porn”, the writers simply aim to produce maximum suffering given their starting materials: given two parents, one child, and six household objects, list all possible permutations and combinations of pain… Have you ever read De Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom”? The first couple of days’ blasphemies and sexual kinks are listed in loving and gory detail, but by day 20 De Sade is reduced to little diary notes like “they bugger 20 virgins on an episcopal altar… 3 crones defecate on the Bible… the Pope is dressed in a nightdress and bunny slippers…”. What makes “120 Days of Sodom” rubbish is its total lack of creativity: it’s just a shopping list for a religious-minded perv. And the same is true for “misery porn”: there’s no humanity to it – and by this I don’t just mean that the behaviour is “inhuman”, but that no characters – victims, torturers or bystanders – are changed in any deep way. I believe that “in real life” actions and circumstances change people over time. In porn of any kind this doesn’t happen. Literature holds up a mirror to the changing humanity of its subjects: porn doesn’t. It’s almost as if there is some mental organ equivalent to the penis or clitoris, which gets intellectually stroked when “misery porn” is read in the same way that their physical equivalents are stroked when “sexual porn” is read.

    Maggie J. makes some good and thought-provoking points, but on balance I don’t think she’s right when she says “the point of porn is to sell something”. There’s lots of porn on the internet whose point is not to sell, but simply to “get people off” (including, I imagine, the writers). That said, I think Maggie is exactly right when she says “we want stories, so they [corporate culture] give us pseudo-stories.” The marketing of the fake experience is such a huge part of our culture we barely notice it. We hunger for the authentic, but it is submerged in a tsunami of dross.

    I suspect there is a special place being reserved in heaven for Alison, as patron saint of conversations and debates.

  163. shadocat says:

    Maybe Pelzer is not a gifted writer; maybe he’s just like many people who tell a story by stating, “X happened to me-then Y, Z, etc.” Perhaps the editor or publisher should be held accountable for it’s lack of literary merit.

    In my experience, people who have read the book are those that have been abused themselves and are looking for some answers to the pain in their lives. People looking to such a book for entertainment have their own issues.

  164. Donna says:

    Thanks to everyone for the recommendations, and I’ve added some of my own into the mix as well. This discussion has been informative for me in several ways. It’s funny, I kind of got into a bit of a snafu with my sister tonight when I tried to return a few books she had loaned me and hadn’t read the one in particular she had wanted me to read. She loves it, everyone else hates it, and she seems bound and determined to find someone else who can see the genius in it besides here. Anyone read Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton? Anyway, perfect timing to bring up AB’s essay and great discussion it fostered.

    Loved this part in LondonBoy’s post:

    “…there is a moment in it where I was literally reduced to lying on my bed repeating “Oh my God!” over and over again to myself, for ten or more minutes. (I mean literally ten minutes or more: he takes some of the most beloved words in SF and, with an audacity that has my mind boggling even as I type this, steals them in the service of his plot.) (I just had to go and re-read the relevant section again now… I can’t believe anyone would dare to do what he did! Utterly astonishing!)”

    I love when those moments happen!

  165. cybercita says:

    i have a very special fondness for the book of ruth because after i was done reading it, i gave it to a friend whom i did not know had never read for pleasure. she dutifully read it out of respect, because i had given it to her. the unexpected feelings she experienced while immersed in the book turned her into a regular, enthusiastic novel reader {although her taste remains rooted in extremely tragic stories}.

  166. Donna says:

    My sister will be glad to know that someone out there did read Book of Ruth like they were supposed to when it was lent to them, dutifully and out of respect, and was subsequently moved by it. My poor sis had hoped to elicit that exact response from loaning the book to a few different people with no success. I’ve been on that side of the book-recommending coin myself, really wanting to get someone else to read and appreciate this or that short story, just so they can experience the mind-boggling genius of some of these writers as I have, but not being able to quite get them hooked. It’s a Sisyphean task at times, but I can’t stop myself from trying. I’m a pusher more than the object of book recommending, I admit it now. The sister incident was the anomaly. Maybe it runs in the family.

