Photo by Muffy Aldrich
The Modern Guide to The Thing Before Preppy

Monday, February 5, 2024

Classic Prep School Books (r)

Photo by Salt Water New England
Growing up, one might - when meeting new people at social events - compare books as a way of finding common ground and easy first conversations.  Which is your favorite book by Austen?  Who is your favorite pre-Revolution Russian author?   Most of said texts, necessarily, would be drawn from a fairly finite pool of assigned reading, including examples below.

A comfort of certain communities is a predictable set of referential experiences.  One may, however, ask if being fluent with numerous samples from a classic canon remains useful in the modern world.



Classic prep school books include:
  • The Deptford Trilogy and The Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies 
  • Peter the Great by Robert Massie
  • Our Vanishing Landscape and anything else by Eric Sloane
  • The Silver Horn by Gordon Grand
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells
  • Virgil's Aeneid. 
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • The Red and the Black by Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle )
  • Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Complete the Louisa May Alcott series by reading the additional books Little Men, Jo's Boys, etc. and as an antithesis, look up The Little Colonel series. 
  • Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
  • The "Little House" series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
  • Everything by Jane Austen
  • Everything by O Henry, 
  • Everything by Edgar Allen Poe ( who dropped out of UVA and still experienced literary success) 
  • Everything by The Bronte sisters. 
  • On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith 
  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  • The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden
  • Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh 
  • Hamlet OR Macbeth and one comedy by William Shakespeare
  • A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
  • Anything by Agatha Christie 
  • Anything by P.D. James
  • Anything by Barbara Vine
  • Anything by John Steinbeck
  • The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss
  • The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson
  • John Irving's The World According to Garp
  • The Class by Eric Segal.
  • P. G. Wodehouse books are classic brit humor; especially the Jeeves and Blandings series.
  • The Mandelbaum translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis
  • Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose
  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
  • Everything by Robert Frost.  And stop at Robert's grave in the Old Bennington Cemetary when in the vicinity.
  • Anything by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry. In French.
  • Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Anything by Auchincloss
  • Anything by F. Scott Fitzgeral
  • Novels by Louis Auchincloss
  • The works of Henry James.
  • Anything by John McPhee
  • Anything by William Faulkner
  • The Brothers Karamazov OR Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Classic short stories include:
  • The Interlopers by Saki (H.H. Munro)
  • The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant
  • August Heat by William Fryer Harvey
  • The Ant and the Grasshopper by W Somerset Maugham
  • Unreasonable Doubt by Stanley Elli
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs
  • The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell
  • Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson 
  • Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kipling
  • The Cremation of Sam Magee by Robert W. Service
  • Shooting An Elephant by George Orwell
  • The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
  • So Much Unfairness of Things by C. D. B. Bryan, 
  • Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway

65 comments:

  1. Thank you Muffy. Great post and much more exhaustive than the list in the OPH. GLH

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  2. Excellent list. Prep schools of the Left Coast would add John Steinbeck. We also read the plays of Henrik Ibsen, a favorite of our English department.

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  3. I am in a classic lit book club and we've read many of these books, but I can't wait to share this list with them!

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  4. But to answer the question - is being fluent with numerous samples from a classic canon still useful in the modern world? That's a tough one. It thrills me when someone references a classic, but I realize more and more that the general public is not at all familiar with many classics so . . . . I'm sure other readers will have better answers and opinions. I just find it sad that I live in a county of more than 1 million people and we have only 8 people in our classic lit book club.

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    1. How about this quote from Aeschylus? "So, in the Libyan fable it is told, that once an eagle, stricken with a dart said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft 'with our own feathers, not by others hands are we now smitten."

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    2. IMO, reading should be for one's personal enjoyment not so much to be 'useful in today's society' and if it comes up at a cocktail party, so be it and it sure as hell is better than discussing politics which always ends in tears.

