For more than 40 years, I’ve been reading books professionally, as a frequent critic and later as book editor of the state’s largest newspaper. In those roles, I have had a ringside seat to observe some of the best books to be published in the last half of the 20th century—as well as a lot of the less-than-great books during that period. When you comb through thousands of books every year, you have a challenge. What, if any, of these shall I read? How will I find the time?
I remember the story Thomas Wolfe told about himself in “Of Time and the River.” Arriving at Harvard from the mountains of Appalachia, Eugene Gant (Wolfe’s fictional self) entered Widener Library, looked at the shelves and shelves of books and began to cry. He realized he would never be able to read them all.
While I’ve never felt quite that overwhelmed, the task of trying to fashion a life by the books is daunting. In the past few months, as I’ve considered the question because I will be leading a discussion about How to Lead a Well-Read Life as part the Louisville Free Public Library’s How-To Festival on Saturday.
I’ve sought the views of others about what constitutes such a life, and the best thing I’ve found came from a slender volume I picked up nearly 20 years ago. “The Little Guide to the Well-Read Life: How to Get More Books in Your Life and More Life From Your Books” was written by Steve Leveen, a co-founder of Levenger’s, the online store designed for readers and writers.
Mr. Leveen, who admits that he wasn’t much of a reader or writer as a young man, has actually obtained a trademark for the phrase “Well-Read Life,” an ambitious, if rather presumptuous, step. That aside, he does offer some guidance, including his suggestion that, “Book love is something like romantic love. When we are reading a really great book, burdens feel lighter, cares seem smaller, and commonplaces are suddenly delightful. You become your best optimistic self.”
A few years ago, I was talking to a colleague who, as I sometimes do, was having trouble sleeping at night. The collective stresses of the day seemed to converge, especially in the middle of the night as the clock ticked slowly by. I told him about my discovery that reading familiar, restorative books was far more effective than a nightcap or a sleeping tablet. I managed to assemble a group of them, mostly fiction and in paperback editions, at my bedside. After reading for a while, it was amazing that the words and stories would gently help me go back to sleep and get a better rest than I would have otherwise.
Of course, reading has many purposes other than as an alternative to lullabies. In the last year, after I left the newspaper to pursue other interests, I found that suddenly reading for pleasure rather than for work (to select books for review or to review them myself) was a joy. No deadlines, no real duty to form an opinion, just an opportunity to absorb and enjoy became my goal. And, with that in mind, I feel as though I am enjoying reading more than I have since I was a young man.
Not surprisingly, I have been re-reading many of the books that I enjoyed most 30, 40 or even 50 years ago. Not one of them has disappointed me.
I’ve put together a list of books I consider essential to my well-read life. It will be completely different from anyone else’s because my tastes are my own and as such are unique.
But in preparation for our “How To” session, I’d like to hear from you what books you would include on your life list of books that are favorites. I intend to compile these titles and hope to have many available for you to look at and even check out after the afternoon session ends on Saturday. Send me your titles at this address: email@example.com.
And please drop by my program. It’s free and it only lasts 45 minutes. We will have large sheet of paper on the wall where people can write titles of favorite books that day.
I guarantee you’ll find new titles to read. I know I will, and I can’t wait! We’ll be in the Job Shop Classroom on the second floor of the Carnegie Wing of the Main Library. For old timers, that used to be the Kentucky Room.
Keith Runyon’s booklist
(In no particular order)
- Act One by Moss Hart
- The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
- One Man’s Meat by E.B. White
- The Letters of E.B. White (1976 edition, edited by Dorothy Lobrano Guth)
- The Power Broker by Robert A. Caro
- The Little Book by Selden Eldwards
- Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg
- Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
- A First Class Temperament by Geoffrey Ward
- Here at the New Yorker by Brenda Gill
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
- Black and White: Style in Conflict by Thomas Kochman
- The American Heritage Dictionary
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
- The Making of the President 1960 by Theodore H. White
- The Forsyte Saga and A Modern Comedy by John Galsworthy
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton
- The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House in the Big Woods, Farmer Boy, Little House on the Prairie, On the Banks of Plum Creek, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years)
- All the President’s Men by Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein
- The Late George Apley by John P. Marquand
- George S. Kaufman by Howard M. Teichmann
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass.
- Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
- Good Morning, Miss Dove by Frances Gray Patton
- When the Cheering Stopped by Gene Smith
- They Were Strong and Good (Children’s book) by Robert Lawson
- 1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelernter
- America in the King Years: Parting the Waters (1954-1963) and Pillar of Fire (1963-68) by Taylor Branch.
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
- The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman
- The Proud Tower by Barbara Tuchman
- Markings by Dag Hammarskjold
- A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
- Haywire by Brooke Hayward
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- A Rap on Race by James Baldwin and Margaret Mead
- Truman by David McCullough
- The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Journey by Robert and Suzanne Massie
- Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis
- Our Town by Thornton Wilder
- Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Keith Runyon is a veteran Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He’ll be speaking about books at the How-To Festival on Saturday at the main branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, 301 York St.
(Image via Shutterstock.)