  167. --MC says:

    I have to point out that the “abuse porn” genre is not a new one .. in culturally repressed times, the genre flourishes brightest .. from the post-Victorian era, there are a lot of books about “white slavery” with titles like “Stopping The Trade In Young Women”, which were packed fat with sleaze .. just the thing for a morally upright man to squirrel away in his den for special study late at night ..
    Myself, I’m reading “Maps And Legends”, Michael Chabon’s book of essays about golems, Sherlock Holmes, D’Aulaire’s “Norse Gods” book, and “Julius Knipl” .. and Gene Yang’s “American Born Chinese” which I love a lot ..

  168. farar elliott says:

    Dag, I thought I was the only one who read the “Childhoods of Famous Americans” series, and now I see that our number is legion. My mom thought the titles were hilarious: “Mary Mapes Dodge, Jolly Girl” and “Lotta Crabtree, Girl of the Old West” were her favorites. I recollect that Lotta was a dancehall performer of some disreputable type, but her life was bowdlerized in the kids’ bio.

  169. cybercita says:

    i read them too…

  170. Colin says:

    My dad said, when I was maybe 15, the one book I don’t want you to read is “Lolita.” He took a lot of business trips, though.

    And of course it’s now on my list of top three favorites.

  171. Suz says:

    MC– Interesting point wrt cultural permissiveness. In the US we can trace “abuse porn” back to at least captivity narratives from the Puritans (whose captors were, of course, the natives).

  172. Fabian Alvarez says:

    Uhmm… my father was slightly ashamed of his own rural upbringing and lower-class status, so he read a lot… but didn’t force it on me. My mother read less and less as years passed (but she managed to read most Agatha Christie’s novels when she was between 30 and 40). I guess I have no idea where my compulsive reading habits came from. I should delve deeper in my childhood… even if I’m slightly afraid of what I could find there.

  173. jude says:

    OMFLOG!! childhood of famous americans. orange library binding. yes yes yes.

    from the grade library – catholic school – NO central library – just the books on the shelves in YOUR classroom. (seriously. had to wait for 6 or 7th grade to get to the horse stories. ) anyway – the lil orange books were in the 3rd grade liberry maybe? one or two a night. my room dark, reading by the light in the hallway. those black cut-out illustrations. those preposterous stories. you are the fist person i have ever heard mention them. i love that.

  174. jude says:

    ps. i read anything i could get my hands on at home, and was free to pick up anything on the public bookshelf in the living or dining room. (ma kept the “sexy” books in her bedroom)

    the family book i read the most? The Metropolitan Opera Guide. ALL PLOT, NO scenery. I was like a comic book without pictures. No story was longer than 2 pages, everybody was crazy sad and all the people with half a personality or more died.

    I read these stories over and over. Dint know a note of most of the music – didn’t even associate the stories with the weekly exposure to the form on the radio.

    Eventually – around the 7th grade – i discovered plays – ALL DIALOG, NO scenery. YAY. My dad’s office was above the college book store & one day he brought home the text being used for a theater class. i fell so in love with G.B.Shaw that i cried when i found out he was dead and i couldn’t write to him.

    this brings up so much, alison – add my thanks to all the others. it is wonderful to look back and see that girl gobbling up text like it was life itself.

  175. Chris (in Massachusetts) says:

    For a great short read on architectural engineering in Florence 600 years ago, along with politics, corruption, two architects with huge clashing egos, the Church etc, Brunelleschi’s Dome

    The curious resonance to the long delayed “Freedom Tower” in NYC extends even to the two architects with huge clashing egos who are responsible for the “Freedom Tower”.

    It’s a remarkably entertaining book, filled with little tidbits about life in Florence, construction, innovation, etc.

    I’ve given away several copies to friends and they’ve all enjoyed the book.