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    3. Another wonderful book by Anton Myrer "Once An Eagle"

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  5. I went to a "prep school" (although we called it private school) in NYC. We did had some from this list in our curriculum. Three short stories we read that made a big impact on me that are not on your list:

    "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" Joyce Carol Oates

    "A&P" John Updike

    "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" Flannery O'Connor

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    1. How about Donna Tartt's THE SECRET HISTORY and the more recent THE GOLDFINCH

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  6. Oh! And to answer your question, for me, reading these classics is useful in a modern world. Good writing always has utility if such usefulness is to include becoming more appreciative and observant of nuance, emotion, and the details in daily living. It's no different than appreciating good art.

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  7. Mark Twain supposedly defined a classic as something everyone wants to have read but which nobody wants to read.

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    1. That statement sums up my having to read Silas Marner in grade school.

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  8. Always made my AP Government class read " The Prince" by Machiavelli...

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  9. My summer English reading list, the summer before I entered, included reading in existentialism (The Stranger by Camus, and No Exit, by Sartre); I also remember reading The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.

    And WHERE is James Thurber?

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  10. I just remembered that in my junior year, my creative writing teacher was Robert Frost's editor. Great teacher.

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  11. Reading these classic books, and others that fit this mold, provides perspective, world view, exposure to great writing and use of literary devices, access to personal experiences of history and culture. Also, thinking, attention, focusing and self discipline skills are required. If not possessed,these may be developed. So- my answer is yes, so relevant, and more necessary than ever. I am not an English teacher, just a book lover.

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  12. I read both THE FOUNTAINHEAD & ATLAS SHRUGGED in my teens and re-read them every 2-3 years or so. I also read everything written by Eric Segal and by Scott Fitzgerald. Great list Muffy and I agree, more extensive than Lisa Birnbach's Official Preppy Handbook.

    I remember reading THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP while at Navy Officer's Candidate School in Newport, RI in 1982.

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    1. Although I have some quibbling disagreements regarding objectivism/conservatism and young teenagers' political leanings, the novel Old School by Tobias Wolff includes a perfect example of your assessment of those works in action.

      Not a book for this list by any stretch, but a delightfully quick campus novel about writing and writers nonetheless!

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  13. There are classic lit book clubs? Why did I not know this? Will start looking for one. Read many of the books on the list but would like to read the rest.

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    1. We created our own. We put it on MeetUp to attract members and now we are private. I look forward to it each month. We have interesting - and sometimes - passionate discussions. I have learned that, even though I may go into the meeting not liking a particular book, by the time I have heard everyone's point of view, I usually come away with an appreciation of it. It's a real treat to be involved.

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  14. I hope many of these books are included in today's curricula. I read many of the classic Classics in the original Latin and Greek; my children read same in translation since classical languages were elective. Their reading lists had a more international flavor to them, which I think is good. Whether prep or not, a core set of literature for all schools would be excellent - common points of reference. We look at sports that way, wish we had more in the way of literature and the arts. When Comey made his "meddlesome priest" quote and the TV presenters had to explain, my heart sank. Not going to get on my soap box about education, but I made sure my children read their required, as well as recommended reading lists every school year, otherwise I would not have been able to talk to them and they would not have understood me!

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  15. Given the current direction of private liberal arts education,
    "Rules For Radicals" Saul Alinsky is a must for every Ivy League hopeful.
    After all a young mind is a terrible thing to waste.
    Doubtful that anything from WFB Jr. will ever find a list.

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    1. Sad that a proper private liberal arts education—or, really, proper education in general—is considered "radical" in any way. WFB Jr. would be as appalled by that development as any liberal.

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    2. Samples of WFB, Vidal, et al could be used effectively in a collegiate rhetoric course but I hardly see the value in excluding any of the world Great Books at the expense of 20th century partisan polemics from a literary perspective.

