A recent article in my PARADE* magazine caught my attention; this one by writer Ann Patchett is titled “THE 75 BEST BOOKS OF THE PAST 75 YEARS”.
Well, I’m sure you can imagine—I begged to differ. I rarely read books that are on best seller lists—I pick & choose what I find interesting.
When Parade asked Patchett to compile a list of the best 75 books to celebrate the magazine’s 75th anniversary, her first response was, “Not a chance!” –She says she could picture the mountains of furious letters complaining about all the great works of literature she’d left off. But when she asked the staff at Parnassus Books, the Nashville store she co-owns with Karen Hayes, to take it on as a group project, they agreed.
What they discovered in the process is how wildly they disagreed about everything, except how much they loved books. “We wanted novels, sure”, she writes, “but we also wanted picture books, science books, histories and young adult novels. We wanted things that were old, like “The Old Man and the Sea”, but also things that were hot off the press, like “When Breath Becomes Air” (which I am totally unfamiliar with).
Patchett continues, “The most important thing about creating any list is figuring out ways to narrow it down, so we decided to choose 75 books from just the last 75 years (sorry, Grapes of Wrath, you just missed the cut) and books written only by North Americans, because if we opened it up to the world we would miss plenty of gems out of sheer ignorance and wind up with a lot more than 75 books!”
She says “that seemed like a reasonable solution until we realized that meant leaving off Harry Potter, a deal breaker for half of our staff, so we defaulted to books written in English.
Behold, a mash-up of a list that exemplifies the passionate convictions of 17 booksellers. Are they the best 75 books from the past 75 years? Judge for yourself…”.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
“This book is so perfectly executed—literature at its most engaging. When I think about so many of the books on this list, I’m also thinking about the books that didn’t get on. Personally, I love “A Handful of Dust” slightly more than “Brideshead”, but I was outvoted.”
The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1949)
“This book belongs to no era. It’s pure wisdom.”
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951)
“This book is on the list because Mary Laura Philpot, who’s in charge of our online literary magazine, Musing, pretty much said she’d quit if we didn’t include The End of the Affair and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. We all had books that we refused to be flexible on. Greene’s body of work is both large and wildly diverse: There are the political Greene novels, the comic Greene novels, the romantic Greene novels. If you’re just picking one, it’s not going to be representative of his entire body of work, so in the end we went with the one Mary Laura loved best. I have to say, I completely agree with her.”
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (1953)
Writes Patchett “Nine Stories is a book I’ve gone back to at different moments in my life, and I always find something new. I’ve passionately loved different stories at different times, first “Teddy,” later “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor.” I could list all of them. It’s also the most perfectly balanced collection of stories I know. There are no weak links. The Catcher in the Rye is a great book when you’re a kid, and Franny and Zooey is a great book when you’re in your 20s, but Nine Stories can see you through your entire life.”
Books in the 1960s:
“America was so vulnerable in the ’60s. I think of the pain that the country suffered through because of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement–it tore our hearts open, and that openness is the place from which great art is often made.”
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child (1961)
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963)
“These two books make a nice pairing because, in extremely different ways, they’re books about women finding their art and their daring. Plath and Child both test themselves to see what they’re capable of, and that set the tone not only for the ’60s but for the rest of our lives.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)
“This book was the guide to the ’70s. The world as we had known it in the ’50s was finished. Who knew what was coming? This is the book that says everything we used to know is gone, but what’s up ahead may be a lot cooler than anything we could have ever imagined.”
Maus by Art Spiegelman (1980)
“The first graphic novel to address a serious subject—one of the first graphic novels for adults I had ever seen, this book made us look at one of the most painful and widely documented atrocities in history with fresh eyes. Maus made us think again. Its influence has certainly been clear in the rise of graphic novels, but I think it’s spread throughout all art forms, going all the way up to the play Hamilton. How can the artist make his audience fully experience history? Present it in the most unexpected way.”
The Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling (1997–2007)
“The Harry Potter phenomenon was and still is incredibly uplifting because it turned children into readers. It gave them a profound connection to characters, and that nearly rabid need to know what was coming next. The readers and the characters grew up together, and the passion for the books spread to the parents and then to the next generation. Any child who grew up reading Harry Potter knows that she is fully capable of later reading something like Great Expectations, because she’s had that experience of losing herself in great big books.”
