Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Then and Now

Not long ago I got out one of my earliest journals from the mid-1970s - I knew I'd made some lists of favorite books, and wanted to have a look back at them:

Here are My “10 Best” from March 23rd, 1975:
1. ATLAS SHRUGGED, by Ayn Rand
3. CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, by Taylor Caldwell
4. CENTENNIAL, by James A. Michener
5. THE SOURCE, by James A. Michener
6. AUNTIE MAME, by Patrick Dennis
7. GONE WITH THE WIND, by Margaret Mitchell
8. THEOPHILUS NORTH, by Thornton Wilder
10. THE BAD SEED, by William March

Two by Rand, two by Caldwell, and two by Michener only left four vacancies! More than a year and a half later, on November 20, 1976, I felt inclined to make another such list:
1. ATLAS SHRUGGED, by Ayn Rand
2. CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, by Taylor Caldwell
3. CENTENNIAL, by James A. Michener
5. THE BAD SEED, by William March
6. AUNTIE MAME, by Patrick Dennis
7. GONE WITH THE WIND, by Margaret Mitchell
8. LOST HORIZON, by James Hilton
9. TIME AND AGAIN, by Jack Finney

That year and a half apparently brought only minimal changes in my taste: Only Rand is represented by two titles; THE SOURCE, THEOPHILUS NORTH and DEAR AND GLORIOUS PHYSICIAN are gone, the rest (except for ATLAS SHRUGGED, GONE WITH THE WIND and AUNTIE MAME) have merely been shuffled about a bit, up or down a notch, and two that remain favorites to this day – LOST HORIZON and TIME AND AGAIN – have been added. Yet the #10 slot is vacant! Did I get interrupted (the list appears at the end of the entry) or was I just unable to make up my mind?

I suppose these lists should more truthfully have been called "10 Favorites" rather than "10 Best" - there's a big difference between "best" and "favorites"!!! But lo these 30+ years later, several of these titles still rank as favorites with me – AUNTIE MAME, THE BAD SEED, LOST HORIZON, TIME AND AGAIN, GONE WITH THE WIND – and I re-read them every few years – I re-read CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS last year for the first time in 30 years or so (I'd read it four times over a period of 2 years in the early 1970s), and enjoyed it very much – Caldwell was a terrific (if somewhat long-winded) storyteller, and it’s a darned shame that her popularity dwindled after her death – only CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS remains available in paperback. Historical novels are in vogue again and somebody ought to reissue some of Caldwell’s titles. CENTENNIAL is still probably my favorite Michener novel, though it’s been years since I read it (or any Michener novel, for that matter - I simply burned-out). While I still consider ATLAS SHRUGGED and THE FOUNTAINHEAD remarkable and influential books, I haven’t gotten through either of them again in many years – Rand is simply too depressing – her books so shot through with hatred of the human race that one wants to reach for the razor blades...

So, if I were creating that "10 Favorites" list today, what books would appear on it?
1. ASTA'S BOOK, by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell writing as)
2. ATONEMENT, by Ian McEwan
3. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, by Harper Lee (I can't believe that both lists above omitted it! What was I thinking???)
4. TIME AND AGAIN, BY Jack Finney
5. THE BAD SEED, by William March
8. THE FORSYTE SAGA, by John Galsworthy (which is actually 3 novels)

See? The old favorites persist - only the first two could be termed "recent"! It's not so easy anymore. My tastes in reading have changed very much over the years - I'm sure there's another list somewhere that includes PENTIMENTO by Lillian Hellman, whose writing I was passionate about for a long time (we share a birthday). I re-read her memoir, AN UNFINISHED WOMAN, earlier this year and still enjoyed it very much, despite no longer being able to trust her (Hellman's veracity has been in doubt ever since Mary McCarthy's declaration during an interview with Dick Cavett that that "Every word she [Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'." Hellman's reputation has never quite recovered - a sad fate for America's foremost female playwright).

Whereas once upon a time I was fairly indiscriminate about reading commercial fiction (yes, I used to read each new Sidney Sheldon novel upon publication), very little of it appeals to me any more, so it's very hard for me to make recommendations to people about recently-published novels. I gave up on Patricia Cornwell and Elizabeth George years ago, and have never read a John Grisham, a James Patterson, a Tom Clancy. I read Stephen King's latest, DUMA KEY, on a whim - my first King novel since BAG OF BONES in 1997 - except for King's insight into the narrator's life-changing physical injuries. Although I enjoyed it, DUMA KEY could have been written the day after he completed BAG OF BONES. King is always praising his editors, who apparently never suggest that he trim a word from his often-bloated novels (after the debacle of THE STAND in 1978, I don't think King's ever been open to trimming a novel - he doesn't have to do that anymore).

One commercial author I did remain oddly loyal to, despite the fact that his books got worse and worse, was Harold Robbins. THE PIRANHAS in 1992 was pretty bad, and was supposedly the last book he wrote on his own, due to health problems subsequent novels were ghost-written - no wonder I only finished one of them, TYCOON, which I think was published either just before or just after his death. I honestly can't recall whether or not I finished THE RAIDERS, which was an unnecessary sequel to THE CARPETBAGGERS (one of his best boos), but I know I didn't finish THE STALLION, an equally unnecessary sequel to THE BETSY (one of his worst). After Robbins death in 1997, his name was "franchised" and various writers hired to write "Harold Robbins" novels (the same had been done with V.C. Andrews, and has since been done with Lawrence Sanders and Robert Ludlum) - I've never bothered with those, but I do re-read Robbins earlier novels from time to time - 79 PARK AVENUE and WHERE LOVE HAS GONE two summers ago, and THE CARPETBAGGERS last year - I had tears in my eyes by the final page of 79 PARK AVENUE, and THE CARPETBAGGERS is still my definition of a "riveting read."

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