  176. Marco Mendes says:

    Dear Alison,

    I’ve been reading some of your work in the internet and I really liked it. Good stories.
    I’m also a comic artist, and I’m portuguese:

    Good Bye, and good luck

  177. Heather says:

    Thank you Allison for a great essay- and the best blog ever of books beloved by your readers! Has anyone, tho, grown up being taught that reading is not to be encouraged?? We were a working class family and my mother really thought reading was a waste of time – I should be doing something more constructive, like cleaning the house, doing the dishes, etc. What we had in our home was Readers Digest Condensed Books (honestly!) where sex, strong language, and characterization were edited out but boy, those plotlines moved along quickly. Actually, I don’t think they were meant to be read as to serve as a kind of literary interior decoration – those volumes looked pretty natty lined up in a row on any available shelf. What I read under the covers with my flashlight were the Albert Payson Terhune books (collie dogs and the admonishment “taming a wild animal is like signing its death certificate”), Jim Kjelgaard’s irish setter stories and has anyone heard of Sonia Bleecker? She did a series of American Indian books and how they lived. Reading is a form of rebellion against the ruling paradigm – thank god for the women who read! Thanks for all your book suggestions!

  178. Maggie Jochild says:

    Heather, my poor/working class family was an anomaly in our working class communities because reading was encouraged among us kids — yes, it WAS considered a waste of time by other parents, certainly not to be tolerated if there was a chore that could be found to occupy a child. This aberration had been handed down in my mother’s family for generations, “bookishness” it was called in a tone of disrespect. But Mama just laughed at those people, and so we did too, with a light heart. Bless her.

    YES to Albert Payson Terhune and Kierkegaard. The Black Stallion, and some horse book series from Australia, maybe, involving a horse named Tamerlane? Plus all the Marguerite Henry series.

    Mama didn’t censor my reading, so I too read Animal Farm and 1984 (in that order) by age nine without real comprehension. Also Fanny Hill, ditto. But Hiroshima, On The Beach and Triumph gave me horrific nightmares. And when, at age 10, during the period when I was being sexually abused the worst, I picked up and read Lolita — well, I still loathe that book. I do now exert editorial control over what kids around me are reading — not much, but war-based violence and adult sex I will weed out.

  179. judybusy says:

    Heather, I grew up a farm and also had access to the condensed Reader’s Digest books! I remember being five and faking reading aloud a kid’s book I’d memorized. I couldn’t wait for the real thing, I guess! I got nagged a lot to do chores, to which I usually replied, “Yep, just as soon as I’m done with this chapter!” Last year, when I was 42, my mom told me she always planned for me to go to college. The non-interference with my compulsive reading makes sense, then. And it worked.

    As for grown-up joys, I’ll throw out a couple. One of my all time faves is “Grand Ambition” by Lisa Michaels. It’s almost a novella, about a husband and wife who try to boat down the Colorado River. It’s based on a true-life couple. I won’t say more for fear of ruining the plot, but the writing is beautiful and one of the major themes is the tension between adult children and the parents who still wish they could protect them.

    Also, any Jasper Fforde fans out there? He writes highly amusing books melding together fantasy, science fiction elements and literature. It helps if you know a fair amount of Dickens and Bronte. One of the series features Tuesday Next, a great female protaganist. You cannot read it in public, unless you are utterly comfortable guffawing for all the world to hear.

    Chris (in MA) thanks for the tip. I will check that out, having read about the Dome in the last couple years. I read mostly non-fiction, so this looks perfect!

  180. judybusy says:

    Chris, didn’t click on the link before posting. That’s the book I read! It *was* fabulous! King also wrote about Michaelangelo, and I will read anything he publishes.