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  16. I have always enjoyed reading literary classics, both novels and short stories. This is a pretty comprehensive list. I've read many of them, all of Fitzgerald most of Hemmingway. How about Cheever's "The Swimmer"? Lord of the Flies, The Invisible Man, Slaughter House Five, Henderson the Rain King, The Glass Menagerie, The Things They Carried, Trifles and A Dolls House are some of my favorites. I love conversations about classic literature.

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  17. This is a very good comprehensive list. I find it sad (if not appalling) to hear that in many public schools, the entire novel is no longer read. With reduced attention spans and a curriculum loaded with , let's just say, "other things", only excerpts of classic pieces are read and discussed.

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  18. Is this shot inside the Blackstone Library? Anyway, nice list.

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  19. I hate to sound so cynical but this list is populated by too many dead white males to pass muster in today's academy. And if it doesn't have a social justice angle it may as well not exist.

    That said, personally I like your list and it does seem to reflect a core sensibility or set of valued behaviors as you call them. The inclusion of Davies and Stegner especially pleases me, although I agree that Cheever must be added (the first paragraph of "The Housebreaker of Shady Hill" is practically a WASP manifesto).

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  20. Uh, Shakespeare anyone?

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  21. When I retire, I intend to read the entire 51 volume Harvard Universal Classics" anthology of classic works from world literature, compiled and edited by Harvard University president Charles W. Eliot and first published in 1909

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    1. I plan on doing the same thing. Bought the whole list on Ebay a few years ago. It was over 40 years old, and hadn't been touched! Very sad, but good for me!.

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    2. Here's a one-year reading plan: https://www.myharvardclassics.com/categories/20120612_1

      And background on the set of books: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Classics

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    3. I have retired and bought the entire 51 volumes. It was one of my best buys.

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  22. Not a book, but one of my favorite scenes from Gilmore Girls; prep school bonding: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrSTxLhYcs8

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  23. That's a nice list of the things I was supposed to read, but didn't instead opting to read cliff notes and worry about latin or chemistry homework.

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  24. Agree on Cheever being included. He was actually a very dark writer in many ways, probably reflective of his interior life. I would add the following:

    The poetry of Wallace Stevens and WB Yeats
    Anything from GK Chesterton
    A lot of Flannery O'Connor
    Dostoevsky - The Brothers Karamazov (highly recommended)
    Heller - Catch 22
    Some of the works of Thomas Pynchon
    George Elliot - Middlemarch
    Everything by Evelyn Waugh

    I'm sure there are more that I am forgetting...

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  25. Very good-I’ve read some of these but have some work to do!

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  26. This is a very good grade 7 through 12 reading list.

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  27. Love this topic and list! And judging by the other responses, I'm not alone. Thanks for this.

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  28. I'm glad this post is making a reappearance! It's one of my favorites. I think the responses above combine three things that are usefully separated: 1) books assigned in school, 2) books about school, and 3) books that are neither assigned in nor about school but are liked by readers of this blog. The original question focused on group 1. In that spirit, a while back the College Board (the folks who make the SAT and AP exams) published a list of recommended books for college-bound high school students. I found it a useful jumping-off point for conversation and my own reading.

    https://web.archive.org/web/20120103125037/http://www.collegeboard.com/student/plan/boost-your-skills/23628.html

    For anyone interested in a deeper dive, the NEH gave background and supplementary resources for reading many of the titles on the list. I enjoy revisiting titles on this list and reading others for the first time with the help of the NEH background. Three cheers for literature in an age desperately in need of depth, empathy, and maturity.

    https://edsitement.neh.gov/closer-readings/edsitements-recommended-reading-list-college-bound-students

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  29. Classics training: Shakespeare, as much as could be crammed in. Canterbury Tales in Middle English. The Iliad and Odyssey in Greek. My Latin and Greek teachers (Scudder and Baade) wrote the definitive first and second year US prep-school Latin textbooks. The school put on Latin and Greek plays also, Aeschylus' tragedies as well as Aristophanes' and Plautus' comedies. The last year was spent with Transcendentalists, Thoreau, Melville, and then Sartre and Kierkegaard. Much went over our heads at the time but if you aren't exposed to it early there's less chance of grasping references by going back to study and learn it later.

