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Thread: Story Time for Pre-Geezers

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    Story Time for Pre-Geezers

    It’s a rite of passage in America: the more closely one’s golden years start to loom, the more likely one will start receiving those bulk-rate letters from the AARP, the American Association for Retired People, more so if the “50" milestone (the minimum age for full membership) is within striking distance.

    In addition to advocating issues favorable to retirees, the organization provides discounts on goods and services well as –let’s be honest – product endorsements for this ever-growing demographic market. The AARP also publishes an eponymous magazine and website with numerous tidbits of advice for senior citizens. The online publication presented a curious webpage upon which I recently stumbled in search of something else. Originally appearing on the Web just over a year ago, the article came up after I clicked a link called “21 Books You Should Read Before Age 50 (presumably available in large-type versions for those already past the designated age.)

    Of course, since the title includes the term “age 50,” one shouldn’t automatically assume that reading the 21 books is a prerequisite for AARP membership, but the “must-read” in the original link connotes a sense of a teacher’s mandatory “Summer Reading List.” Yours fooly has absolutely nothing against encouraging folks of all ages to read –- quite the contrary! -– but I find this particular list unsatisfactory, if not offensive, in three distinct ways.

    1. The items on the list seem random and for the most part, poorly-chosen.

    A handful of the twenty-one are obvious, de rigueur choices; their inclusion are “no-brainers.” To be fair, there are a couple of pleasantly off-beat surprises, such as Lonesome Dove and a delightful sequel to a well-known Douglas Adams work.

    What makes the reader scratch her head, however, are the blatant exclusions. Though there are three slots devoted to books about the Civil War, the list completely ignores books about the two World Wars and the other thirty-odd armed conflicts in which the U.S. was involved.

    One of the list-compiler’s faves, Gone With the Wind (vastly over-rated in both its novel and film versions), shows scenes of slavery from a Southern white perspective, a filter through which the Black experience which can be viewed only indirectly (akin to latter-day novels such as The Help, which fortunately didn’t make the cut.) I wonder why the list does not present a more balanced and truer selection of books about African American life, not necessarily by white authors (Styron, Faulkner) but first-hand accounts by Black authors themselves. It is baffling to me why this list excludes the likes of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and the Nobel Prize winner, Toni Morrison.

    Also conspicuous by their absence are writers from the Southern Hemisphere: only one Latin American makes the grade, while Borges and García Márquez left behind like failing pupils. On the AARP list only mainstream writers from the U.S. and Great Britain are worth mentioning to the detriment of authors in the rest of the world. No African, Asian, or Australian was granted a berth, and given the dominance of Europe in the realm of World Literature, there is only one representative. It’s not, however, Dostoyevsky or Kafka. Tolstoy is by no means a bad choice, but one wonders why Anna Karenina outscores The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a poignant and powerful work about a subject which will sooner or (it is to be hoped) later affect the AARP’s audience.

    Speaking of the target demographic, the choice of Charlotte’s Web is odd. E.B. White certainly belongs on every list of great American authors, but as endearing as his children’s stories are, his greatest contribution shines in his essays. Similarly, Wallace Stegner is a fine choice, but I would have preferred Angle of Repose. And before we start railing about Stephen King’s presence on the list, let’s allow him some points for his exemplary work ethic as a writer and more admirably his ability to attract a readership populated by young people who’d otherwise never pick up a book. Even so, I wish Mitchard hadn’t neglected to mention his best novel, The Stand.

    Even so, it’s irritating that distinguished authors “definitely worth the time to read” – James, Wharton, Joyce, Beckett, Kundera,Bellow, Roth, Malamud, Updike, Barth, ad infinitum are rejected in favor of Shirley Jackson and Hannibal Lector’s Boswell. Evidently, it helps if the book was a best-seller.


    2. The list-compiler’s reasons for including each books are as generalized as a horoscope prediction and more-or-less interchangeable. Given the literary nature of the subject, the descriptions are poorly-expressed.

    If readers hadn’t already recognized the list-compiler’s name or if she hadn’t informed us of the fact that she herself was a novelist, we would never have guessed from these sparkling examples of her prose in this list.

    Spotlighting Book #4, Andersonville, Mitchard informs us that the novel is about the horrors inside a Confederate prison camp. Inexplicably she tells would-be readers of the novel, “You have a treat in store for yourself.”(!) Perhaps she has gotten Kantor’s work confused with a sit-com like Hogan’s Heroes. In any event, I’d hate to learn what she does for fun on a Saturday night.

    Mitchard’s seal of approval is worse than damning with faint praise; it’s attempting to praise by saying nothing. Her nutshell assessment of Gone With The Wind: “It’s just a helluva story.” And of Dashiell Hammett? “The guy could write.”

    Of the Stephen King entry, she writes: “I would fight anyone thinks that Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body don’t compare favorably to just about anything.” This is like a color commentator declaring a Major Leaguer “as good as anybody.” If Mitchard ever wants to quit the novelist game, she’d might find sports broadcasting-- to use her own, over-the-backyard fence colloquial style -“right up her alley.”


    3. Overall, the AARP reading list caters to the complacent sensibilities of the white middle class.

    Taken as a whole, the books promoted on this “must-list” exemplify the type of reading matter that doesn’t require an extraordinary amount of mental effort to comprehend, affirms rather than challenges the status quo, and ultimately takes scrupulous care to avoid disrupting the reader’s comfort zone -- innocuous as tap water and bland as white bread. Underneath it all there is the paradoxical implication that reading such safe fare is somehow “good for you.” This list is yet another illustration of he non-threatening, corporate--sanctioned, quasi-literature which Dwight MacDonald deplored as “midcult.”

