29 January, 2016

Centennial Challenge 2016

Here's a crazy idea. Starting from 2016, I'll attempt to complete a 25-year program of annual reading and first edition collection, christened the Centennial Challenge The idea is to revisit fictions - from the past century - that represent the zeitgeists of their eras. And since each generation is about 25 years apart, every year, I will attempt to read, collect, and post major fictional work at quarter century intervals. In 2016, the books will come from 1916 (a century ago), 1941 (75 years ago), 1966 (50 years ago), and 1991 (25 years ago). The definition of major work is contentious and clearly subjected to different plausible interpretations. For this challenge, I will focus mainly on work that are in line with my collection program, namely the major prize winners and other important titles, mainly American, and Frostian poetry. I'm not sure if I will eventually complete the program, but if I do, then it'll be a very good examination of the canonical literature and, hopefully, a very good examination of my own life that Socrates will be proud of as well.

For the centennial year of 1916, the main focus will be on Robert Frost's "Mountain Interval" that contains the famous and ambiguous, often said to have been misunderstood, "The Road Not Taken". "I took the one less traveled by, and that has been all the difference" is often interpreted as an inspirational phrase encouraging one to seek his own path and destiny, but is, by academic contention, actually a regret. The first edition, with dust jacket, is getting increasingly scarce and expensive. Hopefully I can get a good copy at the right price.

There are two other major work published in 1916 that I'll be interested to buy, but probably not read. The first is James Joyce's "The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" that, by any standard, is a major piece of literary accomplishment. The problem is I don't really get Joyce. The other is Franz Kafka's "Die Verwandlung" that was eventually translated much later to the famous "The Metamorphosis". The success and motivation for this landmark work are low because, respectively, it is very rare and expensive, and I don't read German, and I don't like to buy things I can't read. So these two titles are on the KIV list.

For the 75 years old pieces, Ellen Glasgow's "In This Our Life" is the Pulitzer winner and a clear choice. Then there is Fitzgerald's posthumous "The Last Tycoon", which is a KIV.

For the half centennial group, Bernard Malamud's "The Fixer", winners of both Pulitzer and National Book Award, is a must have, as is Thomas Pynchon's cult novella, "The Crying of  Lot 49". Malamud is a major American Jewish author, a pioneer who pushed the literary bound to the benefit of subsequent Jewish authors like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth. Pynchon is an enigmatic recluse who is still writing today but whose later work seem to have fallen short of his earlier work like "V.", "Gravity's Rainbow", and of course, Lot 49.

For the 1991 lot, Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres", winners of booth Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award, Norman Rush's National Book Award winning "Mating", and Ben Okri's Booker winner, "The Famished Road" are all on the list. Add to these prize winners will be Don DeLillo's "Mao II".

Clearly this list is not cast in stone, and will change over the course of the year, but is already, as it is now, a pretty good reading selection.

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