At my last writers meeting, one of our members brought in a newspaper insert from American Profile that had a list of "20 of America's most celebrated and influential writers," compiled by Stuart Englert. We had a lot of fun going through the list. Each of us recalled which works we had read and which ones we liked or disliked. Having majored in English at UNL, I'm always embarrassed whenever someone mentions a great classic that I have not yet read.
The truth is I have read a paragraph or two from each author, but considering the breakneck pace with which we were supposed to read, I often cut corners. I'm not a particularly fast reader. I love to read, and I read a lot, but I like to take the time to savor a book. When a book is presented as mandatory reading, it loses some of its appeal to me. For example, when we read "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville, about the time I got to the 30 page chapter on tying knots, I realized that I hadn't absorbed any of it. It was time for a plan B. From then on, my coping technique was to read enough of it to get an idea of the prose, and then run down the bookstore and grab a copy of the Cliff Notes (Let's all observe a moment of silence for Cliff Notes founder and Nebraska native: Cliff Hillegass, who enabled slow readers like me to squeak by in Literature classes).
Of all the authors on the list, the one about which I feel most guilty is Willa Cather. My mom grew up in Red Cloud, childhood home of Willa Cather. My Grandma Mary volunteered at the Willa Cather Foundation for many years. They spoke passionately about their favorite books. For my mom, it was "A Lost Lady." For my grandma, it was "My Antonia." I tried so hard to get into those books. I even chose to write a women's studies paper on the people who influenced the characters in Willa Cather's books. I spent a weekend in Red Cloud with Grandma Mary to really get involved in the research process. Still, when it came time to read the books, I found myself nodding off in between chapters, and skimming more than reading.
Knowing that I've had little luck reading Willa Cather, but still desperate to alleviate my guilt, I went to iTunes to see if I could download an audiobook. Not only were there Willa Cather audiobooks, Open Book Audio had a series of podcasts reading the entire book of O, Pioneers--FREE! Free is always better when it comes to listening to an audiobook that you are only moderately interested in hearing. I've been listening to the podcasts while entering insurance statements at work. Apparently when you combine lulling prose with a tedious task like data entry, it makes for a slightly more entertaining day at the office.
I'm posting Englert's list at the end of this blog. I would love to hear which authors McCook readers liked, and which ones resulted in a Cliff Notes moment. Here's the list:
James Fenimore Cooper
Ralph Waldo Emerson
F Scott Fitzgerald
Edgar Allen Poe
Henry David Thoreau