Law and Conversation

June 24, 2011

My turn: Books everyone should read before 21

As I’ve mentioned, The Book Show on Britain’s Sky Arts media channel recently asked a number of distinguished author guests from its shows for their ideas on books that everyone should have read before the age of 21. The resulting list is worth perusing by anyone and tacking up on a bulletin board or refrigerator door.

But the list bothered me, chiefly for what I see as glaring omissions. Instead of including books that most of the broad range of people under 21 could read, the authors consulted focused on the far upper end of the range, including such admittedly great, but mature-themed, books as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

And the book prominently featured at the very top of the list? Erica Jong‘s “Fear Of Flying.”

“FEAR OF FLYING?” On a list of strongly recommended reading BEFORE turning 21????  What’s UP with that??????

Jong’s book is a fun read, I admit. But I’m not sure it’s a classic, and it probably isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not a book for kids, which is what people 21 and under are, whether or not they’re adults in the eye of the law. As David Brooks writes in today’s New York Times, “The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things which young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12.”

I know, and have known, many amazingly mature young people. Certainly, all of the books on the list, including the ones I’ve highlighted above, are capable of being read by mature teens and those in their early 20s. After all, Updike himself wasn’t even out of his 20s when he wrote the first “Rabbit” book. Speaking only for myself, though, and having read it only recently, well after my 21st birthday ;-), I’m absolutely confident I wouldn’t have appreciated it at that age.

So what’s the hurry? Why rush to read adult-themed books before turning 21?

The first two “Rabbit” books challenged me when I read them this year. “Ulysses” is on my list of difficult books to tackle. I’m all for pushing myself, and for others pushing themselves, to read challenging material. But given that everyone’s going to grow up–absent an unfortunate event–why skip over any joys of youth if you don’t have to?

In my adult view, one of those prime joys is reading children’s books and literature classified as young adult (YA). Though writers today generally target their books to specific age groups, I’ve seen a number of books from the 19th century (a literary period I love) that were written for general audiences but are now classified as middle grade (MG) or YA for library and bookstore purposes. (Some of Dickens’s works particularly come to mind.)

Today I’m providing an off-the-top-of-my-head list of wonderful, must-read books that should appeal to just about anyone in the under-21 reading range. The enormous bulk of material makes this a daunting task: it’s really, really hard to come up with a manageable list. For that reason, I’m expanding my usual self-imposed limit of 3 per blog post to 10. But I am limiting my recommendations here to series books, somewhat loosely defined, and excluding marvelous standalone works. If you’re over 21 and haven’t read some of these books–or if it’s been years, since you were a kid, since you’ve read them–do yourself a favor and go read or reread these great stories now.

1) At the top of my list is the entire oeuvre of Theodor Seuss Geisel, known to all as “Dr. Seuss.” My personal favorites are “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew,” “The Lorax,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super.” The first two, along with “Sneetches,” “The Grinch That Stole Christmas,” and “Horton Hears A Who,” carry timeless, serious messages. I haven’t discerned any particular message in “Scrambled Eggs Super,” but, like all Seuss books, its verse and illustrations make up an amazing work. It’s just plain FUN, and, as all of us who love “The Cat In The Hat” should know, “It is fun to have fun!”

2) Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Written by Wilder and edited–some argue partly ghostwritten–by her brilliant, extraordinarily difficult daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, this fictionalized story of Wilder’s life realistically depicts pioneer life in the late 19th century U.S. Though the story of Wilder’s and Lane’s relationship and collaboration has already inspired a few biographies and scholarly analyses, there’s plenty of room for more. Legal topics raised by their lives and work include fascinating probate and copyright issues.

3) The Burgess Books For Children, by Thornton W. Burgess. These wonderful series stories of animals include the adventures of Reddy Fox, Sammy Jay, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Peter Rabbit, and many, many more.

4) Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s books, including “Anne of Green Gables” and its sequels, her lesser known “Emily” series, and the standalone, apparently rather little known “Blue Castle.”

5) L. Frank Baum‘s “Wizard of Oz” series.

6) Lois Lenski‘s books on American life, including “Strawberry Girl,” “Houseboat Girl,” “Cotton In My Sack,” and “Coal Camp Girl.” Like Wilder’s “Little House” books, these books realistically depict life in the mid-20th century, or the 19th century in the case of “A-Going To The Westward” (which is tragically out of print), or the 18th century in the case of “Bound Girl Of Cobble Hill,” for working people and their children in the U.S.

7) J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

8) C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles.

9) L.M. Boston’s “Green Knowe” series, beginning with “The Children of Green Knowe.”

10) Andrew Lang’s fairy tale compilations in every hue of the rainbow, including “The Red Fairy Book,” “The Blue Fairy Book,” and so on.

For many of these books, including not only Dr. Seuss’s but also Lois Lenski’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, the artwork is integral to the stories. That leads me to wish again that more publishers would contract with artists to illustrate more currently published books.

