The first thing I read in any book is the dedication. Who is this book, with all of this labor devoted to researching and writing it, with all of the time and effort made pitching it, and marketing it, and selling it, with all of the resources used in designing it, and printing it, with all of the boxes and trucks utilized for its delivery, with all of the bookstores it is delivered to, with all of the employees who unpack it, and display it, and ring it out for you as you stand in front of them, cash in hand, waiting to carry the book inside its bookstore-branded shopping bag home with you, who is this book dedicated to? Oftentimes it is dedicated to loved ones, to family members, to the subjects of the books directly named or kept anonymous.
Kevin Smokler has dedicated his book, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School, to "readers, books, and the joy they bring."
Note who he hasn't dedicated this book to. He hasn't dedicated it to humble reviewers, such as myself. He hasn't dedicated it to other writers. He hasn't dedicated it to the online social networking community, he hasn't dedicated it to libraries or librarians, he hasn't dedicated it to teachers, or to students, or to academic institutions, or to think tanks of higher literary thought. He has dedicated it to the three most important things in publishing, the three things without which the publishing industry would cease to exist: readers; books, and the joy they bring.
How wonderful, and how wonderfully, quietly, insidiously radical.
Smokler, who has written for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, does a competent job covering fifty of the hundreds of books you likely encountered during the course of high school and college, writing short reviews of titles ranging from To Kill A Mockingbird, to The Age of Innocence, to The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Thrown into the mix are essays on art and media philosophers like Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan, a hilariously insightful take on Thomas Pynchon (noting that the classmate who recommended Pynchon to him, "...deliberately bit off the ch, just as he had punched out the first t in "Dostoyevsky"), and a cathartic rant on The Scarlet Letter, subtitled I Don't Like It Either.
As I have mentioned, Smokler is a competent writer and the essays themselves are competently finished and assembled, arranged in the common themes of real life - Love and Pain, Working, Identity - as opposed to literary movements. If you're looking for a dry, scholarly analysis of Sturm und Drang or the Enlightenment, this is not the book for you. If you are looking not just for reading recommendations but unexpected, brilliant observations of books you've loved since youth, you'll likely find a few of them here (Smokler's observation that Kurt Vonnegut used the phrase "So it goes" 106 times in Slaughterhouse-Five, following "everything from the death of a soldier to the flattening of champagne," gave me an insight into this book that I'm still mulling over, right now, as I type this out, and one I'm likely still mulling over as you read this).
The book does have one structural failing, and that is this: no book, no matter how competent, can be all things to all people. Taking on fifty titles means Smokler gave each title only a few pages of his attention before moving onto the next; this abruptly stops what could be even better analysis without the space constraints, while giving the reader the feeling that some titles are included in this list so it could reach the even number fifty. Some writers, such as Whitman and Dickinson, are reviewed less for their works than for their biographies (a missed opportunity), and devoting an entire section to We the Hero without including either the Iliad or the Odyssey is pretty hard to justify.
This structural failing becomes most apparent when Smokler writes about writers writing stories that are focused on characters who are not white, male, and American or European. He includes an essay on Sherman Alexie, the Native American author of The Lone Ranger and the Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Indian Killer, without a mention, anywhere, of N Scott Momaday, who won the Pulitzer Prize for House Made of Dawn , or Black Elk Speaks, the iconic book on the Lakota by John G. Neihardt. When he reviews books by other writers who write about the experience of race and gender in their stories, it is generally with the caveat that they are included in a list of classics because they are "more than" stories about race and gender. In the aforementioned essay on Alexie, Smokler calls Reservation Blues, "one of the most "American" novels of the last half century," but then adds, "that the characters are "Native American" is only a small part of the reason why." That he is addressing the obvious point that it is included on many high school required reading lists is both the point and more than that, that the defense of a book about the lives of Native American characters as "one of the most "American" novels of the last half century" without, seemingly, having much to do with the ethnicity of these characters reveals an ongoing debate in literary and publishing circles about what makes a book "mainstream," and it is a debate that, unfortunately, seems to occur only among writers who are themselves not white, and not male, and not American or European, writers whose works speak to the lives of people who do not fit into this narrowly defined racial and gender category, writers whose works are all too often categorized, and marketed, and presented to groups of readers based on the racial and ethnic makeup of their characters, or based on the insidious formula of woman + romance=chicklit.
These categories exist, and this artificial corralling of books occurs, because of the perception publishers have about readers, because of the expectation that publishers have that certain readers will gravitate toward certain books on certain subjects, because of an ancient flaw in the world of letters that continues to allow white, male voices to speak expansively as if they were not speaking of the experience of being white, and male, even though that is the racial makeup of the characters they are writing. The best way to change this dynamic, to stop the process of publishers and educators matching books and readers because of these expectations, is to talk directly to the readers, themselves, about books, to share the joy of books in essays that are not intimidating, or scholarly, or prattle on about canons, and movements, and the great works therein. Smokler's book is important because it is an attempt to do this, it is a hand reaching out to any other and suggesting, with humor and empathy, that there are great works, yes, but you should enjoy them, because they are enjoyable; you should learn from them, because they are valuable, and you should read them because they are relevant to your life, right now, as you're living it. It is that quiet way of dismissing the academic in favor of the urgent and practical that makes this a very good, and a very important book. It is a book that makes you think about books, and about life, and about joy; agreements and disagreements aside, publishers and scholars aside, institutions and movements aside, that is the point.
Afternote: Kevin Smokler and I are twitter friends, and you can follow our occasional back-and-forth on @Weegee for Smokler and @mselephantgun for myself.