I doubt there is anything particularly Southern about a list of Top 100, Best 100, or My Favorite 100 books. Then again, proving that one is better read, or that one’s list of perused books is more academic, or the simple act of trying to be snootier than one’s neighbor, does have a certain ring of Southernness to it. After all, only in the South would one subscribe to the e-version of Southern Living and leave their tablet on the coffee table showing said magazine.
There is also the fact that the largest time-waster in the South must be the labor put into the volumes of writings on Why We Lost the Great War, or The Truth Behind the Northern Aggression. I hereby submit that my “Top 100 Books of All Time” should at least rank second in “The 100 Greatest Southern Time-Wasters.”
I should warn readers, however, that I do commit heresy. Gone with the Wind is not my number one book. I will probably lose my “Right to Be a Southerner” when I admit the book isn’t even in my Top 100. Sorry. I flat-out didn’t enjoy reading the book, and my list is more about whether or not I enjoyed a book, than about my heritage. I do have a uniquely Southern book at Number Six, but–alas—it’s concerned with cockroaches, not the Great War.
I digress. This list, my “Top 100 Books of All Time,” is not a mere testament to my ability to come off as a blow-hard. I can do that in many easier ways. I am actually blogging this list. Why? I have asked myself the same question, over and over. Where will I find time? Who cares about my list? Will my wife think I’m e-mailing other women when I get up at three in the morning to write?
My blog is primarily for myself. Me. My expectations of a vast readership are non-existent. Perhaps, my kids, or my grandkids, will someday read it and learn something about me. I wish my own dad had written such trifling essays, though I’m fairly certain his “Top 100 Movies” would have Gone with the Wind number one, followed by every movie John Wayne ever appeared in. Yes, I have a “Top 100 Movies” list, and, yes, I’m sorry to say, Gone with the Wind is not in that 100, either.
My blog, I’ve decided, is a diary of sorts, limited to books, or TV shows, or comics, or movies, or meals — all subjects I opine upon — because I feel that we are what we read, watch, laugh at, pay to watch, and eat. I’m certain my lists don’t come anywhere close to others’ lists, or your lists. My lists are me. These are the influences that have molded me into what I am. For instance, more than five of my top 100 books are self-help books. At first I wasn’t going to include the Bible on my list, because I felt it might be seen as an attempt to push my religion on others. I’ve re-thought that. It’ll be there, but it won’t be the Southern Bible of Choice: the King James Version. It won’t be Number One, either. Number One, I thought, will be easy to pick. It’ll be my favorite book of all time. But the more I think about which of the books in my top five should be Number One, the more difficult picking it becomes. Should it be the one I enjoyed the most, the one I opened and read the most, or the one I learned the most from?
Nothing is easy in this old world. Not even writing a blog.
So, here goes—my Top 100, from last to first. Ta-da—Number 100!
The Encyclopedia Americana!
Number 100 in my list of books is actually a set of books–the Encyclopedia Americana, in 30 volumes, 1947 Edition. How many people do you know who have a 1947 set of encyclopedias? My parents, God bless them, were great believers in encyclopedias and, apparently, bought this set when I was four years old. We had at least three sets I can remember in our house during my school years. The Americana set was probably our first one, and being the hoarder that I am, I still have it. Yes, I know it’s ancient and out of date, but I don’t read it to find up-to-date stuff. I began reading it about 35 years ago, mining its words for ideas to use in stories I was writing at the time. I decided, back then, to read the entire 30 volumes. I longed to be able to store all of the information in the encyclopedias inside my head. Alas. My smallish, already overworked brain was not cooperative. Instead, I took notes as I read, and put them on 3 x 5 cards and made files to hold them. I still have the files I started, covering everything from astronomy to weapons–lots of good stuff every Southerner should know about.
I’m currently in Volume XVI, Jefferson through Latin, and how interesting it is. The third-listed Jefferson is Thomas, a hero of mine, though his right to admiration is being challenged on a regular basis nowadays. And in junior high I took Latin, both I and II. I was never accomplished in the Latin language, but I not only still have my textbooks, I’ve had a lifelong love for all things Roman. All because I took Latin.
In my list of 100 books there are two, Caesar’s War Commentaries and Working IX to V, that have Roman themes. I find it sad that foreign languages are no longer pushed in junior and senior high school. I took Latin and Spanish and wasn’t a prize student in either. What I did do, though, was develop a fondness for, and an understanding of, other cultures. Look around. Would you say there’s a problem understanding other cultures in America today?
