Twenty-six years of reading

In celebration of the coolest literary box set I’ve seen in my 26-year life, I have decided to put together my own wish list – my own literary collection of 64-page excerpts.

Keeping with the theme started by Penguin (seventy books by seventy authors; excerpts from each author collected together to celebrate the first seventy years of Penguin publishing,) I have pared down a list of twenty-six authors and books. These literary masterpieces will be, in my mind, presented in a 64-page excerpt for those who wish to know the literary life of Corey Vilhauer.

Here they are, in all of their glory (including the first line of each book) – the Vilhauer 26, presented in beautiful collector’s box. It’s a long one, so you’ll have to click through a few pages. Don’t forget, you save 15£ if you buy the entire set!

1. Sterling North – Rascal. This was the first book without pictures I ever remember reading. It launched my love affair with raccoons and also my affinity towards books about cute animals. Because of this book I acquired a stuffed raccoon which I named, obviously, Rascal, and it was very dear to me.

“It was in May, 1918, that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

2. Wilson Rawls – Where the Red Fern Grows. The seminal young adult book. I’m pretty sure everyone over the age of fifteen has read it at least once. It was sad, but I remember it being very good, though I don’t really remember anything else about it. Not one of my friends, that I know, hasn’t read this classic.

“When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me. To begin with, everything was too perfect for anything unusual to happen.”

3. Judi Barrett – Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I used to check this book out from our school library all the time. It’s a wonderful picture book, with great illustrations of food-based weather. I still own a copy today, and plan to pass it down through the generations of Vilhauer children.

“We were all sitting around the big kitchen table. It was Saturday morning. Pancake morning.”

4. Lillian Jackson Braun – The Cat Who Talked To Ghosts
. Really, these The Cat Who… books are all pretty formula and predictable. Still, Braun’s books were quite addictive to me in grade school, thus insuring a place on my list. This one, …Talked to Ghosts, is the only one I really remember: an old farmhouse may or may not be filled with ghosts, and two cats (as always) help figure out a murder.

“Jim Qwilleran is a very rich man-the richest individual in Moose County, to be exact.”

5. Roy Strong – The Story of Britain. I’ve attempted to read four books on the history of the British Isles, but this is the only one I managed to fight my way through. Fighting is a bad way to put it, though, since I found this one very enjoyable – probably the only history book I’ve ever enjoyed enough to finish. It’s my crowning achievement in my personal historic reading collection.

“Britain is an island and that fact is more important than any other in understanding its history.”

6. Charles Darwin – The Origin of Species. I’ll be honest. I’ve never actually read this book word for word, but I’ve familiarized myself with the concepts and ideas within. As a prospective science teacher who was interested in evolutionary science, I naturally latched on to Darwin immediately. Maybe someday I’ll actually read it page by page.

“When we look to the individuals of the same variety or subvariety of our older cultivated plants and animals, one of the first points which strikes us, is, that they generally differ much more from each other, than do the individuals of any one species or variety in a state of nature.”

7. anonymous – Beowulf. Now Beowulf, amazingly enough, I have actually read. In fact, I’m set to read the most recent translation by Seamus Heaney very soon. It’s an epic poem, or so I was taught in my British Literature class, and it’s a great story. It’s not as difficult to read either, as I found in the aforementioned Brit Lit class, and it really turned me on to the ancient English literature.

“So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.”

8. Stephen King – The Eyes of the Dragon. This book was apparently written for King’s youngest child as a bedtime story. It’s a tale of deceit and chivalry, and is in no way a horror novel. Instead, King wrote a great fantasy novel that rivals any other “dragons and princesses” book I’ve ever read. I read it constantly until I was old enough to realize I could probably find other books like it instead of rehashing the same pages.

“Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons.”

9. T. H. White – The Once and Future King. I’d put Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur on the list, but I always found The Once and Future King (which is based on Le Morte d’Arthur) to be a much more entertaining read. It was the basis for the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone, and it was a clever synopsis of Arthurian legend.

“On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Oragon, Repetition and Astrology.”

10. Aldous Huxley – Brave New World. We got to read this in my high school Biology II class, and it was one of the things that really put my mind into becoming a science teacher. It’s a book about the future, much like George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, but it’s taken from a scientific standpoint – the dangers of genetic engineering. The first “doomsday future” book I ever read.

“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.”

11. George Orwell – Animal Farm. Sure, 1984 maybe a more important Orwell book, and it was the second “doomsday future” book I ever read, but Animal Farm did more for me than 1984 ever did. It was easier to read, so I identified more with it during my high school years. I appreciated the allegorical nature of the book at the time, which is more than I can say for my interpretation of most the other books I was reading.

“Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the popholes.”

12. Upton Sinclair – The Jungle. I originally read this when I started being a vegetarian and was sickened by the descriptions of horrible slaughterhouse conditions. I later realized that it was a novel that was very instrumental in pro-union movements and really opened the eyes of those who were responsible for overseeing such factory conditions. Additionally, it’s brilliantly written.

“It was four o’clock when the ceremony was over and the carriages began to arrive.”

13. Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451. This was the third (and final) “doomsday future” book I read in high school. I took this one to heart the most because of my anti-censorship stance, my enrollment in a journalism class, and the fact that I was finally beginning to understand the idea that there is corruption and questionable behavior at nearly every level of life. I even wrote a song about it for our “punk” band.

