In June I listened to Andy Miller read his book The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life. It was excellent! As you may know from some of my Weekend Thoughts posts, I’m a big fan of the Backlisted podcast, where Miller and John Mitchinson talk with guests about books, particularly the old ones. They’ve influenced my thinking about books over the past several years, in a good way, and this book was a wonderful continuation of that. Miller’s book is about his “list of betterment,” a list of books he he set down to read at a time when finishing a book — which, he says astutely, is a skill to be honed and practiced — was difficult. These were books he’d always intended to read; indeed, they were books he often pretended to have read. It’s an exceptional book because it is about the books as well as about the effect they had over that year of his life. I strongly recommend picking it up, or, even better, because Miller does such a good job narrating it himself, get his audiobook.

I got to thinking, what would my own list of betterment look like. What fifty books have I been meaning to read, that have already kind of become a part of my life, but that I keep putting off to save them in some misguided form of reverence? It was a lot of fun to sort through these and put together this list. I actually ended up putting a few books on here that I have read in the past, but that I don’t remember well enough to feel I have read them — To the Lighthouse, A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, A Heart So White, and The Master; I think about them often and call them favorites, but in all honesty I don’t remember them well at all. Many others I have picked up and started reading at one time or another in my life, but they remained unfinished or even just sat unstarted on my nightstand for a month or two or more before finally finding their way back to the bookshelf. I look forward to having a named goal — List of Betterment, I like it! — and hope it will continue to inspire me to take the time to sit and read.

Reading these in 2021 is not a goal I have; I am confident this will take me some time, and if I were to make it my goal I’d just get behind and give up. I’d like to pick at this list in between other projects and whims, but pick through it I will do. I’ve already started The Folded Leaf.

Anyway, here is the list I came up with, in order of original publication date. What, if you’ll share, would be on your list?

  1. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë
  2. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë
  3. The Warden, by Anthony Trollope
  4. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
  5. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
  6. Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
  7. The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, by Joaquim Machado de Assis
  8. La Regenta, by Leopolda Alas
  9. The Illustrious House of Ramires, by Eça de Queiroz
  10. Customs of the Country, by Edith Wharton
  11. Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
  12. The Professor’s House, by Willa Cather
  13. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
  14. South Riding, by Winifred Holtby
  15. Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen
  16. Brighton Rock, by Graham Greene
  17. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
  18. The Robber Bridegroom, by Eudora Welty
  19. The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell
  20. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
  21. Excellent Women, by Barbara Pym
  22. Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor
  23. The Bell, by Iris Murdoch
  24. Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark
  25. Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov
  26. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, by May Sarton
  27. A Long Way from Verona, by Jane Gardam
  28. If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin
  29. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard
  30. Correction, by Thomas Bernhard
  31. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morison
  32. Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy
  33. Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess
  34. The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford
  35. Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
  36. The Messiah of Stockholm, by Cynthia Ozick
  37. Libra, by Don DeLillo
  38. A Heart So White, by Javier Marías
  39. The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields
  40. Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon
  41. The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño
  42. Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald
  43. The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor
  44. Servants of the Map, by Andrea Barrett
  45. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones
  46. The Wizard and the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  47. The Master, by Colm Tóibín
  48. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
  49. The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
  50. The Barley Patch, by Gerald Murnane
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