While it may sound impressive that I’m currently in Volume 16 of the encyclopedias, this doesn’t mean I’ve read from 1 to 16. No. Though I’m normally an A to B type person, I’m also way too antsy-pantsy to spend 35 years delving through one set of books in the order they were printed. I skipped around. I’ve actually only gone through 1,11,14,18, 25, and 26. Only six of them. My studies pale next to those of A. J. Jacobs, who not only read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, he wrote a book about it. The boy probably made a mint. That’s the story of my life—I come up with an idea, someone else comes up with the same idea, and he ends up making a million. I guess you could say A. J. Jacobs ticks me off, which isn’t fair to him, of course. I’m the one who didn’t see the potential in reading an encyclopedia all the way through. I’m also the one who didn’t finish reading the blasted volumes.
Jacobs calls himself “the know-it-all, a humble, self-deprecating man, a disarming man, the son of a brilliant attorney, hilarious, an enlightening man,” etcetera ad nausea. He does tick me off. He claims he read the whole blessed thing, from A to Z. Good for him. But who calls himself the “son of a brilliant attorney”?
In his writings about his trip through the pages of the encyclopedia, Jacobs seems preoccupied with getting his wife pregnant, proving to his father that he’s not a ne’er-do-well, and discussing cross-eyed women. Not me. I take prodigious notes and file them away. My file drawer is filled with stuff. Stuff about eccentric people, like Germaine de Staël, who said, “He was born dying, and lived dying from that moment to this day;” and army terms, like brevetted, which means raised in rank, but not pay; and Greek words, like maēnad, a frenzied priestess of Dionysus; and literature terms, like versos de cabo rato, lines with unfinished endings, where the last stressed syllable in each line is dropped.
I have all sorts of great stuff. Stuff that should appeal to every good Southerner. I’ll give you some examples. The ancients believed that hyenas changed sex every year and could imitate the human voice. An apotropaic eye is the painting of an eye or eyes as a symbol to ward off evil. The Greeks used them on “eye cups” as they drank wine, to keep spirits from entering their mouths. A Dane named Finsen discovered a method of curing lupus and tuberculosis of the skin with light rays. It’s claimed he cured smallpox by installing red curtains on sickroom windows. How come I never learned any of this stuff in school? If I had, I might be sitting here drinking wine out of an eye cup, staring out of my red-curtained windows, instead of diagramming each of these sentences before I let them be published. Okay, okay–I don’t diagram sentences. I really hated doing it in school, too. The teacher should have been teaching me about hyenas and Finsen’s violet lights.
Anyway, there you have my number 100 — an ancient set of encyclopedias that I’ll never, in this lifetime, finish reading. But, oh, the joy they bring me. I’ll paint eyes on my wine glasses and hang red curtains at my windows. Let Jacobs make his millions with his book about reading the encyclopedia. When that small voice outside the bedroom window in the darkness of night calls out, “Help me. Help me,” sounding like the tiny fly with a human’s head in The Fly when he was caught in the spider web, Jacobs will probably step outside to investigate. Not me. I’ll know it’s a damned hyena. You see, even though my encyclopedia is ancient, I learned that a hyena has jaws so powerful, he can grind bones with ease. Crunch! Crunch! It won’t be my bones he’s grinding up. Thanks to the Encyclopedia Americana! Number 100! Way-to-go, encyclopedia!
As we move through my top 100 lists, I’ll share what others have as their top books, movies, etc. For instance, Entertainment Weekly has The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, at number 100. It’s about overbearing Chinese mothers and their resentful daughters. Oh, boy–just my kind of reading. Sorry, I have not read it. Nor will I. My list is of books I loved to read the first time (I put books down if they don’t grab me by page 5), books I’ve read again and again (I still have almost every book on my list. Those missing, I loaned out.), and books I plan to read again some day. Books like the Encyclopedia Americana. In fact, I just read an entry on the pirate, William Kidd. It seems there was some booty missing when he was hanged. Many believe it’s hidden on Long Island Sound or along the banks of the Hudson River. Anyone up for a treasure hunt? Or would you rather read about fighting mothers and daughters? Not me. I’ve seen enough of that in real life. Don’t need to go there again, much less in a book. How about you?
Some other picks for Number 100 are: The Magnificent Ambersons (Modern Library–Board), The Satanic Verses (Modern Library–Readers), The Orchard: The Bostan of Saadi of Shiraz (the World Library), and The Death of the Heart (Time Magazine). If you wish to peruse these books, have at them. Me? I’ll stick to the Americana. My advice? Yes, e-books are the coming thing, but if you come across an old, out-dated set of real encyclopedias at a library sale for a small sum, make the investment and start reading. You’ll have a blast and help out the library at the same time. And if you really want to irritate me, write a book about it. I dare you.