When I was in high school I got on a plane and looked in a SkyMall catalog to see an offer for “digests” of the “Greatest 100 Books of All Time.” The copy said that “you can’t read all these books in a lifetime, now get them delivered to you in an easy to read form and finish them in just a year! Offended highly by this grand display of ignorant idiocy and endeavored on a quest that would change my academic career forever, I was going to read the actual book, all 100 of them, in a the time they said it would take to do the digests: one year. Not only would I prove that it could be done “in a lifetime” but that it could be done with diligence throughout a year.
On the plus side, my education up to that point (it was about halfway through my senior year) had been solid on the literary front and I loved books so I didn’t actually have to cover all 100, probably only about 70 of them. The quest enraptured me though, so I found other lists, differing in selection, to make sure that I had truly read the greatest 100 and not just a crude selection made by a team of marketers and all of the sudden I was up to more than 100. Yikes.
I started taking out 7-10 books each month and soon became well known to the librarians who gave me help with inter-library loan and quizzical looks when I offered my quest.
I was coasting through senior year and the help came from teachers as well. I had gotten into Holy Cross and was killing my classes so most of them let me read whatever book I was working on instead of listening to the lectures in exchange for hearing how it was going or talking with me about the books (thanks Doc Kennedy!).
For the most part the effort was amazing, I opened books I never would have thought to read that I loved (Call It Sleep by Philip Roth, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Federalist Papers, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and others that I loved anyway (Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand) and books with some of the most troubling and engaging characters of all time (Humbert Humbert of Nabokov‘s Lolita, Raskalnikov in Dostoevsky‘s Crime and Punishment, Odysseus in Homer‘s Odyssey).
[Continued in next post...]