“A trusty comrade is always of use; and a chronicler still more so.” – Arthur Conan Doyle
When I was applying to grad school and preparing for the GREs I knocked off a few of the titles from this 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list… but nowhere near enough of them. It felt like for every book I read that did appear on the exam there were six that I missed and two that I didn’t need to have read at all. There are so many compiled lists of recommended reading for those kinds of exams, it’s impossible to get to everything in time—I much prefer this list where I can take as much time as I want, where the deadline is not completely in my hands. Okay, that was a bit more morbid than I meant it to sound.
Anyway, thinking back on the GREs and the literature test in particular, what I remember most are the few who woefully underestimated how intense the exam was going to be: the students who chose not to go to the restroom before the three hour testing period began; the one who looked about ready to cry by the end of the exam and proclaimed that she’d taken the MTELs and they were so much easier; the ones who made no marks for the first ten minutes because they were still trying to wrap their minds around the idea of 300 questions on an exam that only lasted for 180 minutes. I still remember the point in the session when I chose to skip through to the end and move backwards, passing over anything related to poetry entirely (poetry always was the bane of my academic existence). I remember that my best friend and I had signed up for the same test center and went to lunch afterwards where we quietly compared notes, consoling ourselves over the ordeal by celebrating each answer we knew we got correct.
Even now almost five years later, I still believe the GRE test for literature was the biggest waste of time and money and a completely inaccurate way to judge a literature student’s knowledge after graduating college—you can’t have an evaluative test like that without and essay component (and yet… they did/do). But, the GRE had to be endured in order to apply and attend graduate school—where I read way more of the titles from this list and which are going to be rounding out most of the rest of these recaps.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Going into reading Heart of Darkness, all I knew about it was that the film, Apocalypse Now was based on it—and I still haven’t seen it. It was one of the books I read during my lunch breaks at the office job I worked between undergrad and graduate school—I guess I was hoping it would show up on my GREs (to the best I can remember, it didn’t). I don’t remember much about the story except the boat itself and that my copy also contained Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, which I enjoyed far more.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
After reading a short story by Kate Chopin for one of my undergraduate lit classes, our professor recommended that we all read The Awakening at some point in our careers—I think the GREs were mentioned with relation to this title as well. It’s one of those books that served as a stepping-stone for so many things and being familiar with what comes later, it becomes difficult to fully appreciate that this came first and what it meant in the moment it was written—in this case, the way it examines societal expectations and pressures on women regarding their roles in the home and as mothers and how those contrast with what women feel as individuals and people.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
This was another one of the books I read in anticipation of taking the GREs (or at least, I think it was). I know I first bought the book in high school as a back up for a project I was trying to get a head start on—we were given a list of titles to pick from and had to submit a list with our top five or something; I got my top pick so this one went on the shelf for later—much later as it turned out. I’m glad I didn’t have to read it in high school cause I hated it—not the story so much as the style. Having read Dubliners since then as well, I think that’s just how I feel about James Joyce (not looking forward to when I need to read Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake for this list).
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Ages ago when I first got my Nook, Barnes & Noble had a summer where they had twelve of their B&N Classics available for free each week and I stocked up (I think I ended up with forty of them for my Nook). Among them were both volumes of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Having made it through most all of Volume I while in the car on a family vacation, I completed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Because of the way that the stories are compiled for the larger volumes, I don’t exactly recall which stories are in which of the smaller collections within the larger volume itself, but I will say that while watching Sherlock on television a year later, I was shocked at just how well and how closely the modern adaptations were to the original tales by Doyle (with the exception of Hound of the Baskervilles where I prefer the Wishbone adaptation). *Every time I watch Sherlock I end up turning back to the original source material so I can tease out all the wonderful details they managed to adapt for the modern setting and audience (ex. Watson’s cell phone vs. cigarette case in A Study in Pink).
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
This is the first of the books on the list that I had to read for grad school that wasn’t another reread on my part. I had already made my way through North and South and enjoyed it so I wasn’t too worried, knowing I liked Gaskell’s style going in. There were a number of similarities I saw to North and South in the characters and their situations but I actually like North and South better because it’s a little bolder in representing the interests of the workers’ (it deals more broadly with union issues while Mary Barton is far more character centric).