As with any list, I’m certain to have left many fine candidates out. I’m already thinking that Beverly Cleary‘s series depicting Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ellen Tebbits, not to mention Louisa May Alcott’s series, Susan Cooper‘s “The Dark Is Rising” series, and J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter” books are rather glaring omissions. And I see I haven’t included any great, classic science fiction series, or any graphic novel series. Well, that’s fodder for future writing!

What books would you include on a list that everyone really ought to read by the age of 21?

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June 20, 2011

Read This: The Wind In The Willows

I’ve been thinking about The Book Show’s list of books everyone should read by the age of 21 ever since I saw it a couple of weeks ago. It’s a fine list, mind you–but the authors who contributed to it emphasized the very high end of the age range at the expense of the younger reading years that one might think should have been included.

If I’d been asked to name one book for such a list, I’d choose Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind In The Willows.” It’s simply a marvelous book that everyone should have read by the age of 21 and everyone older than 21 should reread every few years.

This charming story of friendship among riverdwelling animals in England has inspired many talented illustrators, including Ernest H. Shepard–the edition I grew up with, which has a well-known cover illustration of Badger, Toad, Mole and Ratty–and Charles van Sandwyk, illustrator of the current Folio Society edition. Though Grahame’s story is perfectly beautiful all by itself, the illustrations make it even more of a joy to read; would that more publishers today would hire artists to illustrate stories for youth and adults alike.

Though Grahame’s book has universal appeal, lawyers, especially those who practice traffic law, should make a special place for it. Though the story takes place long before cell phones and texting, Toad is the archetypal distracted driver, so pleased with the motorcar he’s stolen and so self-absorbed that it doesn’t occur to him what a menace he is on the road. Even lawyers have to cheer when the gaoler’s daughter helps Toad to escape after being picked up for his crime and summarily sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, and cheer again when Badger, Mole, and Ratty liberate Toad Hall from the weasels’ attempt at adverse possession.

More important, the book is a wonderful story of friendship. Though Toad doesn’t make things easy for his friends, they love him and are unflinchingly loyal to him, even at great inconvenience and potential cost to themselves. Good friends that they are, they also kindly but firmly tell him the truth about his pompous behavior–and, to his credit, upon their doing so, Toad recognizes that he needs to change his ways. The bond between Mole and the Water Rat is also beautiful, particularly the scene in the snow at Christmastime, when Mole catches the scent of his old house and, in tears, begs Rat, who wants to forge ahead, to help him find it. They do, and Ratty even helps Mole, whose joy at finding his home almost immediately turns into overwhelming embarrassment and unhappiness at seeing what a mess it is, put it to rights and transform it back into the snug den that it used to be, and, in Mole’s mind’s eye, still was.

Every now and then The Folio Society, which publishes gorgeous (and somewhat expensive) books, runs member polls. A few years ago it asked members which books they’d want to have if they were marooned on a desert island. “The Wind In The Willows” was one of the top vote-getters, if I remember correctly. What a wise choice!

What books do you think everyone should have read by the age of 21? What books would you want to be sure to have if you were marooned on an island?

June 17, 2011

#FridayReads!

I like to participate in the #FridayReads meme on Twitter. The idea is that every Friday those who like can tweet what they’re reading with the hashtag #FridayReads in the tweet. Putting # without a space immediately before a term transforms it into a hyperlink. You can then click on the hyperlink to see other tweets with that hashtag. So, clicking on #FridayReads in any tweet will take you to a page with an aggregation of the most recent tweets containing that term. The meme seems to get more popular every week and now has its own Facebook page, complete with prizes for those who participate.

This week, I have several books going at once.  Each is from a different genre–one work of fiction, one fictional graphic novel, and one nonfiction–but the three have a common theme: lawyers and law enforcement. My #FridayReads tweet contains all three: John Mortimer’s “Rumpole Omnibus,” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “Watchmen,” and Steve Bogira’s “Courtroom 302.” I expect it will take me a while to finish all of them, but I often like to be reading several books at a time. I’m enjoying thinking about the different angles and ways that the different writers tell their stories, and I’m thinking that I may be able to see some parallels in these three very different books.

I have an extra incentive to read each book, too:  on different occasions lawyers recently recommended each to me. I’d like to be able to tell those lawyers that I’ve read their recommendations and compare our views the next time I happen to see them! Since I’ve read enough of each to have become quite captivated by their stories, this won’t be a difficult commitment for me to keep.

In the meantime, I’ve been continuing to ponder The Book Show’s list of novels everyone should have read by the age of 21. I have lots of thoughts about that list and about what list I’d create if I were to do so. I hope to post some of those thoughts next week, so please check back with me then.

What’s your #FridayReads?

June 6, 2011

Books to read before you’re 21

Last week I wrote about some recently posted reading lists. One was from the Sky Arts UK program, “The Book Show,” which posted a list of Books To Read Before You’re 21. The program’s managers solicited ideas for that list from noted authors who have appeared as guests.

Here’s a view of my thoughts as I browsed that list:

1) Wow, what great books!

