It is becoming a sport for me to read books about books – and writers, language, publishing, writing, reading, editing and all facets of the book world. I just finished a nicely packaged one, Great Modern Writers: A to Z by Andy Tushy with Caroline Taggart.
The book purports, on its back cover, to be "an accessible, covetable guide to 52 key modern writers." The hardcover, glossy-paged book features essays on the great modern writers who flourished in the 20th century. Those selected are ones that are being read decades later. Their legacy may even last centuries. But, as with any book of lists, there will be entries that are expected, controversial, even disagreeable. The author acknowledges: “There are some names here that I’m sure no one would argue with – Atwood, Camus, Joyce, Updike – and some that are more contentious.”
When reviewing the authors included in the book, one has to wonder how we can narrow down all of the writers who won awards, had best-sellers, and received critical acclaim. If you even try to look at a list of those who won Pulitzers and Nobel Prizes, you’d have to choose from hundreds of writers. And even amongst best-sellers, you’d choose between tens of thousands of authors.
I learned a number of factoids about the great writers featured here. For instance, I didn’t realize Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969 became the first-ever best-seller by a black woman. I also didn’t know early in her career she was employed as a street car conductor in San Francisco. She reportedly got the job after sitting at the transit office for two weeks until they hired her.
I didn’t know that Albert Camus, famous for The Stranger, lost his dad when he was just a few months old and survived a childhood that was plagued by poverty and ill health.
Whereas we know Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf died at their own hands, I didn’t know that George Orwell was actually born and raised in India or that he died in his 40’s from tuberculosis.
I also liked the way these great writers had their writings summarized:
On Simon de Beauvoir: “In her massive and ground-breaking work, The Second Sex (1949), she took the view that men imposed on women an ideal of femininity, and that both sexes were then disappointed when women didn’t measure up.”
On Samuel Beckett: “Waiting for Godot is one of the most important plays of the Theatre of the Absurd – funny, yes, but unsettling and pessimistic, showing the pointless of human endeavor.”
On T.S. Eliot: “The Waste Land …is a poem about lives that have no meaning in a society that is in a state of collapse, and it captures the despair of the post. World War I generation as no other work of art has done before or since.”
On William Golding: “Lord of the Flies…depicts the disintegration of society.”
On J.D. Salinger: “In 1951, when The Catcher in the Rye was published, the word “teenager” was a recent coinage and the publishing genre “Young Adult” was unheard of. The disenchanted voice of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield delighted young people and shocked their parents everywhere.”
On James Joyce: “On a deeper level, it is a study of a modern Everyman portrayed in epic terms, experiencing a series of what Joyce called “epiphames”-finding? Spectacular truths in ordinary things. It is also a huge experiment with form and language, with interior monologues and stream of consciousness. In many people’s assessment, it is the greatest novel of the 20th century.”
In reading the book about great authors and their masterpieces, it made me want to read or re-read some of these young classics. If you’re looking for a reminder of – or an introduction to – the top works of the past century – read this book.
Here’s a quick summary of some of the featured writers and their best works:
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaids Tale
James Baldwin – Notes of a Native Son
William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World
Franz Kafka – Metamorphosis
D.H. Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Toni Morrison – Jazz
Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita
George Orwell – 1984
Marcel Provst – In Search of Lost Time
Salman Rushdie - Satanic Verses
Jean Paul Sartre – Being and Nothingness
John Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath
John Updike – The Rabbit
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five
Virginia Woolf – Mrs. Dalloway
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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at email@example.com. He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent. This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs.
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