The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.

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Comfort Reading

Reading for Reassurance

Chicken soupYou’ve heard of “comfort food,” right?

In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (1980), one character asks the others:  “Write down the twenty stories you have enjoyed most. . . . Make them stories you reread for pleasure when you are too tired to tackle a new book.”  (ch. 33, p. 349)

I’d never actually thought about it before I read that passage, but there is such a category.  There are times, especially toward the end of the day, when we want to immerse ourselves in a story, but not an arduous story.  Even if we’re currently reading something new that we like, we may not feel we can fully appreciate it when we’re tired out.  We’d rather relax into something less demanding.

The same can be true when we’re feeling emotionally drained.  Sometimes we pine for what we might call “comfort reading” on the analogy of “comfort food.”

We might be tempted to regard this urge for the familiar and reassuring as craven or self-indulgent.  But there’s nothing wrong with giving way to that impulse—some of the time.  We can welcome a new book as a challenge; but we don’t always have to be challenged.  Sometimes we simply need to recoup our energies for a while.

This is true in general, I think, but especially at Christmastime—so today seemed like a good time to bring up the subject.

Good Comfort Reading

What kind of stories one likes for “cocooning” will vary, culturally and individually—as the Wikipedia article cited above makes clear for comfort food.  In TV Tropes terms, “your mileage may vary.”  By way of example, here’s some of what I find myself looking for.

When I relax, I want something relatively light, not a matter of life and death.  A fan of adventure fiction spends a lot of time embroiled in saving the world, or the galaxy—or at least the imperiled main characters.  And a lot of science fiction deals with world-changing issues and problems.  That’s pretty strenuous.  It’s nice to be able follow a narrative where the stakes are not quite so high.

At the same time, there has to be enough substance to engage our interest.  A story in which nothing is at stake won’t hold our attention.  So pure farce or silliness doesn’t always fill the bill.

And for me, at least, it helps if the story is fairly “warm-hearted.”  Happy endings, sympathetic characters, a certain degree of kindness and encouragement in the air.  A cynic might have a quite different preference here:  a happy ending may not be congenial to his world-view.  But we sentimentalists want some of the milk of human kindness in our chicken soup.  (Well, maybe not literally.)

For this reason, romances make good hunting grounds for comfort reading.  Not necessarily genre romances; I’m put in mind of Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow, which is almost uncategorizable (social comedy? political commentary? science fiction?) but incorporates no fewer than seven separate romances in a scant 217 pages, possibly a world’s record.

In a good love story, something that matters very much is at issue—but generally only for the main characters.  This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies are almost always romantic comedies.  His amiable main characters are never in very great danger, but rooting for their love affairs keeps us focused through the plot’s succession of hilarious absurdities.

Melendy children with Christmas greensPersonally, I also like children’s stories to relax with.  There’s a category of what I call “family adventures,” where preadolescent children get into a series of scrapes or difficulties that are interesting but never too serious.  Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet (starting with The Saturdays, 1941) is my paradigm example.  Some of E. Nesbit’s books, such as Five Children and It, have a similar air, but with a fantasy component.  (I’d cite Eleanor Estes and Edward Eager as well, but that would raise the mysterious question of why so many writers in this category have the initials E.E.  Same reason Superman’s girlfriends all have the initials L.L., I suppose.)

Christmastide Reading

Of all the times of the year, the Christmas season may be when one most wants to be reading something engaging but pleasant.  There are probably people who want to stage a “Game of Thrones” marathon on Christmas Day, but I’m not one of them.

There are of course the traditional comforting stories that are specifically about Christmas.  A Christmas Carol is one obvious choice (though the actual book is a bit spookier and more tough-minded than some of the adaptations)

Interim Errantry coverLess obvious favorites of mine include “A good-humoured Christmas chapter” from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (ch. 28); “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” from Diane Duane’s Interim Errantry; chapter 5 of The Wind in the Willows (“Dulce Domum”); Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert and The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas; Elizabeth Scarborough’s Carol for Another Christmas; chapters 12-13 of Kate Seredy’s The Good Master; and Manly Wade Wellman’s “On the Hills and Everywhere,” in the collection John the Balladeer.  The only trouble is that some of these are quite short; they’ll barely last you through lunch.

