30 August 2011

The best book I ever read: a Blog Off post

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.


  1. Paul,

    Although I haven't turned the pages in the first two, I love Grapes of Wrath, and I absolutely echo your sentiment that it's a real travesty that most of the great literature people read is done so before they are capable of appreciating the context of the novels. Just before school began again, I took the time, while getting some work done at Barnes and Noble, to browse the required summer reading section and was astonished at the selections: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Atlas Shrugged, Animal Farm, 1984... all great social commentaries but ones that will hardly be understood any deeper than at a superficial, fictional level.

    Hope you're doing well, and I look forward to once again contributing to Let's Blog Off in the future.

  2. Jamey: It's great to hear from you and thanks. I'm thrilled to hear of your love for Grapes of Wrath. Seriously, pick up Babbitt the next time you're looking for something to read, you'll enjoy it immensely. Hurry back to #LBO, we miss hearing your voice.

  3. I love finding out about books that people stake as seminal and that I've never read (2 of the 3). Although, I did just but Grapes of Wrath on my Kindle (funny timing) - it is showing up in some other posts today.


  4. Talk about a crash course in gratitude!

  5. Great list, Paul! I loved A Confederancy of Dunces and need to read several of the ones you listed.

  6. Hey thanks! I'd nearly forgotten about Confederacy until I sat down to write that post last night. It's a masterpiece.

  7. Interesting picks. I’ve read “The Grapes of Wrath”—twice at your suggestion! I’ve also read “Babbit,” but not “How the Other Half Lives.” It’s on my list of books to read (I actually have a list in my computer that I add to from time to time and meticulously check off as I obtain them!), but I think I’ll push it to the top and order it. It’s interesting how that all comes together at times. I found out about Jacob Riis because of “The Autobiography of Lincoln Stephens” and added his book to the list at that time. I said on other comments today that I feel very blessed to have not been made to read a lot of books while I was in high school. These books are very much cases in point. You have to live some to really appreciate them.

  8. Interesting choices and I'm going to look out for the Jacob Riis book.

  9. How the Other Half lives bounced into my life a couple of years ago. I'd never heard of it but I sure knew the title. I wonder how Riis would feel about his greatest work's title being turned into a cliche. It reads like a non-fictional Dickens and I suppose that's exactly what it is.

  10. Seriously, we are on the same wavelength if there is such a thing. Grapes of Wrath is absolutely one of my favorites as is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I just downloaded Babbitt not even three days ago and started reading it. How the Other Half Lives was one I found out about a few years ago and then forgot so thanks for the reminder.
    There are so many...but a few for me are Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. The man can write like someone from another universe. I have always been completely smitten with Wuthering Heights. And my absolute favorite - Dersu Uzala by Vladimir Arsenyev which was made into one of my favorite movies by Akira Kurosawa.

  11. If you are interested in America culture in the 1890s-early 1900s, try on Sister Carrie by Theo Dreiser. It spans the rebuilding of Chicago to the labor strikes of New York. An interesting read on labor as well as morality in the first period of true "American" literature.

    Oh, yeah.. it is a long book... but worth the read... just not all in one sitting. Dreiser gets heavy.

  12. Melody, you are going to love Babbitt, Lewis doesn't hold back and it could have been written yesterday.

    At your behest Rufus, I have Dreiser's Sister Carrie on my night stand as I write this. I have about 50 more pages left in Madame Bovary (outstanding novel) and I'm wading right into it. Did you pick up Eugenides' Middlesex?

  13. I read Madame Bovary last year. What a bitch. But I loved the book.

  14. Emma's a real piece of work, that's for sure. Even so, I almost felt for her when Rodolphe dumped her so unceremoniously. I want to symapthize with Charles, the husband, but he's such a whiny bitch I can't.

  15. “Sister Carrie” was marvelous, as was “An American Tragedy.” The beginning lines of the latter sucked me right in:

    “Dusk—of a summer night.

    “And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants—such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.

    “And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six—a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant-looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a bible and several hymn books. With these three, but walking independently behind, was a girl of fifteen, a boy of twelve and another girl of nine, all following obediently, but not too enthusiastically, in the wake of the others.

    “It was hot, yet with a sweet languor about it all.”

    It’s a very long novel, but one I had heard of forever, and one I very much enjoyed reading. Having been married some 35 years now, my wife and I rarely exchange gifts anymore, as we pretty much have what we want, but from time to time, she’ll get me a book if she knows it’s on my list. One year she got me “An American Tragedy” for my birthday to which my immediate response was, “Hey!!!!!”

  16. I was just talking to a friend about this topic the other day. Both of us have been big reader's since childhood and have shared almost every book we've read with one another. When we tried to pin down our #1 book, neither of us could do it.
    I came up with a rough list when talking to her. I've recorded every book I've read in my journals since I was 8 years old. I do a list per year. (Yes, a totally dorky thing to do). So I was thinking I should go through these journals and figure out which books would make my real 'Top 10' or something.
    The Grapes of Wrath would probably be in that 10 for me. It rocked me at 17 and when I read it again last year it was even better.
    Their Eyes Were Watching God is a yearly read for me, the only book I read annually.

    Anyway, great topic. One I could go on and on about. :) I enjoyed your list and have added a couple of your books to my "To Read" list.

  17. Hi Paul,
    The Grapes of Wrath? I was so depressed by reading that book in high school I'm terrified to read it once more. BUT maybe because you recommend it so highly I'll LOOK at it again and possibly crack it open and glance at a few pages...
    Have you read "A Soldier of the Great War" by Mark Helprin? Holly Hunt (of Holly Hunt showrooms) recommended it in a magazine article, and boy was I thrilled after taking her advice. All the best,

  18. Seriously Sara, give it another read. It's more applicable today than ever. Eyes of a certain age reading it help too. I just added "A Soldier of the Great War" to my Amazon list, thanks. I just started Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie over the weekend and I am swooning. Add that one to yours!


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