  181. --MC says:

    And while I was in the bookstore getting “Maps And Legends”, I also picked up a used copy of “The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup” by Susan Orlean, who was namechecked a few posts back. She made me laugh right away, in her introduction:

    “… I decided to profile Felipe Lopez, a star high school basketball player, because I had stumbled across a headline in the paper one day that said CHRIST THE KING AIMS FOR REVENGE. It was one of those headlines that stops you dead in your tracks, and even after you figure it out, you can’t quite get it out of your mind. Christ the King turned out to be a Catholic school in New York, and its basketball team was bent on avenging an embarassing loss to another school.”

  182. inktellectual says:

    I can remember To Kill A Mockingbird being handed out in english & being all *suave, nonchalant wave* ‘Already got, read & loved it’. The mockery about my book-junkie ways kept up til the 100’s started rollin in. *shifty eyes* I also read the yearling about 1ce a month

  183. Donna says:

    What do you mean, the 100’s started rollin’ in? Are you getting paid to read? Are you a literary critic? Just being nosy. Are all book reviewers literary critics, but not vice versa?

  184. lb says:

    Love it.

  185. Ian says:

    My new detective fiction read favourite after reading all of Agatha Christie, rejecting Ruth Rendell and now working my way through Ngaio Marsh is Donna Leon and her creation Commissario Brunetti, a policeman in Venice. It’s the descriptions of Venetian life as much as whatever murder mystery he’s battling vested interests to solve.

  186. shadocat says:

    Yeah, what are the “100’s”?

  187. NLC says:

    I hesitate to speak for inktellectual, but concerning the phrase “the 100’s started rollin in”: I assumed it meant
    inktellectual started getting good grades as a result of all that reading.

    [I was wondering: Is this an another American vs British mistranslation issue? Does “100” have the meaning of “perfect score” over there (derived from the standard practice in American schools of grading exams/homework on a scale of a total of 100 points)? I guess a close equivalent would be “full marks”.]

  188. Duncan says:

    Yeah, I thought it was fairly explicit that inktellectual was talking about per school days, and that the “100s” refer to perfect test scores, though I’m not sure that reading itself will give you those. But it doesn’t hoit.

    I find it interesting that books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Animal Farm are being handed out in school now. They weren’t when I was a kid! I read both of them on my own, the only way I was going to read anything good before the 8th grade or so. I think I read Animal Farm in 5th grade; I am pretty sure I read 1984 a year later. I understood Animal Farm quite well, and to this day I am amazed that such an anti-capitalist book is being recommended to children; obviously most people misread it. Yes, it’s also anti-Soviet, but it doesn’t show capitalism as having any redeeming qualities at all, and the allegory ends with capitalists and socialists sitting down at table together. Animal Farm ultimately inspired my left politics, such as they are. I understood most of 1984 when I read it at 12 or so, except for the sex parts. But the politics, the important part, I grasped well enough.

    I read promiscuously, hence I’ve read a lot of “trash.” Some of it I enjoy (Jennifer Crusie, Anne McCaffrey), some I don’t (Danielle Steele, Dan Brown, David Baldacci). I don’t like Stephen King, not because I’m “supposed” to, but because I don’t like the way he writes or the stories he tells. Each to his or own, right?

    I think Maggie Jochild misunderstands what I, at least, meant by “abuse porn.” It would probably cover what she calls the “victim” mode, though. I was thinking of books and stories which show terrible things happening to helpless victims so that the reader can be both titillated and outraged by them. Yes, such stories are selling something, though I’m not sure what. In general I disagree with her analysis of porn, though I wonder how she’d reconcile it with the abuse porn that she apparently approves of. As someone noted (Ian or Londonboy, I think), one function of such stuff is to fuel moral panics, such as the Satanic-abuse witch hunt of the 1980s. American feminism squandered a lot of its moral capital by its collaboration/involvement with that mess.

  189. Suzanonymous says:

    I felt like I recognize the spine of the book at the start, that it was modeled after an old book from Frazer’s The Golden Bough. I saw a very old edition at the library once, was amazed it was just out on the shelves, but I checked today and, either I totally misremembered, or they put their set away for safe keeping. A look on abebooks and alibris shows that some sets of the Golden Bough go for thousands of dollars (unfortunately no pictures). At any rate, I wonder if Alison based that spine on a specific old book.

