Since our marriage last year, Courtney and I have probably read well over a hundred books between us, mostly fiction. It surprised us how many good stories we were finding beneath the surface of the current NY Times best-seller list.
Only one book on this list was published within the last twenty-five years. The others are very old indeed, but they are amazing stories caught in a fragile place between classic and obscure.
From the bottom up:
5. The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux
4. The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck will always be known as the California writer. After such incredible successes as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden, he decided to take a trip around the lower forty-eight. These travels took up much of his time in the 1950s. During his travels, he began to notice a subtle undercurrent of corruption that infected everyone he met. This, coupled with peace and harmony he found in having few material possessions, drove him to write Winter. The book was published in 1961, and was a radical departure from his previous novels. Set in New England, it spans a weekend, not several years. Instead of fighting against economic hardship or the Earth itself, the protagonist is fighting against his own temptations.
Winter was a scathing attack on America's superiority complex and how we had already adopted the philosophy of "everyone's doing it." The protagonist is mired in a culture of corruption where it seems everyone cheats and lies. As such, the book didn't do well, critically or commercially. It was enough to get Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in 1962, in one of the committee's most controversial decisions.
Today, the novel is practically ignored when discussing Steinbeck's life, even though it gets good ratings on Amazon. I think people then realized something: Tom Joad is who we root for, but Ethan Hawley is who we become if left unchecked.
3. The Fortunate Pilgrim, by Mari Puzo
Mario Puzo will never be anything but the guy who wrote The Godfather to most Americans. He hated that book, and to his dying day regretted that Pilgrim didn't succeed as he had hoped. The novel is largely based on his own mother's experiences as an immigrant in New York City in the 1920s. For a full review, see this previous post.
The fact that we still have an obsession with the tired, worn-out Italian mob story is a poor testimony to what Americans latch onto. Pilgrim is one of my all-time favorite books, and it's a shame it will never get out from under Don Corleone's shadow.
2. Jurassic Park, by Michale Crichton
Published in 1990, this science fiction classic sparked a world-wide multi-million dollar franchise that spawned four movies and tons of merchandise. Like many, I saw the movie first and then raced to the library when I found out it was a book. Ok, that's a lie. I read the book because it was like the movie. It was the first adult novel I ever read and I ate it up. However, I think the book is superior in several ways (not just because my favorite character survived). First, you get more insight into the sheer scope of the InGen operation on Isla Nublar. Second, the novel reveals the motivation behind the actions of several title characters. Dennis Nedry isn't betraying his employer just because he's a greedy slob, but because he was asked to work with state-of-the-art computer mapping software that was still considered experimental. Robert Muldoon doesn't hate the raptors just because they can hunt humans or even that they're intelligent, but because he recognizes that what Jurassic Park has are not real dinosaurs. He sees the danger more than anyone else. The novel also shows how most of the park's problems came from Hammond's overconfidence and gross mismanagement.
The discussions about DNA were groundbreaking at the time. The Human Genome Project wasn't finished yet, and we could only speculate what we would find in our own genetic code. However, the entertainment value of this novel has far outweighed the scientific implications. I saw someone in a Walmart parking lot reading this book and I actually told them how much I approved.
Yeah, when was the last time you heard someone talking about this novel?
1. Bambi, by Felix Salten
Yeah, you read that right. I guarantee you thought of the Disney film. Right? Don't lie. That's a classic example of what I'm talking about. Published in Austria in 1923 and in English in 1928, Bambi was an immediate hit in the United States. I found a PocketBooks copy at a thrift store and bought it mainly for the "Buy War Bonds" stamp on the inside. I didn't think I'd enjoy it.
But I did.
Bambi isn't about a bunch of cute animals frolicking in the fields and being happy.
It's a story about life and death, survival, sexual conquest, and grappling with the unexplained mysteries of your own existence. Felix Salten never intended for this to be a children's novel, and most kids today would probably break down and cry half way in. The novel immerses you in the forest, and even though you can't see past the trees, you know there's a huge, rich world out there.
But then Hitler came to power in Germany.
In 1933, the book was banned by the Nazis, who interpreted the story as a protest against their anti-Jewish laws. Thousands of copies were burned, which make German first editions almost impossible to find. Felix, being of Jewish lineage, read the writing on the wall, and with the help of his American editor, fled to Switzerland where he spent the rest of his life. He sold the film rights to the novel for a mere $1000.
Disney's 1942 movie was hated by hunters and got mixed reviews from critics. The fact that World War II was underway in Europe meant he lost a substantial share of his former market. However, when it was re-released in 1947, everything changed. It is now hailed as the crowning achievement of Disney's career and was rated as the top third best animated movie of all time by the American Film Institute. To this very day, those cute fluffy animals continue to adore children's toys, books, backpacks, and other memorabilia.
Meanwhile, Felix Salten died in exile in 1945, forgotten by the world he once dazzled. The book Bambi has been in continuous print ever since, but in highly abridged forms that are considerably different from the original.
My copy is a 1942 paperback, and some purists would say that only the English 1929 printing is accurate. Not sure who to believe, but it's become one of my all-time favorite reads and I'm so happy I found it. I loved the forest long before I learned to love the ocean, or the mountains, so this book spoke to me in a way few have.
That's it! For one reason or another, these books have been forgotten by most of the world, but that doesn't mean they can't be read and enjoyed. Drop some money and add them to your library today!
Power to the pen!