Monday, April 02, 2007

Speaking of Lists: Literary A–Z

Have you ever listed your Literary A–Z? I did a couple of years back, and today's earlier post made me remember it. A friend, inspired by a Maureen Dowd column, wrote:

"If you had to come up with an alphabetical list of literary references that hold the secrets of your soul, what would be on it?"

I wrote back with my stream-of-consciousness A-to-Z of well-loved literary works. A few of them may hint to personal soul secrets, but all are simply books that definitely left a lasting impression. I cheated and listed two titles for a few letters, but only when I found it impossible to weigh the relative importance of the competing titles in my life. I had to really think to get X, and that's because it may be the only thing I've ever read whose title begins with that letter. (Plus, I actually read that story for work; so the thing to learn about me there is that I read, a lot, as part of my job. I couldn't tell you one thing about the story now. Nope, not even when I strain to remember it.)

I'm pasting in my list below, exactly as I wrote it in 2005. At the time I remember telling my husband that I wanted to also do the same thing for films and songs and "children's works only." Never did any of 'em, btw, but maybe someday.

I highly recommend writing out your own list, especially if you're a writer or an editor. It really gives you a sense of what types of books stick with you — for me, it was interesting to see that I read most of the titles in my teens and 20s. I read (and enjoy doing so) just as much now, but so much of my reading time is linked with my working time that it just takes longer for me to stumble upon the kinds of works that touch me in a way that would cause me to update my list.

In any case, listing your Literary A–Z is great fun, and it provides you and others with an interesting peek at your personal tastes and, I daresay, your own unique evolution as a thinking, feeling being. Challenge your friends, kids, and loved ones to make a list too.

A - Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
B - The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
C - The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer / The Chicago Manual of Style, University of Chicago Press
D - Death at Chappaquiddick, Thomas L. Tedrow
E - The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood
F - Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
G - Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth / The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
H - Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
I - The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
J - Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
K - King Midas: A Romance, Upton Sinclair
L - Les Miserables, Victor Hugo / Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
M - “The Mask,” Guy de Maupassant / Mysteries of Winterthurn, Joyce Carol Oates
N - Night, Elie Weisel
O - Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Gloria Steinem
P - “The Pit and the Pendulum,” Edgar Allan Poe
Q - The Quiet Man (a cheat; this is a movie based on a short story I have not read)
R - A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf
S - Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
T - To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
U - The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
V - The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle
W - The Water-Method Man, John Irving
X - "X-ing a Paragrab," Edgar Allan Poe
Y - The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Z - Zone, The Dead, Stephen King (another cheat, but I stand by it!)

P.S. from 4/3: I just reread the column that inspired the activity and had to laugh. It's called "Love Lit 101," and in it Maureen Dowd talks about crafting such a literary list as a Valentine's Day treat for your sweet. (She actually went out and purchased the books. I guess writing for the New York Times must pay pretty well.) The piece brought back the memory of a college beau placing a strangely goal-oriented call to me in the middle of the night. No, no, no, it wasn't that kind of call. Sheesh.

Said boy, who was very smart but not a big fan o' the books, desperately needed my help, it seemed. He wanted me to list the 10 literary works I thought he — or any well-rounded man about town — should read and be able to reference in reputation-enhancing conversations with potential employers (and, I realized in hindsight, easy-to-impress chicks). Somewhat flattered and entirely enthusiastic about the project and the prospect of him reading some great books, I said something like, "Yay, let me think about it and get back to you in a couple of days with THE BEST LIST EVER."

But he needed the list right then, you see, while we were on the phone. Said something like, "Oh, I really wanted your opinion now. Otherwise I might not think of it again."

"Well, I won't forget," I said. "Just give me a day or so, and I'll hand over a list the next time I see you."

No deal. It was do or die time. Yes, that did seem odd to me. But, nonetheless, I put on my fast-thinking cap to hook him up with his very own emergency lit list. I don't recall what all I mentioned, but I do remember being adamant that, per his man-about-town posing interests, he had to read Of Mice and Men, Catch-22, and at least some Hemingway and Fitzgerald pronto.

Here's the funny part. Our very next meeting was the break-up (which, I must admit, was loooong overdue). The guy made a surprise visit to confess that he'd started dating others (which, I must also admit, did not come as a huge surprise).

He very generously gave me the option of continuing to see him under a "new, non-exclusive plan." But I replied, "No thanks, I'll pass on that."

We said our good-byes, and he expressed his seemingly genuine surprise that I'd chosen to end things. He also chose — as the last thing to say to me after two and a half years — to thank me for the book list. (Nice.) He really appreciated it and knew he would benefit from it.

I felt so used . . . and respected . . . all at the same time. Really, when you think about it, when does THAT emotional combo ever present itself?

As the door closed behind him and I headed for the shower (to wash that man right outta my hair 'n' such), all I could think about was that list. And how I hoped he'd choke on it.

Surely some of those details could work in a YA story! Dontcha think?

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