Monday, July 26, 2010

My List of "Little Black Dress" Books: Part I

It seems that everywhere I click around, I find another list of books that are essential to read in order not to be classed as a drooling idiot. Luckily, on most lists, I have read enough to at least avoid the drooling part. However, when I look at some of the other titles on these lists, I conclude that life is just too short to read stuff I don't like.

But, I decided that if I am going to diss the other lists, I had better be willing to put up my own for consideration (and possible ridicule). I consider this bunch to be my "little black dress" book list, the books I can't do without. They've made me a better writer, thinker, and definitely helped with that drooling idiot thing (at least in my opinion).

(Prepare to marvel at my choices or roll your eyes!)

1. "The Grapes of Wrath" by John Steinbeck. This is the one and only book I've ever taken out from a library and refused to return. The edition I checked out had the classic watercolor cover and I had to have it. I gave the library the "dog ate my book" story and paid the $2.52 price tag. This is one of the great and quintessential American novels. To understand it is to understand the American story. I read it for the umpteenth time when I was driving Route 66 from Tulsa to Los Angeles. Not to be missed. All those side roads and tumbledown buildings have a story. The Grapes of Wrath is one of those stories.

2. "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum. When I was a kid we didn't have much. Someone gave me one of those "young readers" classic sets and I read them until the canvas bindings worn thin. Only four books from that set made it through all the childhood moves and this is one of them. A feast for the imagination and a perfect fantasy. The other three surviving books from the series? Pinnochio, The Peterkin Papers, and Grimms Fairy Tales. All admirable in their own right.

3. "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. They'd take away my writer's badge and beanie cap if I didn't have this on my list. I have to admit, I didn't read it until I was a full-grown lawyer. Today, when the courtroom often has more in common with an NWO cage match than the hallowed halls of justice and reason, the ideal of Atticus Finch is worth revisiting. However, it is this small book, told through the eyes of Scout in a refreshing voice that weaves the spell. Best use of first person POV ever.

4. "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair. Most renowned for its effect on government and for being the catalyst for the 1906 legislation on food safety, this book is so much more than a guy falling into the rendering vat and being made into sausage.

If Grapes of Wrath is the story of the American heartland, The Jungle is the story of the American city during the industrial revolution. Immigrant workers were the cheap labor that fueled the machine. Grind them up and replace them with fresh ones when they are worn out. Machines were expensive and people were cheap - that was the driving force behind the business decisions of the day.

Even though the book devolves into a Socialist rant at the end, the vivid imagery of wealth created through the pain of others is still as relevant as it was in 1906. Laissez faire capitalism is not pretty.

Another little bit of trivia about this book that I like. About twenty-five minutes from where I live, Girard Kansas (of all places), was a hotbed of Socialism back in the day. In 1980, a young man appeared at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg Kansas (about a half hour south) with a truckload of moldering paper he had found at a farm. In that fetid mass were letters between Sinclair and the editors of "Appeal to Reason," the newspaper of the Socialist movement. At its height, it had a circulation of 400,000 copies per week. Also found was the original serialized version of The Jungle.

Why do I like this? Because it is part of the American story. Girard is a sleepy little town on the Kansas prairie. Driving through it, you'd never know that it was a maelstrom of political intrigue at the turn of the century. What other secrets do the small towns in the fly-over states keep? Here's hoping that the guys hired to clean the basements and haul the trash will bring them to light.

Okay, that's it for part one of my book list. Hope to see you again! What's on your list???

4 comments:

Mac said...

That's a terrific list, so far. I look forward to your next installment!

Like "little black dress" mysteries, or "LBD romance"...

Jess said...

I made reference to the Jungle in a conversation once and the other person did not understand what I was talking about. Broke. My. Heart.

Great list!

My Little Black Dress reading list: The Book Thief and Peace Like a River. Not classics yet, but I'm sure they will be someday.

klcarr said...

Your list was wonderful! In particular "The grapes of wrath" Steinbeck took us there and made us look at the spectrem of the human spirit. If you tried to pull away, he grabbed the scruff of your neck and pulled you back.

Terri Coop said...

@Mac: I love the designation "LBD" and will be shamelessly swiping it and using it!

@Jess: I agree 100% with your comment. "The Jungle" is must reading. I look sideways at anyone who didn't like it or know about it.

@Ken: A man after my own heart. . .