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverBut even at Yuletide, we may not want to marinate in Christmas quite to that extent.  So I also cultivate a selection of books that strike (or encourage) the right mood, but don’t have anything specific to do with Christmas.  I’ve mentioned Wodehouse; Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have a similar combination of light-heartedness and warm-heartedness (I’ve often thought of her as Wodehouse crossed with Jane Austen).  Other kindly and entertaining tales not specifically about the season include Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign—one of my all-time favorites for all seasons—Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn.

Have any favorites of your own for Christmastime, or comfort reading generally?

Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars book coverArabella of Mars, by David D. Levine (New York:  Tor, 2016), may be described as a Regency steampunk planetary romance.  Better yet may be the flyleaf testimonial from Madeleine Robins:  “If Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Patrick O’Brian had sat down together to compose a tale to amuse Jane Austen, the result might be Arabella of Mars.”

Genres are getting complicated these days.  But sometimes that cross-fertilization produces some entertaining mixes.

Our young heroine’s British family maintains a plantation on Mars, as if it were the Caribbean islands or India at the dawn of the nineteenth century.  The native Martians, filling the role of the local population, are considered primitive by the British colonists.  In this respect the setup is faintly reminiscent of the Martian sequence in Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast.

Physically, however, Levine’s Martians are more reminiscent of the green Martians of Burroughs’ Barsoom:  large, nonhuman, living in a desert world.  In keeping with modern sensibilities, the “natives” actually possess a respectable culture and can be formidable opponents.  This accounts for the “planetary romance” aspect—“an extension of late 19th and early 20th century adventure novels and pulp romances to a planetary setting,” as Wikipedia describes the genre.

When tomboyish Arabella is removed with her mother and sister to Earth, the Austen angle takes over.  Arabella finds the Regency-era dinner parties and promenades boring; she’d rather be tinkering with mechanical piano-players and other automata.  The swiftly thickening plot, which involves period devices like entailed estates, forces our heroine to disguise herself as a boy and take a menial position on an East India, er, Mars Company vessel bound for Mars again.

At this point the Burroughs and O’Brian factors collide in an extraordinarily droll description of the Age of Space as an Age of Sail.  Captain Jack Aubrey would have been perfectly at home on the quarterdeck of this interplanetary ship crewed by rough sailors and featuring three masts, not in a row, but protruding from the top and sides of the boat at 120-degree angles.  The Diana is lifted by hot-air balloons (coal-fired, of course) into the extremely high-speed interplanetary air currents, which make travel to Mars a matter of a few months.  These vessels are reminiscent of Burroughs’ Barsoomian airships, bringing us back to the planetary romance theme.

Levine gives us with a straight face his depiction of a Solar System filled with breathable air, without deigning to worry about trivialities such as how the planets could maintain their orbits in such a resisting medium.  The absurdity of the premise simply makes the description more delightful.  As we deal with pirates on the (very) high seas, stop at a convenient asteroid to cut down trees for repairs, and make charcoal to fuel the balloons for the perilous descent to Mars, one can only ride along enjoying Levine’s inventive adaptation of one set of tropes into an entirely different world.

But it’s not just silliness.  The book isn’t a farce.  There’s a good sound story with believable characters strung through this cockeyed worldbuilding.  There’s even a real romance, in the love-story sense, though this plays a somewhat muted role.  Overall, the tale has more of the sea story than of the Regency romance about it.  But it might serve an aficionado of either genre as a cordial introduction to the other.

The novel is billed as “Book One” of “The Adventures of Arabella Ashby.”  One can only imagine what sort of eccentric scenarios might come next.  (For example, I don’t believe anything has yet been mentioned about Venus—which is bound to be a jungle world, perhaps with dinosaurs, if it’s based on the Burroughs-Heinlein model.)  I look forward to seeing where this whimsical tale may lead.