    Really nice comic, Alison. Thanks for posting it.

  190. Suz says:

    I read Animal Farm (and 1984, and Abbie Hoffman, and a memoir of the SDS protests at Columbia [University], and I don’t remember what else) in 9th grade social studies. In retrospect, I’m both impressed and amazed that the teacher got away with that kind of curiculum. (And in my case, it was the perfect time for me to be exposed to that sort of thing.)

  191. Suz says:

    Eek. Curriculum. I can spell.

  192. Maloti Ray says:

    Alison, I am directing my 75 Facebook friends to this graphic essay. It is brilliant. It empathizes with former chain-reading children who, as wistful adults, develop bookshelves of canon and contemporary texts.

    I simply love your work.

  193. shadocat says:

    Oh yes, “Steal This Book”, which I claimed to my oh so hip friends that I really stole. (I bought it,nerd that I am.)

  194. Suz says:

    Heh. The boy I lost my virginity to stole (or claimed he stole) Steal This Book for me. All these years later I still find that kind of charming. And I still have the book.

    Hoffman was kind of a role model for me– his use of humor as a means of communicating non-funny stuff.

  195. Deena in OR says:

    For those of you who have been sending all that great energy for me…I got approval today for my loan restructure. I am one relieved woman. ::Draws her first deep breath in quite some time::

  196. Ian says:

    Woo hoo Deena! That must be a huge weight off your shoulders. Am v glad it’s given you breathing space (so to speak).

  197. Dr. Empirical says:

    Congratulations Deena!

  198. ksbel6 says:

    Congrats Deena!

    Duncan: Had I read 1984 when I was 12, the only parts I would have understood were the sex parts 🙂

  199. --MC says:

    Comment 200 .. this thread has got me reading again. Bless you all.

  200. Donna says:

    Oh yeah, 100% scores on tests. Duh!

  201. shadocat says:

    ditto that “Duh” for me, too, Donna.

    And congrats to you, Deena!

  202. Suz says:

    Oh, good, Deena.

  203. Feminista says:

    I read,therefore I am.

    Inspired by all you well-read reds (and greens), I’ve decided that tonight at my writing group,I’ll pursue the origins of my bookish ways,from being leader of the Bluebirds,the top reading group in first grade,to being a contributor to this illustrious blog,among other things.

    Glad to hear good news,Deena.

    Re: 100s–are these threads 100 or 200 count? organic?

  204. mlk says:

    was happy to see that someone — a ways up — mentioned Freddy the Pig. I read all of those stories. also Pippi Longstocking, Paddington Bear (those all melted together after awhile, there were so many and they were so much the same, but Paddington was so endearing!), Mrs. Piggle Wiggle (stories about magical cures for children who had troubling qualities, like tattling and refusing to take baths). I read Narnia bunches of times, so much that it’s ingrained in my soul, also Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction (children and adult).

    thank you, Alison, for exposing in that way of yours the compulsion of childhood reading and how different it is from reading what we’re supposed to! it brought back that sense of shame I felt when I read something because I was supposed to, and didn’t like it . . . I felt somehow inferior and outcast. this explains why I so much resisted doing what I was supposed to do, especially when it came to reading.

  205. mfahy says:

    Just by the by, uhm anybody else into Saki as a teen, or is it just
    my own fault?
    Or the short stories of Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, Anita Loos, Damon Runyon?

    I hate Thurber as much as I hate Garrison Keillor (or whatever his name is).

  206. mfahy says:

    Oh. and I almost forgot
    Mary Gaitskill,
    Dennis Cooper,
    Jim Gluck and
    Amy Hempel,
    all masters of the “modern short story”!

  207. mfahy says:

    Oh, and please don’t EVER read ANYTHING by Joyce Carol Oates.
    (No, really, it’s from personal experience…she HATES her OWN BOOKS!!)

