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Back To Literature, Past
A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Stretching Our Taste In Books or Filling in the Gaps

Some of us were English majors. Some not. Some of us thrived on Shakespeare. Some said phooey.

All of us read. I feel assured of that or you wouldn’t be reading a “Back to Literature” column. Regardless of our backgrounds, we’ve all heard that we should read to expand our interests and tastes. Some say it will even make better voters of us.

However, I think if we get stuck in a genre—say only romances—we do ourselves a disservice. Surely we should enjoy what we read, but we won’t get the most we can out of our reading if we stay too narrowly focused—only the books of one author or only nonfiction or only historical fiction. And I firmly believe that we should sprinkle in as many great books as we can. Classics, if you will. And do it often enough to—well become better voters.

I found a list of the greatest books ever written. The choices may be arguable but one cannot argue with intent of those who assembled the list. I like that they include lots of classics and that they do separate fiction from nonfiction for those who have a preference or those who like to balance their reading. I thought it might be fun for you to see how many you’ve read. Gauge your relative success on your age. If you’re a senior you may have read more than if you are fifteen. If you are an English lit major, you may have read more than if you majored in engineering.

Actually, how many you’ve read is not nearly as important as how many you’re going to read. Or your motivation to set a goal. Make a list of those that you’ve always wanted to read and then add a couple you’re sure you’ll hate. That’s to guarantee that you will do some stretching.

How about resolving to reread one you’ve already read and pledging to read three more in the next year.

I hope you'll use my Noble (Not Nobel!) prize list for suggestions, too. It appears every January at And my "Back to Literature" columns are archived right here on this page. Each one has some suggested reading in the box at the bottom of the column.

I recently logged onto Amazon Kindle and picked up lots of classics listed on the reading list I was given when I was in school and—I’m ashamed to admit—never completed. And most of them were free! Now I will never be without something excellent to read.

And I’ve gotten off to a good start in 2014. At least good enough to recommend a couple brand new books written by authors accepted by our industry as “literary authors.” One is Wally Lamb’s We Are Water that I mentioned for technique in the 2nd edition of my The Frugal Editor and the other is Anna Quindlen’s Still Life with Bread Crumbs.

Back to those goals. For most of us--we busy ones--how about a commitment to read just one of the books on that list. C’mon. Just one.

Tips and Tidbits

(Each month in this box, Carolyn lists a Tidbit that will help authors write or promote better. She will also include a Tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books or a sapphire among the newly-published.)

A Tip for Writers:

My multi award-winning The Frugal Editor is now in its second edition—as an e-book (the print edition is coming a bit later.) It’s been reformatted, updated and expanded.

A Tip for Readers' Tip:

I’m rereading some of James Michener’s books and I’m starting with one that wasn’t a favorite in its heyday, The Covenant. Michener has been out of favor—his books are too long, people sometimes say. But I always loved his books way back then. I felt satisfied—as if I had learned something and been entertained—when I turned the last page.

2011 Noble list Please nominate a book that fits within the parameters listed in this year's Noble Back to Literature column. Explain in 25 word or less why your nomination is a work of literary merit and sent directly to me. Nominations must be signed with your real name, e-mail address and a URL if you have one. Email


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