On Writing by Stephen King (1999)
“It would be impossible for a bunch of booksellers to decide on their favorite Stephen King novel, but we all agreed On Writing should make the list. You don’t need to be a King fan, a horror fan, or someone who wants to write to love this book (though Stephen King’s horror fans who want to write will be deeply satisfied). It’s just a great book about determination, and how the past shapes us, and how the love and support of a single person can make all the difference. It’s also the best explanation of addiction, and overcoming addiction, that I’ve ever read.”
(I don’t consider myself much of a Stephen King fan—with the exception of some of his early works, in particular “Four Seasons” – four short stories which all, I believe, were made into films–sls)
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace (2005)
“Some people feel intimidated by David Foster Wallace’s books, and some of his books can be intimidating. By adding Consider the Lobster to this list, we’re suggesting a book that shows Wallace’s brilliance at its very best while still being accessible. This is a very funny book, very manageable, but the writing is never less than dazzling. He continually asks us if we’re thinking about what we’re doing, because he’s thinking about what he’s doing every second.”
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016)
“The book grabs the reader from the opening pages and never lets go. That’s why it’s so perfect for right now. There are so many demands on our time and attention, and Elizabeth Strout actually gets our attention, all of it, by simply and directly telling us an unforgettable story.”
I DID agree with Ms. Patchett on a few titles—one of the first for 1940 is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (no relation) published in 1943. Several other titles are unfamiliar to me, despite my lifetime of being an avid reader, moving from membership to various libraries to buying bags of books in the bi-annual library sales.
While many bookstores, to my dismay, have gone out of business, all you have to do is attend just one of the Friends of the Library book sales to discover that people are—despite the death of bookstores—still reading books. And I’m guessing that most of the books we purchase from the pre-owned selections at Amazon.com are from used bookstores that are finding customers throughout the country with this format.
The selections from Pachett for the 1950s are partially familiar (“The Old Man and the Sea” by Hemingway, “Charlotte’s Web” (E.B. White), “The Once and Future King” by T.H.White, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov—I haven’t read any of Patchett’s 1950s selections and don’t plan to go into Amazon.com and look for any of them. Included in 1950s as well was “Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger” I remember struggling through “Catcher in the Rye” by Salinger—yikes! In my honest opinion, best sellers of the 1950s also left much to be desired.
Pachett moves on to the 1960s—certainly I was an avid reader by this time. I scoured used book stores and thrift shops in downtown Cincinnati. Listed by Pachett for the 1960s? “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “The Rabbit Angstrom” by John Updike, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. I didn’t buy/read Julia Child’s cookbook in the 1960s—but I DID buy and read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and at some point in time, I also saw the film version starring Gregory Peck.
I now have several copies of “The Art of French Cooking” and have given most of my French cookbooks to my niece in Seattle, who – along with her husband – love French cooking.
Around in 1960 or ’61, my father brought home several copies of a Methodist church cookbook that he purchased from a co-worker at Formica, for a dollar each. My mother got a copy as well as my sister Becky and myself. That was really the introduction to church and club cookbooks for me. I tried many of the local Cincinnati recipes and began to wonder if there might be other church or club cookbooks such as this one. It was an awakening for me.
In 1961 we—husband Jim, one year old son, Michael, and I–moved to California, returning to Ohio in 1963 to await the birth of second son Steve. When Steve was four months old, we—now a family of four-returned to California, driving a treacherous route covered with snow and ice until we reached the middle of Texas. I had begun to collect books but my tastes were selective at this time.
I began buying used books (fiction novels, mostly) wherever I could find them cheap. I began reading whatever I could find. I remember going through all of Agatha Christie’s novels, paperbacks bought for ten cents each at a used book store on Lankershim Boulevard, when Michael was a toddler. We had an apartment on Sara Street. I walked to this book store with Michael in a stroller—at ten cents each, I could buy ten of Agatha Christie’s mysteries for a dollar.
Thinking back, I had a small bookcase in my bedroom when I was a teenager. My first books of my own were five Nancy Drew mysteries, a Christmas present from my brother Jim. I was probably ten or eleven at the time.