    The list itself– a reader’s equivalent to Neapolitan ice cream (“Let’s get something everybody likes,” i.e. when it’s a choice between ice cream or no ice cream, most family members are willing to compromise.) Additionally, Mitchard’s cringe-inducing praise is still one more illustration of the “dumbing down of America,” itself a manifestation of the deep-seated anti-intellectualism throughout our cultural history.

    Finally, to those who may disagree with my strong objections to this list with charges of “elitism,” let me conclude with a sports anecdote. The legendary Dizzy Dean, a major league pitcher known for his alleged slow-wittedness, had it right when he remarked that “Folks who don’t say 'ain’t' ain’t eating.” On the other hand, another well-known bon mot once emerged from Dizzy when it was feared that he had suffered a concussion. “The doctors examined my head, “ he said, “and they found nothing.”
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 07-03-2013 at 05:47 PM.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    A.A.R.P. has missed the boat, overlooking the following obvious selections:

    "Old Man and the Sea" -- Hemmingway
    "Old Man Goriot" -- Balzac
    "No Country for Old Men" -- McCarthy
    The Old Testament -- King James Version
    Death in Venice -- Mann
    The Autumn of the Patriarch -- Marquez

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    Registered User Emil Miller's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    A.A.R.P. has missed the boat, overlooking the following obvious selections:

    "Old Man and the Sea" -- Hemmingway
    "Old Man Goriot" -- Balzac
    "No Country for Old Men" -- McCarthy
    The Old Testament -- King James Version
    Death in Venice -- Mann
    The Autumn of the Patriarch -- Marquez
    If I were a self-righteous liberal I'd say that list is sexist, which points up another example of the dumbing down process i.e constant use of the suffix -ist to expressions of holier-than-thou self-advertisement.
    "L'art de la statistique est de tirer des conclusions erronèes a partir de chiffres exacts." Napoléon Bonaparte.

    "Je crois que beaucoup de gens sont dans cet état d’esprit: au fond, ils ne sentent pas concernés par l’Histoire. Mais pourtant, de temps à autre, l’Histoire pose sa main sur eux." Michel Houellebecq.

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    But it's a LIST. It's for undiagnosed autistics like me.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Emil Miller View Post
    If I were a self-righteous liberal I'd say that list is sexist, which points up another example of the dumbing down process i.e constant use of the suffix -ist to expressions of holier-than-thou self-advertisement.
    I tend to agree with those that literature should be apolitical, certainly not intentionally "politically correct":

    Beware behalfies! The new Behalfism demands uplift, accentuates the postitive, offers stirring moral instruction. It abhors the tragic sense of life. Seeing literature as inescapably politcal, it replaces literary values by political ones.

    It is the murderer of thought. Beware!
    --Salman Rushdie








    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    A.A.R.P. has missed the boat, overlooking the following obvious selections:

    "Old Man and the Sea" -- Hemmingway
    "Old Man Goriot" -- Balzac
    "No Country for Old Men" -- McCarthy
    The Old Testament -- King James Version
    Death in Venice -- Mann
    The Autumn of the Patriarch -- Marquez
    Dwight Mac. put The Old Man and the Sea squarely on the list of "Midcult" examples. You can learn why, if you read the essay (avail. online if you look hard enough.) Incidentally, elsewhere in Against the American Grain: Masscult and Midcult, the very book in which the title essay appeared, Macdonald's critical assessment of Hemingway (one "m") begins with a spot-on parody of Hemingway's trademark style.

    Another essay maintains that the original King James version of both Testaments is vastly superior to that of the Revised Standard Edition.

    I agree with you on the choice of Thomas Mann, but the point is that suggested book lists, "must-reads," etc. are contrived, arbitrary, and just about useless.
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 07-08-2013 at 03:37 PM.

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    Ecurb Ecurb's Avatar
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    I was merely thinking of books with "Old" in the title, or death, or autmns of patriarchs.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ecurb View Post
    I was merely thinking of books with "Old" in the title, or death, or autmns of patriarchs.
    Oh, jeeze! How I hate missing a joke! I get it now, though, and it's pretty darn funny.

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    In Defense of Lists

    Why do you think that all suggested book lists are arbitrary and useless? If we all just picked books at random from all the world's books, chances are good it would be a long time before we read something worth reading.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Lykren View Post
    Why do you think that all suggested book lists are arbitrary and useless? If we all just picked books at random from all the world's books, chances are good it would be a long time before we read something worth reading.
    I didn't say "all." The value of a reading list is only as good as the person who compiles it. In my ever-increasingly humble opinion, the reading list examined in this thread seems bone-headed, not just for its capricious choices but also for the explanations, so poorly-expressed that they are almost laughable.
    Last edited by AuntShecky; 07-11-2013 at 10:16 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by AuntShecky View Post
    I didn't say "all." The value of a reading list is only as good as the person who compiles it. In my ever-increasingly humble opinion, the reading list examined in this thread seems bone-headed, not just for its capricious choices but also for the explanations, so poorly-expressed that they are almost laughable.
    Oh. You didn't say all, but the way your sentence was structured, lacking a 'this' before 'suggested book-lists', made it seem as if you were referring to all book lists. Anyways, I agree with you: it's a bad list. But bad recommended reading lists are nothing new.

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