In my mind, there are about fifty books that people say you have to read in high school or college, but most people only get through half of them, if that. With so many new wonderful books being introduced to schools, as they should, some of the classics are being squeezed out due to time constraints, making it inevitable that we miss certain classics. To remedy this problem, every summer I try to catch up so I’m not that-person-working-at-the-Lit-House-who-has-not-read-The-Catcher-in-the-Rye, which happened to be on my list last summer, along with The Maltese Falcon, The Giver, and Ender’s Game.
First on the list this year is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, written in 1899. This title has popped up a lot over the past few years as a book that a great many authors reference in their own work. I hate it when I don’t understand a reference in a book. The way this book came to me is from the a limited edition printing by the Chester River Press, which won the Carl Hertzog award in 2010. (I know most of you have never heard of the Carl Hertzog award, unless you are in printing or book design, in which case, it is a very big deal.) It is a beautiful edition that I have admired for years now. My copy of Heart of Darkness was acquired last year while browsing a used bookstore in Chicago. It has sat on my shelf ever since, but that is what good books do: wait to be read.
The next book on my list is The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper, written in 1826. The idea to read this book came to me while reading another book this spring. In March, I went to the AWP Conference in Boston and attended an event with Téa Obreht on a panel with Rebecca Makkai, Alexi Zentner and Lauren Groff. From that panel I learned that I had to read The Monsters of Templeton, which several of my friends vehemently agreed. Like many things that go over my head and escape my knowledge, I had not realized that Lauren Groff actually came to Washington College in March 2008. Anyway, with out any spoilers, the book takes place in the fictional Templeton, NY (aka Cooperstown) and makes many references to James Fenimore Cooper and The Last of the Mohicans. I have seen the film a few times, but never read the book, which I was able to buy at the last Friends of the Kent County Public Library book sale this spring.
The final book, and perhaps the most interesting book on my list is The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, which was first published in 1894. The fact that I haven’t read this book got to me this past spring when I read The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. (I was actually 3/4 of the way through the book when I saw her and Lauren Groff on the panel.) In the story, of which I’ll try not to give away any spoils, the main character’s grandfather always carries his own copy of The Jungle Book and has since he was a young boy growing up in the Balkans before World War II. At one point, a tiger, which has escaped from the zoo after the city was bombed, comes into her grandfather’s village. None of the villagers had ever seen a tiger and think that it is the devil. Armed with knowledge and the illustrations from Kipling’s book, her grandfather tries to help protect the tiger.
The book I’ll be reading is one I inherited from my father’s library. I’ve had the book for a few years and never really looked at it until I decided to read it this summer and write this article about it. When I picked it up off the shelf I handled it with extreme caution. (You can see pictures of my copy on the right). I opened it to the title page and was shocked to see a left-facing swastika with Rudyard Kipling’s signature beneath it.
In my head I knew that that symbol, which has since the 1930s come to represent hatred and oppression, once meant something else entirely different. With some quick research I learned that this ancient symbol once meant good luck and well-being to different people all over the world. I then learned that the backward swastika only appears in copies of Kipling’s book prior to the 1920’s. As the Nazi Party came to power, Kipling had his engraver remove the swastika from the printing block so he would not be mistaken as a sympathizer. It was not until after I read this that I looked more closely at the title page and realized that this book was printed in 1899. It is a little rough around the edges, but in relatively good shape. I won’t be taking it to the beach this summer. I have the last book in the Southern Vampire Mysteries for that.
Now with all my books ready, and since June and the summer heat are here, it is time to read.