What It Takes (1992), by Richard Ben Cramer

Is there such a thing as being too definitive?

The late Richard Ben Cramer’s titanic deep dive into the 1987-88 presidential primary season is rightly regarded as the last word on the crazy-making rigors of electoral politics in this country. Hard to argue: books like Game Change, which purport to tell us what the candidates are really thinking, are but superficial imitators to the throne in comparison.

 

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The level of commitment from Cramer here is awe-inspiring, likely rivaled only by Robert A. Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson in the category of total immersion. But at least Caro has been writing for nearly 40 years about one man; Cramer somehow managed to follow six different campaigns around in real time over a two-year stretch, apparently leaving no stone unturned and unpacking each candidate’s life story in indelible detail (at great cost to his own health, it turns out).
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A New Project: The Stories of John Cheever

I have finished reading the next book in the Time Magazine project, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, and will post some thoughts about it very shortly as the series chugs along at its deliberate pace. It is always my intention to speed things up, lest I devote another 10 years to completing what seemed at the beginning like a perfectly modest challenge, but other commitments always rear their heads.

One of those commitments is what should prove to be a stimulating, enriching new series of posts over at Trevor Berrett’s wonderful lit-blog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor was once a patron at my public library, and I have continued to keep his website bookmarked in the years since. It is therefore a real pleasure that I’ll be writing about John Cheever’s collected stories over the next few months on his blog. Please check them out and join the discussion!

I don’t plan on writing about all 61 stories, so I will periodically add the titles I’ve chosen to discuss here.

The Breaks of the Game (1981), by David Halberstam

It’s easy to see why this book is so highly regarded by so many people “in the know”; it feels like a model of the form, often duplicated but rarely as successful. It’s now SOP for a championship-winning team to have a book or two published about it by beat writers of the team’s local papers, but somehow those always seem like disappointments, ephemeral and utterly forgettable. Perhaps you need someone who is not associated with the game to get a true perspective, to give the game its proper scope in the social fabric. That’s where David Halberstam, reporter par excellence, comes in.

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A breakdown

Before I launch into the Time 100 list, I thought I’d take a closer look and see what can be gleamed from it.

The first thing is that it’s actually more than 100 books. A Dance to the Music of Time is a 12-book cycle, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories is two novels assembled in one volume, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is, obviously, three books. I would presume the list’s creators intend for completists to read each and every one of those added books (thanks, guys!).

Beyond that:

  • 80 were written by men, 20 by women (which is still more equitable than the Modern Library’s infamous 92/8 split)
  • 9 authors appear twice (Bellow, Faulkner, Greene, Nabokov, Orwell, Pynchon, P. Roth, Waugh, Woolf)
  • A breakdown of the books selected by decade: 1920s (10); 1930s (15); 1940s (12); 1950s (15); 1960s (21); 1970s (7); 1980s (9); 1990s (3); 2000s (5).  Isherwood’s two novels came out in the 1930s; Tolkien’s trilogy was published in the ’50s. Anthony Powell’s 12 books are spread out over 25 years, from 1951 to 1975.

Looks like the distribution is fairly even until we get to the ’60s, when it spikes with 21, before plummeting and then flatlining for the rest of the century.  What happened there?  Maybe the list’s creators felt we weren’t sufficiently far enough away from the last 30 years to assess what books would endure.  (This is still an improvement of the Modern Library 100, which included as its most recent title 1981’s Midnight’s Children.)

I had wanted to break the list down to publication locations (how many American authors, British, Australian, etc.), but I couldn’t find a source that tallied them up.  As I work through the list, I’ll keep track myself.

Anyway, enough analysis.  Time to get down to business.

Next entry, hopefully written this week, will be about the first book tackled from the list, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The mission statement

This is a blog I’ve decided to maintain as I traverse my way through Time Magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published since the magazine’s first issue. The posts here won’t be reviews or full-blown essays so much as observations, just one active reader’s thoughts as he makes his way through the Canon of 20th Century American/English literature. I am not the first person to try this, nor the second, but I think it might be worthwhile nonetheless.

The list was released in 2005, so it covers just more than a hundred years of novels, but the starting date of 1923 necessarily cuts off several titles that otherwise no doubt would have made the cut — as they have on most other like-minded lists — such as Ulysses, The Age of Innocence, and Heart of Darkness, among others.

Why am I doing this? I’ve noticed an abundance of classics sitting on my bookshelves that I’ve been meaning to read but keep putting off. I figured the structure of an organized list would motivate me to get moving on them.  Plus it’s a way for me to revisit some of the books I read in high school and college, and see if my adult self, with hopefully a more refined reading taste, agrees with my younger self.

In addition to the 100 titles in the Time list, I’ve added some books that either fell outside the list’s purview (i.e., published between 1900-1923) or were left out of the list altogether.  If I happen to read any of those books, I’ll write about it here.

Once I clear my reading docket, I’ll get to work on the first title, which is…still left to be decided.