February 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Book Smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days by Jane Mallison

Jane Mallison’s Book Smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days might not transform anyone into a “literary genius,” but book lovers will read the grandiose subtitle, curl up under a blanket and set about happily picking the thing apart. Like Nancy Pearl’s Booklust and its sequel, Mallison’s guide is a strangely eclectic sorting of book recommendations that mixes some still-thrilling classics (The Iliad, Anna Karenina) with hoary Sophomore English assignments that I still feel guilty not “getting” (The Red Badge of Courage) and a few picks that are idiosyncratic and obscure in a bad way (Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters, Robert Parker’s Early Autumn). Nancy Pearl, though, admits that her choices are personal and strange, and her books are designed for people looking for a good read, rather than a total intellectual transformation through reading the “essentials.”

Jane Mallison, a teacher at the $30,000/year Trinity School, suggests that reading one book each month -- chosen from her themed lists of ten -- will expose us to “the joys of being well-read.” She lists a few different ways to use Book Smart -- alphabetically, starting easy and getting harder, choosing chronologically, choosing by whim, or starting with Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and then reading eleven other women authors. (That last one looks particularly unfulfilling. Mallison is slightly less celebratory of women authors than Harold Bloom. Twenty-six of the one-hundred and twenty books she lists are written by women, and those selections favor none-too-sexy fare like The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918 by Patricia O’Toole). Mallison bizarrely includes “mostly” novels, a month of biography, a couple of early verse epics, Leaves of Grass and Lewis Thomas’s book of essays The Lives of a Cell. Her monthly themes -- “Unaccustomed Places, Real and Fancied” for July, featuring works by Evelyn Waugh, Jack Finney and Gloria Naylor, or “Smiles at the Human Condition” for August, with Juvenal, Michael Frayn, Oscar Wilde and David Sedaris -- are quirky, and not always charmingly so. At some point, an editor should have stepped in and titled this work Jane Mallison’s Favorite Books: Worthy Reads for Every Month of the Year. There’s zero discussion of the problem of the canon, of what makes a book “essential,” or of the creation of literary genius.

If you’re a book snob, or a reverse book snob -- meaning you’re so well read that you’ve moved on to a pile of bad, vaguely Buddhist self-help books, Austrian military history in iffy translation, alternative fashion magazines, and rereading Pliny for the fourth time, and you try not to talk about this stuff at parties -- the first thing you’ll want to do with Book Smart is check out how many of Mallison’s choices you’ve already read. After that, you’ll try to figure out which one-hundred and twenty books would be in your own guide to “becoming a literary genius.” I, for one, would limit myself to choosing mythology and novels for the “essentials,” but allow a three-item supplemental reading list at the bottom of each page. My book would have you reading Louis-Ferdinand Celine with Henry Miller, Sigrid Nunez’s Mitz: The Marmoset of Bloomsbury with Virginia Woolf, Neiszche’s Birth of Tragedy with The Bacchae, Primo Levi’s The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology with The Periodic Table, Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies Volume 2: Male Bodies, Psychoanalyzing the White Terror with Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times, Plato’s Symposium with Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness, Gayl Jones with Bessie Head, Giovanni’s Room with A Moveable Feast, Roberto Calasso’s Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony with Homer, Herodotus with Borges, Anais Nin with Sei Shonagon, and I know I’m still missing something here, hundreds or thousands of somethings, maybe everything. Making a meaningful selection is almost impossible. Mallison points out that she can’t be comprehensive, and acknowledges that plenty of brilliant “essential” works are left out.

What’s unfortunate about Book Smart, though, is some of the books that are left in. Is Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children -- let alone The Peabody Sisters and Early Autumn -- really all that “essential” when you’re leaving out George Sand, Colette, Alice Walker and Mary McCarthy? The ideal personal anthology would, like Primo Levi’s, not claim to be more than that, and each work in it would be illuminating, brilliant and indispensable. Each of us has a different view of what’s essential -- to me, Cristina Peri Rossi’s Ship of Fools, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Krista Wolf’s Medea should be flying off the shelves, Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden is better than Mallison’s choice of Atonement, Margaret Atwood’s best book is Good Bones and Simple Murders, Naguib Mahfouz’s masterpiece is Arabian Nights and Days, and Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and Davita’s Harp are just as great as The Chosen.

If what’s “essential” is subjective, then would reading anyone’s selection of twelve books over a year turn me into a literary genius? What is a literary genius, anyway? If I were going to try to become one in 365 days, I’d probably do better to start with Levi’s personal anthology, the juicy Good Fiction Guide edited by Jane Rogers, Jorge-Luis Borges Selected Non-Fictions, a random Great Books curriculum or, hell, the thick extended bibliography at the end of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Age.

On the other hand, if you ignore the “essential” and “literary genius” claims, Book Smart is a fun read. It’s unfair of me to review it without first waiting a year and seeing if I’ve become a genius by reading twelve choices (including the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson in February and Tristram Shandy in September). It’s like reviewing Making the Cut: The 30-Day Diet and Fitness Plan for the Strongest, Sexiest You over a weekend spent curled under my blanket by my pile of library books, eating vast piles of nachos and watching Gossip Girl online. Mallison offers some entertaining historical notes (did you know that Kafka instructed his friend Max Brod to burn all of his writings after his death? Or that Chinua Achebe used to be called Albert?) and quotations. She got me interested in rereading Oedipus Rex, The Moviegoer and Pale Fire, and got me excited to try out Barry Unsworth’s The Song of Kings. One joy of reading, says Mallison, is “the stimulation of our own thinking,” and another is “the vicarious gaining of experience… At the end of a calendar year, your brain will be twelve books richer.”

If I had to weigh in with a definition, a literary genius would be a profoundly, devastatingly brilliant writer, a “secretary to the invisible” who transformed words into images with radical beauty. Also, he or she would be able to pop out an unfussy new translation of Gogol or Sappho every couple of years, discover edgy, emerging young poets from Mongolia, Iceland or Equatorial Guinea, come up with the kinds of witty one-liners that you secretly go home and copy into your diary, contribute meaningfully to ethical philosophy, radicalize language and not be snotty or annoying about any of it. Your definition might be different, but I’ll bet it doesn’t involve reading The Yearling one October on the train. Book Smart is about as likely to turn me into a literary genius as it is to give me strong, sexy abs, but as an armchair reader -- someone who likes to sit around reading about reading -- I enjoyed it.    

Book Smart: Your Essential Reading List for Becoming a Literary Genius in 365 Days by Jane Mallison
McGraw-Hill
ISBN: 0071482717
336 Pages