Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive with something called a Blog Off. A Blog Off is an event where bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic on the same day. The topic for this round of the Blog Off is "What's the best book you ever read?"
This is a tough one and I'm having a hard time narrowing it down to just one. I've been a prolific reader my whole life and different periods have always revolved around different books. I remember reading Alex Haley's Roots when I was in sixth grade and I thought it was the most amazing thing I'd ever read.
In high school I bounced between Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace. When I went away to college I was all about Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage until I ran into John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire. I thought that was the most profound thing I'd ever read. A couple of years later I stumbled across John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and it held the title of best book I ever read for a number of years.
I learned to read when I was around four and since then I've cycled through countless Best Books I Ever Read. Whether fiction or non-fiction, there's always been something at the top of the pile. But I suppose the last ten years or so have brought with them a less flexible sense of the Best Books. I have my lifetime favorites of course and I do go back and re-read some of them from time to time. But not all of them are great. These same last ten years have had me gravitating toward the social criticism (fiction and non-) from the late 19th early part of the 20th Centuries.
The times we live in now are largely the result of societal shifts that took place over the last 100 years. Going back and reading what was a contemporary commentary from 1890 and seeing how times have changed or not changed since then is endlessly fascinating to me. It drives home the point that history is a continuum and that I'm part of that same continuum. It also tells me that human beings have always been human beings. We have the same emotional range, regardless of the era and the times. There's nothing I feel or think today that hasn't been felt or thought in an endless loop since Homo sapiens first graced the scene.
So with that said, there are three books that sit at the top of my favorite book pantheon and they've help that spot for a while. I'm sure it'll shift with time but on 31 August 2011, those three books are:
Jacob Riis' How The Other Half Lives. In 1890, Jacob Riis exposed the horrific conditions that New York's tenement dwellers lived in. Due to his book and its accompanying photographs, there arose a movement to clean up the inner cities in this country and at the same time a sense that there are minimum standards in which people should live and that it's in a society's best interest to establish and enforce those minimum standards.
Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt from 1922 is a scathing indictment of conformity, suburban and bohemian alike. George F. Babbitt is a Realtor and early in the novel his professional life's described as making "nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry,” but that he is “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.” It's scathing and prescient at the same time. Lewis wasn't the first to point out the holes in the American dream but I don't think anyone's ever done it better.
Finally, John Steinbeck's 1939 masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath holds a place so near and dear to me I struggle to find words to describe what an important work it is. Most people are forced to read Grapes when they're in high school and that's unfortunate. Few 17 year olds have the life experience to appreciate what goes on between the covers of that novel. In some ways it picks up where Babbitt left off. The Grapes of Wrath is all about the dark underbelly of capitalism, and underbelly that's become vogue to ignore again. If you haven't read The Grapes of Wrath since high school, read it again. If you've never read, read it for the first time. Read it before the next election.
What about you? What book or books hold the title great in your world?
As the day goes on, the rest of the participants in today's Blog Off will appear miraculously at the end of this post. Keep checking back and check out everybody's posts. You can follow along in Twitter as well, just look for the hashtag #LetsBlogOff. If you'd like more information about about the Blog Off or if you'd like to see the results of previous Blog Offs, you can find the main website here.