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September 9, 2006

'117 books to be read immediately' – by Francine Prose

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It's a list

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appended to her

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new book,

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"Reading Like A Writer,"

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and appears below

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and above.

September 9, 2006 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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I love Prose's list. I love her book too. I find it completely without pretention. "Franny and Zoey" is a great book; it's exactly what she was trying to demonstrate about development of character through dialogue in fiction. You've missed the point if you start to say "Catcher in the rye" isn't on the list, etc. Her list isn't meant to say: only read these books or even that these are the greatest books that were ever written. (As far as I understand it.) Only that there's some kind of immediacy in reading them. This immediacy is increased when MFA students are not reading the Russians. Her book is a love letter to books. To writers. Imagine her taking an entire class on a passage from Tolstoy, asking her class why he chose that word instead of another and then with another writer and another. Her chapter on Chekhov is astounding, helpful, humble. Her love of literature ("the only piece of art you can take on the bus") and fear of its future as it becomes more and more like Hollywood (writers who have been pressured to write characters we can identify with) is heartening.

Posted by: mike Peterson | Nov 22, 2008 9:17:26 PM

Interesting list. No Herman Hesse, no Thomas Mann. No To the Lighthouse or a Room of One's Own.

And she picked Franny and Zoey over The Catcher in the Rye. Tsk, tsk. ;)

The really amazing fact is that a diehard reader sees no list - no matter if she agrees with its premise or selections or not - and begins mentally checking off books finished in her head and adding items to the Big Reading List in the Sky.

Writer's Almanac this morning had a brief biography of Tolstoy that made me laugh out loud TWICE while reading it. How often does that happen? OK, you talked me into it. Here it is:

It's the birthday of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, (books by this author) born on his family's estate in the province of Tula, near Moscow (1828). He led a wild life as a young man and then in his mid-thirties he decided that it was time to get married.

He began spending a lot of time with a friend who had three available daughters, and everyone expected him to propose to the oldest. But he found himself falling in love with the less attractive but more intelligent middle daughter, Sophia. The closer he got to making a proposal, however, the more panicked he felt. He could hardly think about anything else, and he wasn't at all sure he wanted to go through with it. He wrote his marriage proposal in a letter, but he couldn't bring himself to send it. He kept it in his pocket for twenty-four hours. He finally got up the courage to go to Sophia's house, but he couldn't even speak. So he just handed her the letter and walked away.

That night Tolstoy suddenly realized that what he really wanted in a wife was someone with whom he could share his most private thoughts, and he decided that if he was going to marry this girl, he would have to let her read his diary. So they set the date for the wedding a week later, and during that week Tolstoy gave Sophia his diary to read. She was excited at first, but by the time she finished reading she was in tears, horrified by his descriptions of brothels and his affairs with peasant girls. Tolstoy asked if she forgave him for his past, and she said she did. He said that she could call off the wedding if she wanted to, but it was impossible to do so because so many people already knew about the proposal.

The marriage was not particularly happy for Sophia. She'd grown up in a cosmopolitan, aristocratic world, and after marrying Tolstoy she had to live on a rural estate where her husband lived almost like a peasant. His house was extraordinarily simple, with no upholstered furniture and no carpets on the floor. He even wore peasant clothes, when he wasn't entertaining guests.

But for Tolstoy, the early years of his marriage were some of the happiest of his life. The regularity of married life let him settle down to work more steadily than ever before. And in the midst of that happiness, he wrote his first masterpiece, War and Peace (1868). It was the longest and most ambitious novel he'd ever written, and he was only willing to attempt it because he now had his wife to work as his secretary. When he would scribble corrections all over a rough draft, she was the only person who could decipher what his corrections said. Even he couldn't read his own handwriting. She ultimately copied by hand the 1400-page manuscript for War and Peace (1868) four times.

While he was working on War and Peace, free love was becoming fashionable among the Russian upper classes, and everyone started to think of marriage as old-fashioned and silly. Tolstoy was disgusted. In 1872, he heard about a woman who had thrown herself in front of a train after the end of an affair, and he went to view the body at the train station. He never forgot what he saw that day, and it gave him an idea for a novel about a woman whose life is destroyed by adultery.

That novel was Anna Karenina (1875), in which the story of the romance between Konstantin Levin and a young woman named Kitty was based almost entirely on Tolstoy's own marriage. When it was published, most critics said Anna Karenina was inferior to War and Peace, but it is now considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It begins, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Posted by: Shawn Lea | Sep 9, 2006 2:29:06 PM

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