In 2002 I decided to write up the story of my life. I didn't know what I would do with it but at least I could leave it for my children and grandchildren and hopefully put down whatever wisdom I had gleaned. As I started on the project I was struck by how little I knew about the history of my family. In times gone by and in other cultures, the family history is told in stories and children learn it so that they can pass it on to their children. As I was growing up, there were no stories like this. It was as if it all started with our nuclear family. We visited our grandparents and cousins every summer, but no one ever talked about the past. The only thing I could figure is that my parents were only third generation Americans, my grandparents being born to German immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were more interested in becoming Americans than in preserving the old country tales and traditions. When I was young I cared little about the past. Like most children, I was interested in the present and the future, because as a child one is not aware of having a past, but rather is striving to grow up and see what one's life will become. Now I am past the middle of my life and possibly have more past than future as far as this lifetime goes. Probably my children and grandchildren would find this history I am writing of little interest, but possibly when they reach my age they will have the same kinds of questions I now have.
One day I had the idea that I have probably been influenced all my life by the books and literature of the times I have lived through. I was read to by my parents regularly until I could read myself. I've always read lots and lots of books and in fact, in 1991 I started keeping a log of all the books I read, with a short write-up about each book. I wish I had started doing that earlier, especially during my teen years which I remember as a time of delighted and voracious reading. Anyway, I thought that it would be interesting to find out what were the main popular and important books of fiction throughout my lifetime.
I was searching the web about books and came across a college syllabus for a course in contemporary American literature, which had lists of the top 10 bestsellers for every year since about 1910. Luckily I downloaded the lists beginning with 1940, because that website no longer exists. I was born in 1947, so I began reading the books of 1940. I figured I could find out about the decade into which I was born. I began this reading project in June, 2002. This month I completed reading through the lists all the way up to 1949, so I have completed one decade of reading. For each year, I read the top 10 bestsellers, about 10 other novels by authors I was interested in, the prize winning books of the year (in the 40s there were only the Pulitzer, the Caldecott Medal (for illustrated children's books) and the Newbery Award (for young adult books.) I also read (if I could find them) the Best American and O'Henry Prize Short Story collections.
It has been a fascinating reading journey. I feel as though I was living in rather complete ignorance about the social, political, spiritual and philosophical forces at work in the world as I was growing up. I guess they try to teach you that stuff in school with history and social studies and all, but I found those subjects extremely boring and not much of it sunk in. But the moods and beliefs and stresses of the society around me did sink in. I have always been against war, against racism, against any sort of totalitarian oppression of peoples. One of my earliest memories is from 1950, when I was three years old. On the front page of the New York Times were pictures of people who were obviously suffering. I asked my Dad what it was about and he told me there was a war (the Korean War, of course) and those were pictures of the people who lived where the war was going on. I didn't know what war was, but I was against it from that day on.
This weekend I have been working on gathering the writings I've done since beginning the project. I wrote a summary for each year and now I am attempting to summarize the decade. I will post the decade summary when I get it in some readable form. But some of my reading acquaintances have expressed interest in the lists of books I read. I think the blog is the best place to put this information. Then it is recorded and can be looked up at any time by anyone who is interested.
So coming in the next post is the list for 1940. For each book, I have merely made a short note about the themes in the book. If I especially liked the book, I will put an asterisk. I found all of these books in my local libraries, but I am reading as fast as I can because I am afraid they will be taken off the shelves to make room for newer books. There is quite the controversy going on right now about the Google project to get books digitized. I think it is a great plan. What if all these old novels were lost? Keep the wisdom!