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

14. Yan Martell – The Life of Pi. I put this one on the list because, aside from being a stereotypical reading club book, it’s a clever story with a very interesting twist at the end. Basically, it’s about a young Indian boy who is lost at sea on a life raft with a tiger. It’s not all that it seems, and I remember finishing it and raving about it for weeks. It’s a must read.

“My suffering left me sad and gloomy.”

15. Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle. This is Vonnegut’s book about a new kind of ice that freezes at room temperature and all of the people – scientists, government junkies, weird characters of uncertain nature – that are involved with creating and capturing the substance. I found it to be a better book than the other Vonnegut “classics,” like Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, probably because this was the first Vonnegut book I’d ever read.

“Call me Jonah.”

16. John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men. What can be said for Steinbeck that hasn’t been said by thousands before me? I can say that this book was purchased for me by my mother on a long car trip, and I’m sure she was ecstatic to buy me a Steinbeck book rather than a Garfield comic or a gaming magazine. Like most of the Steinbeck I’ve ventured to read, it’s a wonderful novella – short enough to not drag but long enough to get its point across.

“A few miles south of Soledad, the Salinas River drops in close to the hillside bank and runs deep and green.”

17. Bill Bryson – Notes From a Small Island. Bill Bryson did a few things for me in my life: he forged a love for reading travel novels, he taught me to love words and subtle humor, and he drove me to become a writer myself. This book started it all: Bryson, who at the time is about to return to the United States after 20 years away, decides to make his way around the British Isles. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

“There are certain idiosyncratic notions that you quietly come to accept when you live for a long time in Britain.”

18. Paul Theroux – Kingdom by the Sea. Where Bryson left off, Theroux picked up. This book was actually written before Bryson’s Island (during the Falkland War) but serves as a good compliment to Island. Kingdom is about Theroux’s walk around England, but instead of complaining about the food and sleeping in horrible hotels, Theroux describes the people – simple people who know nothing more than making a living in their mother country.

“Everyone seemed to be going to China that year, or else writing rude things about the Arabs, or being frank about Africa.”

19. David Sedaris – Me Talk Pretty One Day. Nothing is funnier than a homosexual man’s take on his dysfunctional family, or at least that’s the idea one gets when they read Sedaris. It’s a hilarious story by story account of Sedaris’ family, growing up gay, and trying to make a living as an “artist.” It’s one of the first MPR suggested books I’ve ever read.

“Anyone who watches even the slightest amount of TV is familiar with the scene: An agent knocks on the door of some seemingly ordinary home or office.”

20. Homer – The Odyssey. Yup. I’ve read this one – twice. Both times for a class, but twice none the less. It’s on my list more for the historical value and the fact that it’s a story that has stuck with me for as long as I can remember. Sure, it’s a dry read at times, and it’s much more difficult than Beowulf, but I love the fact that it’s there, and I’ve read it, and it’s meant something to me.

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”

21. J.R.R. Tolkein – The Hobbit. How cliché is it to put a Tolkein book on a book list these days? I actually attempted to read this when I was in fifth grade, and failed miserably. The book had defeated me and left me a pool of sludge. I tried again shortly before the Lord of the Rings trilogy started being released in theaters, and managed to make it through. I put this book in my box because it’s not technically part of the trilogy, and therefore I’m saving myself from the cliché. Right?

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

22. Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose. Anyone who’s read my monthly “My Very Own Polysyllabic Spree” column knows how difficult it was for me to get into this book – a feat that I eventually did half way through April. I now see it as a beautiful book with a very complex storyline and the awesome premise of murderous monks. I’m proud of finishing this book with little hardship, and I put it in my box to show my pride.

“It was a beautiful morning at the end of November.”

23. Michael Chabon – The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Chabon is one of my favorite new authors (along with David Eggers, who follows) and this was my first taste of his writing. It’s an interesting story of two cousins who join together to create the wildly popular comic The Escapist, and deals primarily with the interactions between two very different personalities.

“In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.”

24. David Eggers – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genious. Eggers presents his own memoir, a life where he begins taking care of his youngest brother after his parents both die with a span of a month or so, in an incredibly inventive and completely original way. Eggers’ writing style is different from anyone I’ve ever read, and I appreciate his ability to take himself out of the story and look at it from above. It’s a very powerful story.

“Through the small tall bathroom window the December yard is gray and scratchy, the trees calligraphic.”

25. Charles Bukowski – Post Office. Bukowski’s writing has the innate ability to disgust and amuse at the same time. He was brutish, drunk, and horrible, but he was a great writer. Post Office chronicles his job at (where else?) the post office. What happens with a poor man who drinks all the time and has an overactive dirty libido do with his life? He shoves mail into little boxes, obviously.

“It began as a mistake.”

26. Michael Moore – Downsize This. Okay, it’s out. I’m a dirty liberal and I enjoy Michael Moore. For the most part, I find him a little over the top. Still, I did really enjoy his first book. I found it at a library sale in Idaho about seven years ago, picked it up, and never looked back. I’d never shape my political being on any shock-writer’s ideas, regardless of the side, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say Downsize This opened my eyes.

“Since making Roger & Me in 1989, I’ve listened to a lot of stories from people, strangers in the street, who want to buy me a beer or a burger and tell me what happened to their American Dream.”

This was lovingly handwritten on June 22nd, 2005