I was always pretty good at school, reasonably well-read, “in the know,” and whatever else, but there was a certain turning point (I think it was a friend casually alluding to Sartre’s Nausea in the eleventh grade––which was definitely not on our English syllabus) after which I always felt, to a large extent, behind so far as my reading was concerned.
This has led to an almost obsessive collection of booklists of various sorts, spanning everything from the arguably useful (the old Brooklyn College MFA Reading List…which I can’t seem to find online anymore), to the friend-shared (a poetry list a friend passed along by the venerable, and awesome, Ishion Hutchinson), to the topical (10 Great Novels on Freedom of Expression That Aren’t 1984), to the frankly kind of dumb ( 30 Books Every Man Should Read By 30). Obviously, I’ve never gotten through one end-to-end, though I’ve cleared almost all the different sections of the Brooklyn College list.
I’m always trying to fill the immense gaps, even though I know, intellectually, that it’s ultimately an impossible task, that there are well-tenured, well-published scholars who haven’t read even classics like Moby Dick, but I still feel like I should read that stupid book about the white whale, even though I’ve read other Melville and so can move on to other period authors before circling back around.
That said, I realized a few years ago that I had woeful gaps so far as reading through (I suppose half of) my own heritage, namely Jewish books. I’d read, of course, lots of them, but never in any considered way. I’d pieced together beginnings of booklists, asked people I trust and respect for recommendations, and browsed countless bookstore shelves figuring out a plan of attack. I still don’t have one, but I do have something going like a list:
(Note, the above is not necessarily complete so far as what I plan to read or indicative of what I’ve read (so far as the checkmarks/cross-offs, nor do I actually think I’ll read all of these, in any case)
As A., and I were talking through our plans for the new year last fall, she mentioned that she wanted to read so-many books the next year and more international authors, and I thought, as I considered the problem of narrowing down the hundreds of thousands of possible books I might want to read in a given year “Why not try to do just Jewish books?”
And it’s been going pretty well so far.
The fun thing about it is that I didn’t specify that they had to be necessarily “Jewish” in theme or subject, but mostly by Jewish authors. This means I get to read lots of fun political stuff, books like E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, and a graphic novel or two. Turns out, we’re everywhere. I have yet to read a larger balance of Jewish women or Jews of color, but that’s an additional goal for the second half of the year. The first half has largely been about trying to wrap my head around what Yiddish Lit was/could have been. A Treasury of Yiddish Stories edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg has been instrumental in this (though in fact, the introduction to the collection itself would have been education enough.
So although it’s nearly mid-May already, I figured I would introduce the project, and prattle on a bit about some of the books I’ve really liked so far, and conveniently use this as both a setup for and bid for more time to write a longer post I intend to publish Thursday (which, I decided today, will be the day for “long posts,” since I don’t think I’m going to try and do a five day week just yet).
I’ll put a full reading list together nearer the end of the year, but a few standouts so far include:
A Treasury of Yiddish Stories edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg
I go back and forth on how I feel about this kind of collection all the time and for a variety of reasons, but of this particular collection, I am a great fan. As I mentioned earlier, the introduction alone is worth its weight in gold, but the breadth of work included is excellent. Yes, there are valid arguments against some of the selections/exclusions, but they manage to include quite a range of styles, voices, and topics, and that’s really all you can hope for in such a collection. I’m still not entirely done with it, but it’s served as the cornerstone of this whole project, and I’m really glad I happened to pick it up.
Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg, translated by David Fernbach
This one started kind of slow but got progressively better and more interesting as it went along. I was sent to Wikipedia more than a few times looking things up (my knowledge of history is somewhat patchy in the characteristic way of public education –– though I will say that my public education was a particularly good one), which is to say, I learned shittons reading this book. Yes, they’ve got a bias, though I didn’t find it so irksome as some of the reviewers did (see the penultimate paragraph). Anyway, it was a good peek into a historical narrative that was previously unknown to me, and I enjoyed it immensely.
A Contract with God by Will Eisner
I love graphic novels, and this is one of those. It’s also a particularly early one of those, so you get to see some cool proto-techniques and read it through that lens, but you also get to see the great variety and scope of recent-Jewish-immigrant life in the States, get to see the wide variety of social and economic realities they lived, and enjoy some stellar storytelling.
Pictures of Fidelman by Bernard Malamud
This one is essentially a novel-in-stories, including some stories published in Malamud’s other collections as well as some new ones. I’ll be real: the collection is wildly inconsistent, with some of it being absolutely brilliant, while some of the stories were rather more “misses.” I’m including it here because I’d already read both Idiots First and The Magic Barrel before this year and so technically can’t include those in this list (but you really should read them, because they’re fucking great), but also because it really shows Malamud flexing some muscles, trying new tones and techniques, and even though I don’t love some of the stories, they all still bear the mark of Malamud’s excellent writing and storytelling. Like, I want to write like this guy when I grow up.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
I think the first words I uttered after finishing this one was, “Just holy fucking shit.” There was so much to love about this book, which I know a lot of other people also love, but I would like to recommend particularly for the masterclass in clear, yet still pleasingly complex prose as well as in generally astounding pacing, the story itself, and the general comic book nerdiness, which manifests itself in a very loving, though certainly not uncritical, tone throughout. Just fucking great.