The concept of the Gap List came from a conversation I had with a colleague. I said, “Have you read [some classic]?” To which she replied, “It’s one of my gaps.” We then talked about the books we intended to read but hadn’t gotten around to yet. Many years later, I found myself in a bookstore trying to remember any of the titles on my mental list of need-to-read novels and came up blank. Again.
So I sat down to compile a list. I still couldn’t remember more than a handful of obvious titles–the optional Austens, The House of Seven Gables, Boswell’s Life of Johnson. And a couple that I have had a hard time finding in bookstores: New Grub Street and Pedro Paramo. I knew there were about a million others, but I needed help. So I looked up other people’s top 100 lists and gleaned my own list of must-reads.
I wish I still had the original list, but I used to delete titles as I read them. The winnowed list is below. I keep it handy for when I find myself at a book store or used book sale or thrift shop. These are books that come highly recommended by somebody for some reason, but many of them are fairly obscure and hard to find. (Let me here say that I know very well how to find things on the Internet. I enjoy the safari.) Others, I just haven’t felt like reading though the mood will hit me sometime. No hurry.
Behold, the Gap List:
- Adams, Henry (The Education of Henry Adams)
- Andric, Ivo (Bridge on the Drina)
- Austen, Jane (Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion)
- Boswell, James (Life of Johnson)
- Braddon, M.E. (Lady Audley’s Secret)
- Bronte, Charlotte (The Professor)
- Capote, Truman (Other Voices, Other Rooms)
- Dickens, Charles (Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Hard Times, Barnaby Rudge)
- Disraeli, Benjamin (Sybil)
- Du Maurier, George (Trilby)
- Eliot, George (Mill on the Floss, Felix Holt)
- Edgeworth, Maria (Castle Rackrent)
- Gissing, George (New Grub Street)
- Grand, Sarah (Heavenly Twins)
- Hawthorne, Nat (House of Seven Gables)
- James, Henry (Portrait of a Lady, Wings of the Dove, Ambassadors, Golden Bowl)
- Joyce, James (Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)
- Johnson, Denis (Train Dreams)
- Meredith, George (Ordeal of Richard Feverel)
- Miller, Henry (Tropic of Cancer)
- Norris, Frank (Octopus)
- Pushkin, Alexander (Eugene Onegin)
- Pynchon, Thomas (Gravity’s Rainbow)
- Radcliffe, Ann (Mysteries of Udolpho)
- Rulfo, Juan (Pedro Paramo)
- Sholokov, Mikhail (Silent Don)
- Sienkewicz, Henryk (With Fire and Sword)
- Smollett, Thomas (Roderick Random)
- Thackeray, W.M. (Barry Lyndon, Pendennis, Henry Esmond)
- Trollope, Anthony (Barchester Towers, Can You Forgive Her?)
- Waugh, Evelyn (Brideshead Revisited)
- West, Nat (Day of the Locust)
- Zola, Emile (L’Assommoir, Therese Raquin)
Let me knock a few off the list. I had a season of Henries a few months back. I polished off Henry Adams, Henry Esmond, and Henry James’s Wings of the Dove.
People in the nineteenth century walked more, slept less, and had the largest brains of any homo sapiens before or since. They were curious, intrepid, and whether they were pioneering something or just bungling it, they did it spectacularly. Victorians have an undeserved reputation for prudery and other unforgivable virtues. But no. The novels explore everything: justice, the nature of evil, the silence of God, racism, misogyny, domestic violence, mental illness, gender roles, ambition, political corruption. Everything. Henry Esmond is the morally superior “natural” son of a nobleman whose brother raises Henry as seventeenth century bastards were supposed to be raised, as a beloved and even esteemed poor relation, dependent, legally unrecognized, and dispossessed in favor of “legitimate” heirs. Henry tutors his more fortunate cousins and is in love with his uncle’s wife–his foster mother, whom he eventually marries. Yes, gross. But only after being disappointed in the love of his life, his insatiably ambitious cousin, whom he catches rushing to an illicit rendezvous with the other disappointment of his life, the also dispossessed King James. Thackaray was clearly not worried about pleasing his audience. An interesting book and some say the author’s best, but I say (Janet’s Awful Judgement), Becky Sharp’s flinging of the dictionary out the carriage window, which sends Vanity Fair off to its flying start, is by itself a worthier gem. But that’s okay. Not many works can top a bar that high.
Ugh. Just ugh. This one is about a supremely evil woman (you’re not supposed to know how awful she is until the end), whose plan to acquire the fortune of another woman through an unsuspecting intermediary lover depends on a trajectory of psychological manipulation that is darn clever. But oh, those serpentine prose. Like this: “What it amounted to was that he couldn’t have her–hanged if he could!–evasive. He couldn’t and he wouldn’t–wouldn’t have her inconvenient and elusive. He didn’t want her deeper than himself, fine as it might be as wit or as character; he wanted to keep her where their communications would be straight and easy and their intercourse independent. The effect of this was to make him say in a moment: ‘Will you take me just as I am?’ ” No, bud, she won’t. I get the genius of James. (And this passage is just insanely ironic once you know just how deep in the soup this guy is. It’s brilliant. I get it, I get it.) I just wish he weren’t so tiresome.
Until very recently, there is no way I could have gotten through this book. It’s a memoir. Hate memoirs. But I have developed a taste for political biographies. Hate biographies. My tastes are inexplicable, even to me. Go figure. Of all my Henrys, this was my favorite. Henry Adams, by the way, was a contemporary of Henry James and was a great admirer of the novelist. None of the flash about his prose, however. He wrote in a clear, intelligent, straightforward, and confident voice about such things as his creaky old grandpa, John Quincy, and the party scene at Harvard (“[t]he habit of drinking–though the mere recollection of it made him doubt his own veracity, so fantastic it seemed in later life…”). On the accession of TR to the presidency after the unexpected death of McKinley he wrote, “Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter–the quality that medieval theology assigned to God–he was pure act.” Drawing wisdom from the scientific revolution of the turn of the century: “The historian must not try to know what is truth, if he values his honesty; for, if he cares for his truths, he is certain to falsify his facts.” A work of psychological observation, truer and more relevant than the lurid fantasy of that other Henry. Unless you happen to be a sickly orphan heiress with nothing but a forgiving nature to defend you from boy golddiggers and their femme fatale pimps.