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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Novels, a project completed

In high school our history and literature classes always seemed to arrive at the year 1900 when school let out for the summer. I preferred reading non-fiction over reading novels, but from my teen years I had a certain fascination for 20th-century American novels that I read about but never read. Five years ago I embarked on a project to read one novel each from a list of 20th-century American writers. Traveling on an airplane as much as I do provided the time, and Amazon's Kindle software for my laptop and iPhones made it easy to bring the novels at no additional weight or size.

I completed the project, having read

Saul Bellow
Pearl S Buck
William S Burroughs
Erskine Caldwell
Truman Capote
Willa Cather
Joseph Conrad
Don DeLillo
John Dos Passos
Theodore Dreiser
William Faulkner
F Scott Fitzgerald
Joseph Heller
Ernest Hemingway
Jack Kerouac
Sinclair Lewis
Norman Mailer
Carson McCullers
Vladimir Nabokov
Flannery O'Connor
Sylvia Plath
Ayn Rand
Philip Roth
JD Salinger
George Santayana
William Saroyan
Upton Sinclair
Alexander Solzhenitsyn
John Steinbeck
Hunter S Thompson
John Updike
Kurt Vonnegut
Thornton Wilder
Thomas Wolfe
Tom Wolfe
Ok, I bent the rules on selection a little. But only a little.

What surprised me was how Southern I still am. You can take the boy out of Alabama, I suppose, but you can't take Alabama out of the boy. There was something about the Southern writers — Caldwell, Capote, Carson, Faulkner, McCullers, and 2x Wolfe —  that I could identify with strongly. I knew the mannerisms and figures of speech of their characters, and I caught their references to Southern places and things and culture. Occasionally there were brutal references with respect to African-Americans, and I remembered those too. Southern Gothic is a powerful form, I think, to examine our deepest thoughts, emotions, fears, conflicts, inadequacies, and graces.

Who was my favorite author on that list? Truman Capote, by far. Reading a chapter of his work is likely feasting at a Michelin 3-star, listening to the London Symphony Orchestra play Bach, or looking at a Renoir for hours. Capote had a vocabulary, a pace and a style, power of observation and evocation, and a clarity and efficiency and deceptive simplicity. To write like that is such an awesome talent.

Among the non-Southern writers, my nod goes to Nabokov.

What's next on my reading? Five years of non-fiction that has accrued on my reading list, and then I aspire to re-read everything by Thomas Pynchon.