  208. Maggie Jochild says:

    Hey, Duncan, however off the mark my interpretation was of the meaning you intended for “abuse porn”, I did not speak of it with approval. The opposite, in fact. At length. Reread.

    Mfahy, I did read (and adore) Ring Lardner and Dorothy Parker, though I much preferred the latter’s poetry. And, through her discovered Robert Benchley. Another childhood favorite was Booth Tarkington, although on revisiting him as an adult, I found the incidental racism so severe that I could not recommend him to my own kids. How can he be so funny, so spot-on about the tribulations of children, and then in the same paragraph describe black kids in the way he did? The American pathology, in a nutshell.

    I didn’t care for Damon Runyon (likely it went over my head) but became a fan of H. Allen Smith and H.L. Mencken. I guess my filter for sorting out misogyny was better…Anyhow, my favorite Mencken memory is when he was describing a failed old man who lived somewhere in a small town in the Midwest, named Jones. Mr. Jones decided his only chance at immortality was to discover some tributary of the local watershed which was, as yet, unnamed and persuade the local county commissioners to name the creek or branch after him. He went out every day on his hunt, and talked about it so incessantly that he came to be known as Jones Creek Jones (said with a laugh). When Jones Creek Jones finally did die, uncelebrated, somebody introduced a proposal at the next county meeting to name a tiny stretch of an intermittently running stream after him, posthumously. However, by this time no one could remember the real name of Jones Creek Jones. So the proposal was passed, and the appellation was affixed to the map as “Jones Creek Jones Creek.”

  209. --MC says:

    Mfahy — I was a big fan of Saki when in sixth grade, and for this you can blame Scholastic Book Services, who put out a slim collection of his fantastic tales under the title “Humor, Horror, and the Supernatural.” With a name like that, who could resist it? It was years before I could understand and appreciate “The Schartz-Metterklume Method”, for example, but I am grateful for the opportunity to read above my comprehension.
    Thurber’s OK for me. I can’t re-read “Nine Needles” without laughing, and if I try to read it out loud to somebody I usually wind up laughing until I cough.

  210. an australian in london says:

    Ellen O., I read Middlemarch for Uni. I glued myself to my bed for an entire day, or possibly two, and forced my way through to the end. I didn’t get drawn in. Don’t hold your breath. It is interesting in an historical sense, and i did enjoy writing the essay where an unexplained time warp had allowed elliot to read woolf, and comment on the developments in the novel in the interceding century or so – that part was interesting. But the story? Mildly interesting, yes, but not gripping.

    Like Alison, I have a hard time reading books people recommend to me. I am ashamed to say that I am only now starting a book lent to me by one of my STUDENTS(!) three or four months ago. Blush. I was embarrassed to accept it, but she insisted, as I was the one who had recommended the author to her (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – at the risk of turning folk off her for life – you must read half of a yellow sun – it’s a stunning novel set before and during the nigerian civil war in the sixties. I couldn’t put it down.)

    Middlemarch I read because the lecturer had designed the assessments for the course in such a way that you had to write about all but one of the set texts. It was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge that lost out. No idea what that’s about. A mayor in Casterbridge I dare say. Oops.

    DTWOF features on my list of fave books. Middlemarch does not.

  211. cybercita says:

    yup, mfahy. all of dorothy parker and anita loos, and quite a bit of ring lardner. loved them all, especially dorothy parker.

    but i also love thurber and keillor.

  212. Andrew B says:

    –MC, if you’re not reading above your comprehension, what’s the point? Good for you, reading above your comprehension.

  213. Donna says:

    Does anyone know what hard-boiled means in the following quote:

    “The O. Henry Prizes Stories 2008 continues to reward the same type of story they’ve been championing for the past decade: conventional, hard-boiled tales told in the third-person.”

    The O. Henry Prize Stories have nothing to do with detective or crime fiction.