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  30. I would add Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Wordsworth, Shelley (both), Keats, Donne, Heaney, Wilde, Voltaire, and Elizabeth Gaskell.

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  31. Probably the best book to read now in these times is On The Beach.

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  32. As a prep school product with a BA and an MA in literature, I think being reasonably well read is a never ending journey that broadens your horizons and fosters empathy and receptiveness. The so called classics I read in the 1960s have generally, but not always, held up well upon being read again. So many new and fine books are coming out that I simply cannot catch up. As Chaucer said, "The lyf so short. The craft so long to lerne." A must for re-reading for me was Invisible Man. D. H. Lawrence left me largely disappointed the second time around.

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    1. You are right. One cannot catch up. It’s impossible. What is possible is to walk with a young man across Europe in the 1930’s. Read Patrick Leigh-Fermor, for an education.

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  33. Take a little drive south and read Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, and Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men. Then hang a right over to Texas and read Edna Ferber's Giant, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (or Horseman Pass By and The Last Picture Show), and the plays of Horton Foote. You've got a lot of ground to cover before you get to California.

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    1. Well, a bit more about history. I worked in Monroeville, Alabama, home of Harper Lee. I was drilling a well down there & met the landowner, anUnrecontructed Confederate Widow & a stalwart in the Methodist Church. She reminded me of my next door neighbor aka Aunt Pitty Pat Hamilton in Houston. In conversations, she reminded me that we do not call her Harper, but Nell. If you want to see her, run on down to Winn Dixie. She spent the winters in Monroeville & summers in New York.

      Moving on to Texas and the Bovine Aristocracy. Edna Ferber & Giant got everyone riled up down there. My friend & hunting partner was well known & acquainted with the King Ranch/Kleberg Family. He related the story of Ferber showing up at the King Ranch. She wanted to do a book on the King Ranch. Bob Kleberg put her up at The Big House. Kleberg told her that he was committed to a 2 volume book by Holland McCombs & Tom Lea & would not consent to another book. This all took place at breakfast. Ferber was not amused & shown immediately out the door. Hence, Giant was retribution. This was later corroborated in Helenita Kleberg's book, Bob's daughter.

      Only a rank degenerate would not read J.Frank Dobie. Started reading Walter Prescott Webb in high school. After college, Dobie. One of my neighbors family , George Washington West heirs were mentioned in Dobie's books. My neighbor, she could ride the hair of a horse & work cattle better than anyone.

      Now McMurty. his best book was "In a Narrow Grave- Essays on Texas". Yep, I started reading "Lonesome Dove" & became apopletic. This is story of Oliver Loving & Charles Goodnight.
      J.Evetts Haley detailed this story in his book " Charles Goodnight Cowman & Plainsman "1936. McMurty did not dedicate or credit this book to Haley or Goodnight. McMurtry is an imposter in the temple. Haley knew Goodnight . J. Evetts Haley & T.D. Hobart founded the Panhandle Plains Musuem in 1933 . Hobart & Tyng families were associated with Goodnight. I know their descendents today.

      My college friends worked as extras in "The Last Picture Show".

      McMurty's mentor in Houston was Grace David. In the book"Terms Of Endearment" Aurora is based on her. Grace David was a dear friend of my grandmother. He worked in her bookstore.

      Well enough, did not fall off the turnip truck on the way to town last night.

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  34. C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia

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  35. It's interesting to look back and see the common themes across authors and eras of money and power having a corrupting influence, the need to live by a moral code even when its difficult, and the obligation of the powerful to defend the weak. We used to just think of this as education, and some places we still do.

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  36. This is a pretty good representation of what we were required to read in my generation (baby boomer), but, sadly, few of these works are studied today even at the most prestigious prep schools. Or especially at the most prestigious prep schools.