2) Gee, I’ve always considered myself pretty well-read, but I don’t think I’d read most of the books on that list before I was 21.

3) Hmm, I see a number of books on this list that I’ve read only recently, and it’s been a while since I turned 21.

4) Oh, dear, there are a number of books here that I haven’t yet read!

5) Hmmm again–I’m seeing very few books on this rather long list that I’d think would be suitable for or commonly read by kids under 10.  Maybe five or fewer for kids under 15. And not a single Newbery Medal winner!

The books on the SkyArts list include Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Most of the others, like those, are very complex works that are suitable for adults and mature teens but not for children.

Given that this book list is for young readers–yes, 21 is still pretty young–I wonder why the contributors to that list didn’t include more children’s and YA literature? Were they zeroing in on 21-year-old readers to the exclusion of the 20 years in the rest of the category?

A tiny handful of contributors did recommend books for the younger set. There’s one Beatrix Potter story, “The Tale of Tom Kitten,” and one by Dr. Seuss:  “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” A.A. Milne’s “Winnie The Pooh” made it on, and so did T.H. White’s “The Once And Future King.” Certainly, Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” can also be read and appreciated by preteens.

To my disappointment, the contributor who recommended “Tom Kitten” apologized for her recommendation, saying she feared it would lower the tone. To the contrary! Those who haven’t read Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, or Winnie The Pooh since they were children might not remember them well, but all of those works are complex, can be read on more than one level, and are as enjoyable for adults as for children. In fact, I’d include the complete works of both Potter and Seuss on any list of books that everyone should read before 21.

Readers, are you as disappointed as I am not to see more classics that can be read and enjoyed by young children on this list? Should everyone have read Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy before their 21st birthday?

Please rejoin me in a couple of days, when I’ll have three recommendations of my own (besides all of Beatrix Potter and all of Dr. Seuss) for classic books that everyone should read before turning 21. Hint: none are by James Joyce, John Updike, or Leo Tolstoy!

June 3, 2011

Book lists

Like many lawyers, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool booklover. I’ve connected with a number of likeminded people on Twitter and, as a result, have had some interesting conversations and gotten some great reading ideas.

Over the past week, several other bibliophile attorneys have tweeted links to several intriguing lists of books. Though I have a TBR list of my own that does nothing that grow, I always love examining someone else’s.

Esquire magazine published “an unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published” under the header “75 Books Every Man Should Read.” On the same page you’ll find links to other lists, including The Authors Every Man Must Know and 10 Essential Books to Read Before You Die.

High-quality though Esquire’s list is, it contains the work of only one female writer, Flannery O’Connor. That inspired Joyland magazine, which publishes short fiction, to ask its readers and contributors to come up with their own suggestions for inclusion on a list of 75 Books By Women All Men Should Read. The magazine received more than 250 submissions in just two hours – so it ended up publishing a list of 250 Books By Women All Men Should Read. Thanks to Harrisburg, PA intellectual property lawyer Harvey Freedenberg, who also writes thoughtful book reviews and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, for tweeting that list.

Taking as its inspiration the US Memorial Day weekend, which marks the unofficial start of summer here, The Atlantic magazine published a list of 10 Essential Books For Thought-Provoking Summer Reading. I hadn’t heard of any of the books on that list, but “The Late American Novel,” by The Millions founders Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, particularly piques my interest. Thanks to New York writer and lawyer Mark Fowler and California IP lawyer and literary agent Dana Newman for that tip!

In a post entitled “Books of the Year,” Jason Farago of the London Review of Books provides suggestions for what not to read if you don’t feel you’ve accomplished enough so far this year (and don’t want to feel worse about it than you already do). Each book seems to be a memoir focusing on one year of the (overachieving) writer’s life. I’ve read only one, Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.” I found tons of wisdom in Rubin’s book and enjoy her inspirational blog, where she maintains a relentless daily posting schedule. I’ve put Nina Sankovitch’s recently published “Tolstoy And The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading” on my own reading list. I love Sankovitch’s unabashed preference for reading over housework! Oh, I almost forgot–Rubin and Sankovitch are also lawyers!

Finally, I never miss an opportunity to tell people how much I love a program from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “The Book Show,” which I listen to on podcast. Not long ago I discovered another program of that name from the UK and followed it on Twitter and Facebook, where it posts intriguing updates from the literary world. A few days ago, that “Book Show” posted a list of Books To Read Before You’re 21.

I have so many thoughts about that list that I’ll devote an entire post to it next week. For now, I’ll just note that, like the other lists I’ve included here, it includes wonderful books and is worthy of close attention.

The website of The Millions says the publication started out as a way for its founder, Max Magee, to keep track of his reading. Now, Magee’s own reading lists get their own page. (One of the many reasons I started this blog was that I thought it would help me think more deeply about and remember my own reading. I’m happy to say that it has!)

What’s on your reading list for this summer?

UPDATE: What a lovely review of Nina Sankovitch’s book Chicago book critic and reviewer Lisa Guidarini has posted on her blog, Bluestalking!

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