  214. --MC says:

    I know, Andrew, no big deal, right? But so much reading matter for kids is arranged so their little minds won’t be confused, and I am happy that SBS wasn’t shy about putting books out that I had no hope of understanding completely at age twelve, that made me work a little to try and comprehend (and that set up things for me to catch the meanings of later in life).

  215. Ellen says:

    Donna, maybe hard-boiled means gritty, edgy, or somber in theme.

    Australian in London, thanks for the heads-up on Middlemarch. I making very slow progess, part of me determined to finish what I promised myself I would finish, part of me thinking, life is short — read what you want.

    I’m also skimming in parts.

    I finally got a hard copy of Entertainment Weekly this week, swiped it from my eye-doctor’s office. Not my usual style, but I was ticked off by their erractic service. Knowing me, I’ll probably bring it back, tell them I picked it up by mistake. A small lie compounding a theft? Hmmm….

    Happy Fourth of July to those who are celebrating.

  216. Andrew B says:

    –MC, no, I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic. I really meant, good for you. Your post brought back memories of elementary school bullies, I mean teachers, trying to force me to stay at “my level”, and at least one concerned (adult) citizen who made a determined attempt to humiliate me (about age 9) with a nitpicking verbal quiz about the Sherlock Holmes story I was reading at the time. If I sounded angry, it was because I was thinking of them. That seems to have come across as sarcasm directed at you, and I apologize for that. I meant to be supportive. If you’re not reading above what some nudnik educational commissar considers to be your level, you’re not challenging yourself. I’m glad you found those books. I wish I’d found them when I was a kid.

    (Ok, and for the record: I also had some wonderful elementary school teachers. I don’t hate all teachers; just the ones who value order above knowledge, and I don’t mean the ones who are trying to maintain enough order so they can teach. I mean the ones who seem to think that their sole purpose is to arrange little children in orderly rows and columns. “Nudnik educational commissar” I think I’ll stand behind. The ability to pull out a C in an elementary stats course does not make anyone an expert in “learning”.)

  217. Andy says:

    Personally, I blame the Internet. Seriously, I used to get so much more print reading done before getting broadband.

    My salvation nowadays is the gym. They used to have individual TVs about each piece of cardio equipment, which enabled me to discover Buffy The Vampire Slayer (best show ever besides Mystery Science Theater 3000).

    They took the TVs out a while back, however, so now I bring books to the gym and read during cardio. It means that I can only use the treadmill now without feeling carsick, but at least I’m reading again.

  218. ravaj says:

    today is the fourth anniversary of the death of my beloved father. i am delighted to read this thread, because he was the coolest reader. he was a rabbi and a phd, and he loved harry potter. he read moliere and murder mysteries. asimov and buber. he loved the malory towers series from enid blyton as well as the babylonian talmud. he enjoyed tintin, asterix, calvin and hobbes and the simpsons. he was well-versed in 18th, 19th & 20th century poetry. i am not sure of his opinion with regard to jane austen, but i’m sure he read them all. one of my favourite stories about him is when as a family we went to the theatre to see (my favourite) comedian victoria wood live. the first half was a monologue that centred sort of around the adventures of a tampon. at the interval, my youngest sister (we were three girls) turned to him and said, poor daddy, i suppose you didn’t understand a word of that. he fixed her with a firm gaze and said, darling, when i am in the bathroom i read everything!

  219. Natalka says:

    alison, this is brilliant! my copy of “harriet the spy” became unbelievably tattered, too. i’m glad no one recommended it to you because every woman i’ve ever discussed it with has agreed that it was one of their favorite books as a girl. i’ve been thinking it “should” be recommended reading for girls… after all, it features an independent, smart, autonomous, realistic female character, and how common is that in the wider world of fiction, let alone in kids’ books? but maybe if it actually *was* recommended… it would lose some of its excellence.

    oh speaking of independent, smart, autonomous female characters – I do not recommend to you philip pullman’s “golden compass” trilogy. Really I don’t. not at all. Hopefully no one else will recommend this to you either. I’m sure they have it both at your library and in stock at your local bookstore (children’s section) but it doesn’t matter because nobody is suggesting that you read it.