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  37. A late addition: THE LAST CONVERTIBLE by ANTON MYRER

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    1. It's many years since I read this wonderful book and your suggestion has inspired me to read it again. Thank you

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    2. Myrer is a good choice. I would Once an Eagle. Required reading at West Point.

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    3. Yes, ONCE AN EAGLE is a great novel, but it's not specifically about WASPs. Rather, it is a study in character, honor and leadership. Sam Damon is a genuine hero while Courtney Schuyler Massengale is the very antithesis of the word.

      It is also a study in the value of the "up by his bootstraps" self-made man and leader as opposed to a member of society's elite who benefited from connections, the "right schools" and family pedigrees.

      As someone who spent 30 years in uniform, I always preferred the Sam Damons i.e., those who did NOT attend the service academies and instead were products of ROTC or even (God forbid) Officer's Candidate Schools. Many of the best officers I served alongside were former enlisted members who'd advanced themselves educationally and professionally and all too often, were looked down upon by those from the Academies or "name-brand schools."

      Sadly, and even though ONCE AN EAGLE is required reading at West Point, too many graduates of "South Hudson High, the Chesapeake University of Naval Technology and Zoomie U" never seem to be able to effectively implement the lessons learned from the differences between Sam Damon and Courtney Massengale.

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  38. It is not considered a classic but I would add On the Road. I liked Dharma Bums better but On the Road is a lot more famous and is a better introduction to Kerouac.

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  39. We read many of these titles, plus Shakespeare and Chaucer, in my public high school outside of Philadelphia in the early 80s. 10th, 11'th, and 12'th Grade English (academic track) plus an AP course. But I had to wait until college to read Ibsen, Strindberg, and other authors of the Scandinavian Modern Breakthrough and early Modernism. Followed by the sagas and eddas, and a few of those in the original Old Norse. It was in college that I learned to love literature from my main lit. professor (and later mentor), the late Niels Ingwersen, for whom I was a teaching assistant in grad school. What a wonderful teacher and person in general.

    Kind Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich

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  40. Having read in my youth most of the books/short stories listed here, I shudder in horror to think what sort of “literary” syllabus is being pushed in today’s Prep Schools. And I doubt that the Classic Canon is still respected.

    I think the bigger question is - do books have a future in a society where so many other distractions are now available? In an interview, an exasperated Phillip Roth saw time running out on the novel as a popular form of entertainment. Worse, with AI fast approaching, the old axiom about an infinite number of monkeys typing furiously away will eventually reproduce “The Entire Works of William Shakespeare” may occur sooner than we think.

    Yes, long gone are the Dickensian times when one would curl up and read before a fire on a bitter winter evening. (There may be no need for Fahrenheit 451 style book burnings if the gap between those who read, and those who don’t continues to widen.)

    And I’ve always been intimidated as I stroll through the library stacks filled with countless books and knowledge which will always remain apart from me. We simply don’t have sufficient time even if one is a quick reader. (Woody Allen once reported that he took a speed-reading course, and then read “War and Peace” in two minutes. When questioned afterwards, he stated: “It’s about Russia.”) Even the artificially hyper-intelligent Jobe Smith from “The Lawnmover Man” (who could read books in seconds) wouldn’t have enough time.

    Anyway, I hope I’m wrong, and that somehow the reference and honor of the old classic books returns to people who can still see their value.



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  41. A most outstanding list!

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  42. Although this book is not a novel and has not been available for a lengthy time and will probably never be considered a classic, it is an interesting historical and sociological look at 15 famous WASP families once considered to be America's elite.

    https://www.amazon.com/Flight-WASP-Future-Americas-Original/dp/0802161863

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  43. Completely agree, although there are "musts" from north of the border that were missed. Cremation of Sam McGee is second to "The Shooting of Dan McGrew". As I pull out my well worn copy of "Songs of a Sourdough".

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