I’ve got to stay away from lists of great books. They’re too depressing. That’s my conclusion after having been led to the Modern Library list during my research on Under the Volcano. Wikipedia tells me I’m not alone in thinking the ML list is hogwash, which is comforting. Unfortunately, ML publishes two lists, and the other one, which they call a ‘readers’ list’ is guaranteed to make any writer with sense of craft reach for the nearest bottle of scotch. I haven’t the heart to look into who these readers are or what choices they were given or how the results were tallied, but the sad fact is that the top of this list is dominated by Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. If intelligent life forms from outer space were to tap into the internet and come across this list, they would be flattered to find that our greatest literary craftsmen (among whom we would have to include such luminaries as Robert Heinlein, five of whose space oaters make the cut) devote themselves largely to science fiction. I can only hope they don’t go so far as to read the stuff.
Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that the bestowers of literary prizes are appreciably more discriminating. Last week, looking to broaden my reading, I dipped into four recent winners of the prestigious Booker prize. Couldn’t get past the first forty pages of any of them.
The Nobel prize for literature, not much less jingoistic than Modern Library, was dominated in its early years by Swedes whose work, for what it’s worth, I have never (and I’m a book hound if there ever was one) seen in translation.
Which reminds me of the morning I spent in the Louvre.
I’d been to a goodly number of the world’s great art museums, but the Louvre, you know, is the one whose name is pronounced with a certain amount of reverence. So with four days in the city of light, I certainly wasn’t going to miss it. Now, the Mona Lisa, the Louvre’s big draw, seems to me one of those paintings that is famous mostly for being famous. Of course I walked by and gave her the once-over since I was there, but what I wanted to see in particular was a Rembrandt self-portrait that I knew was in their collection.
Following the path of least resistance, I walked through gallery after magnificently high-ceilinged, well-lit gallery devoted to French art, then through some smaller, though still well-lit rooms devoted to French art. After that I found more French art, as well as some pieces by other speakers of Latinate languages. Puzzled, I consulted the museum guide, then found my way downstairs to what must have been a servants’ passageway, back when the Louvre was a palace, that was labeled ‘Dutch Painters.’ It was narrow, and low, and not very well-lit, but there was my Rembrandt.