  220. Charlotte says:

    As a bookseller by nights (grad student by some other evenings) I totally recognize all the contemporary titles thrown around in this panel (and who wouldn’t- they’re like the Hannah Montana and Madonna’s of pop lit)

    But I find it a bit ironic that people actually come up to the desk at my “books and bounders” and ask for recommendations, to be told what to read instead of browsing the shelves looking for a hidden unrealized piece of prose that escaped the NYTimes book reviews.

    I’ve come to the point of avoiding those people who look for Meg Cabot and the new book by Lauren Weisberger because no matter what I suggest, -akin to your aversion of being told what to read- I find my suggested paperback titles thrown into a hard to reach/hard to notice dark corner.

    p.s: and totally totally ditto on the Junot Diaz title. the book is brilliant. I knew it was gonna be a winner way before any press about it.

  221. VUNeyuon says:


  222. Sue says:

    This is a wonderful essay. I read all of those Childhood of Famous Americans, too! George Custer…always with curls.

  223. RebekahD says:

    Ha! And I thought my brother and I were the only ones who ever had that Authors card game! We also found most of the authors exceptionally hairy.

    It’s also good to know I’m not the only one with “OMG I can’t believe I haven’t read [considered to be required reading] yet” syndrome! Have been muddling through The Mill on the Floss, but may just put it away and try to read Harriet the Spy again, if I can get the pages to stay together.

    Thanks Alison!

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  225. Chris (in Massachusetts) says:

    judybusy, one of the folks I gave a copy of that book to works in the Department of Design and Construction in NYC. It’s a city agency. She’s the one that told me about how the Freedom Tower fiasco is essentially Brunelschi’s Dome, just updated and moved to NYC. The bureaucracy is the same, the egos are the same. Nothing has changed.

    As a geek from way back when, I someday hope to see Florence and to climb the steps in the Dome, to see the brickwork and to read the builder’s graffiti, and, if the climb hasn’t killed me, to stand atop the Dome and gaze at Florence, and marvel at the brilliance and audacity of Bruneleschi.

    And then arrange for the helicopter to pluck me from the summit and deliver me to the ground.

    (I almost can’t believe that this thread is still active!)

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  228. […] Hiljattain eksyin sarjakuvapiirtäjä Alison Bechdelin luonnoskirjaan, jossa hän päätyy tulokseen, että mikäli haluat saada jälkikasvusi lukemaan jotakin, on paras piilottaa se jonnekin, suojella sitä kuin se olisi kovaa pornoa tai muu tabunaihe. Silloin kirjasta tulee aivan luontojaan suoranaisen manian kohde. Tuon loistavan  “Pakollista luettavaa “ -sarjakuvasivun löytää täältä. […]

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  230. […] There’s certainly something to be said for reading by inclination. The thrill and intimacy of discovering a book on your own, for example. Or the satisfaction of reading a book with no strings attached. Too often, recommendations carry a sense of obligation or create heightend expecations that readers find difficult to shake off and that all too easily spoil the experience. It is akin to watching an over-hyped movie or going to a play recommended by your teacher. Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Compulsory Reading” illustrates this killjoy-potential of recommended reading magnificently. […]

  231. […] I’m going to have to start buying all the other books now. I think I’ve mentioned that all my girls, and especially Grace, are keen comic artists. She’d love Achewood but I’m afraid that for now it’s going to have to stay on that shelf where, as Alison Bechdel says, the parents keep the good stuff. […]

  232. […] Alison Bechdel has a great comic up that pretty well sums up the way I feel when I look at those shelves of books that I plan on reading “someday.” Well worth a look. Thanks for the link, Ann! […]

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  234. regine juan says:

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  235. regine juan says:

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