When I was still a pre-teen, I accompanied my Uncle Cal to the drug store on Carl Street to pick up a prescription for my mother. I picked up a paperback copy of the Diary of Anne Frank and sensing my interest, my uncle bought the book for me. I read it over and over, until the pages fell out of the book. It was the first non-fiction book I had ever read (years later I collected everything I could find about Anne Frank.)
I remember finding a copy of GONE WITH THE WIND at my grandmother’s, when a family she rented the second floor to disappeared without paying the rent, leaving behind an assortment of things. That copy of GONE WITH THE WIND was amongst those discards. GWTW was the very first unabridged novel that I read, up to that point. I think I was about fifteen years old. And, I had to read GWTW half a dozen times to really “get” it—I had to grow into Margaret Mitchell’s account of love, life and the American Civil War.
I also remember reading PEYTON PLACE as a teenager, which was considered scandalous and not suitable reading for good Catholic girls. Everybody was reading it (by later standards, PEYTON PLACE was actually pretty tame.) It should be noted that neither GWTW or Peyton Place made the list in Ann Patchett’s list.
By the time I became an adult and was buying books left and right, now scouring used book stores in the San Fernando Valley—I had acquired some of my favorite authors.
An early favorite author was Shirley Jackson, whose novels I read and collected. Then I discovered Janice Holt Giles and along with girlfriend Connie, we searched for HER published novels. Also early on, I discovered Ardyth Kennelly and made a diligent search for her books (unfortunately, Ardyth only wrote four or five novels and I was never able to discover why her writing career was cut short).
As for Shirley Jackson, she was the author I tried hardest to emulate—she could write bone-chilling mysteries such as “The Haunting of Hill House” (which was made into a movie) – or side-splitting humor such as her autobiographical Life Among the Savages” and “Raising Demons” which may have become offensive to her four children when they were old enough to know that they were the subject of those two books.
In 1965 I began to collect cookbooks – but none were purchased NEW—I began buying church and club cookbooks with assistance from a new Michigan penpal, Betsy, who also collected cookbooks.
Vacation trips with my sons to Cincinnati in the first half of the 1970s led to trips in downtown Cincinnati to scour the used bookstores to search for club and church cookbooks from various groups throughout Cincinnati but from neighboring Kentucky and Indiana as well. One year we returned to California by greyhound bus because you could ship up to five large boxes of books back to southern California without any additional fees.
In 1977, I returned to work full time, ending the summer vacations in Cincinnati.
As I got older, many of the titles of favorite authors became easier to find, thanks to the Internet.
When I bought a house in 2008 and despite giving away truckloads of books to the Burbank Friends of the Library, I filled over 600 boxes with books and other belongings n(such as cookie jars and recipe boxes) while my son Kelly made weekend trips from the San Fernando Valley to the Antelope Valley, then transferred all the boxes of books to my new garage once we moved into our new home.
In 2010, my housemate, Bob, built a library out of half of my garage space—cookbooks filled all the bookshelves inside the house, and my collections of fiction, collections of First Ladies and Presidents went into the new library; I unpacked boxes of books as fast as Bob put up shelves. And despite all the newly found book space, I donated more than five large boxes of books to the Lancaster Friends of the Library.
At last I had enough shelf space to put all of titles by favorite authors into alphabetical order (with the exception of my absolutely favorite authors, who are in a bookcase in my bedroom) so that I can tell you that favorite authors range from Maeve Binchy and Gwen Bristow to Michael Connolly and Patricia Cornwell, Harlan Coben and Jeffrey Deaver to Janice Holt Giles and Norah Lofts, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, from John Sandford to John Steinbeck—who I was late in discovering after a trip to Monterey Bay with a girlfriend.
In more recent years, I discovered—and fell in love with—books by Robert Morgan, starting with The Hinterlands, as well as the body of works by Adriana Trigiani. I think my love for American pioneer fiction started with Janice Holt Giles but is still going strong today with pioneer fiction by Robert Morgan and Adriana Trigiani.
In the past few years, I have begun downsizing some of my books, primarily to provide shelf space for other favorite titles—easily a lot more than seventy five.
–Sandra Lee Smith
*for the unfamiliar, Parade is a leaflet of perhaps half a dozen pages that appears in my L.A. Times Sunday newspaper.