Some months ago, Facebook was all atwitter with outraged book lovers. A list of some of the finest works of literature had been posted, along with the following glove slap reportedly handed down from an esteemed British newspaper: “Apparently, The Guardian reckons most people will have only read six of the 100 books here.”
Readers were instructed to annotate the list, marking the ones they’d read, the ones they loved and the ones they planned on reading. Miffed readers took up the challenge, damned if they were going to be written off as illiterate rubes. Few noticed the incongruity of the Harry Potter series sharing space with One Hundred Years of Solitude, or that the list asked if they had read the “Complete Works of Shakespeare” and, separately, Hamlet. But the slapdash quality of the provocation didn’t stop thousands of people from taking the bait.
It has since been established that The Guardian had nothing to do with the list, although it bore some similarities to “The Big Read,” a tally of Britain’s “best-loved novels” the BBC published in April 2003 based on submissions from its viewers. (That list, it should be noted, did not goad readers with intimations of cultural inadequacy.)
Who compiled the Facebook list? That remains a mystery. Whoever it was, I wish they’d taken the fighting words of the introduction to their logical conclusion. That’s what I’ve done with my own version, excerpted below.
1. Look at the list and put a ✓ after those you have read.
2. Add a ❤ to the ones you LOVE.
3. Star * those you plan on reading.
4. Describe how you’d take down this master of language, specifying the setting of the donnybrook and the techniques employed. Was your hand forced? Did you/he/she fight with honor?
5. Add a † if weapons are involved.
1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen *
Fight over fairly quickly, I imagine. As a product of her time, Austen would be a woman of slight build and limited strength. She would no doubt seek revenge, either by savaging my character in high society or poisoning my tea with laudanum.
2. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
I knock on Tolkien’s front door. It opens and there he stands, meerschaum pipe clenched between his teeth, crinkly eyes giving him the appearance of a wise, wizened wizard.
“Do I know you? You are aware you’re trespassing, yes?” He looks toward the entrance. “Has the gatekeeper been drinking again? Oh, bloody hell!”
A sucker-punch to the gut inspires his last interjection. The meerschaum flies from his lips, shattering on the garden path. The writer/philologist who crafted a world inhabited by vast, powerful armies of mythological beasties turns out to be a soft-bellied panda of a man. There’s no game here.
“Oh, I say,” he says, dropped to one knee, gurgling and slurring on saliva. He rubs his tummy. “You bally well gave me a solid blow there, lad. Be a good man and help me . . . ulp!”
Reverting to Greco-Roman wrestling technique, I place Tolkien in the referee’s position.
“This . . . this . . . is highly unorthodox! What is the meaning of this? You ruddy blighter! I—”
Rapidly, I flip the author of The Silmarillion onto his back with a meaty thump in the center of his foyer. He refuses to tap out.
“Outrageous! Outrageous!” Tolkien blubbers as I stand up and rest my foot on his chest. He thrashes around, attempting to throw me off or wriggle away, but like an inverted turtle, he can only flop about helplessly. I beat my chest and howl a victorious war cry.
3. Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
Security too tight.
4. Collected Works, Edgar Allan Poe ✓ ❤ †
I find Poe approaching his favorite Baltimore pub, head lowered as he ponders his miserable life, his deceased wife, Virginia, and which sailor he should turn into chow in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Ravaged by drink and utterly depressed, Poe puts up no fight as I wrest the bottle of amontillado from his grip and smash it over his head. I seize and yank his mustache from side to side, disorienting him further. An arm bar follows, whereupon I force my knee to the back of his shoulder and take him down hard. Divine Edgar crashes down to the cement. I curb him. The last thing he tastes is amontillado, cobblestone and blood. In comparison with all that came before, it is the happiest day of his life.
5. The Bible, Jehovah
At last, a worthy opponent. The great I AM immediately incinerates me with a tornado of bloody fire. Come on, it’s the Almighty, for Christ’s sake.
6. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë * †
It is a little-known fact, borne out by Internet research, that Ms. Brontë left for the Far East during a mysterious “missing” year. There she sought out ascended masters who instructed her in the ability to fight and cloud men’s minds so they cannot see her. Her skill with the nunchaku is, of course, legendary. A short fight for her; eternal shame for me to be felled by a mere slip of a woman.
Like her sisters, Ms. Brontë died young. Unlike her sisters, she died not of tuberculosis but rather from a “death touch” applied to her by a rival dojo master.
8. Nighteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell ✓ ❤ †
A stint in the Indian Imperial Police likely provided Orwell with training in hand-to-hand combat and firearms. The Spanish Civil War granted him an affinity for bayonets and bombs. Quite tall with a long reach. Sickly, but used to pain, privation, and suffering after being nettled and tempered during the long winter of 1946. Also, was shot in the throat once, granting him Tupac-level street credo. Far from being a pacifist, Orwell would be a hungry fighter; an implacable foe of imperialism and fascism, he would no doubt refuse to be subjugated.
Upon reflection, it is best not to fuck with George Orwell.
9. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka ✓ ❤ †
Kafka attempts to escape through a winding series of stairs and hallways that veer off at oblique and acute angles. His vegetarian diet leaves him lighter and more fleet of foot, but eventually he finds himself trapped in a windowless, doorless room. Seemingly resigned to his fate, Kafka slouches and doesn’t turn around. I try to deliver a jump side kick to the small of his back.
But all is farce! Kafka falls to the floor and snaps back both legs, issuing a seated twin side kick, planting his soles into my floating ribs. I seethe as the pain radiates through my chest, but work through it. Kafka flips into a standing posture and drops back into a fighting stance. Momentarily, he is magnificent, but then he sizes me up, and something dies behind his eyes. He throws a punch a blind man could dodge. I make no allowances for mistakes and, nabbing his wrist, do a reverse wrist side flying throw. Kafka has the wind knocked out of him. I quickly land on his chest. Ground and pound, ground and pound—turn the progenitor of the postmodern novel into my own personal bobblehead.
13. Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges ✓
Borges will mislead me with his blindness. As is well-known in all pulp literature, in the blind the other senses become more acute. Late in life, Borges developed the ability of the Shaolin monks to detect slight movements in the air streams about him. In some ways he could see more than the sighted people around him.
Wearing soft-soled kung-fu slippers, I approach the old man as he dictates “The Garden of Forking Paths” or perhaps “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote” to his mother. The accursed floor tiles of the Biblioteca Nacional shift slightly and betray my approach. At once, Borges heaves himself upwards, somersaults through the air, lands before me, and delivers his famed one-inch punch to my chest. I collapse, gasping for breath as he moves in for the coup de grace. With a sharp twist of my head, he crumbles my neck bones like a sleeve of Saltines.
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare *
Grab prissy collar, pull face down quickly into raised knee. Bard of Avon kisses floor, spit-spot.
17. Prufrock and Other Observations, T.S. Eliot ✓ †
Sitting in his study, Eliot is hard at work on the “Macavity: the Mystery Cat” segment of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. He momentarily looks up, certain he heard one of the hounds barking outside.
What is that noise? The wind under the door?
“England has made you weak, old man,” I harshly whisper.Too late. I drop from the chandelier and put him in a choke hold, my thumb bone forced upwards against his windpipe. With the unreasoning fury of an alleged anti-Semite, the auteur of “The Wasteland” and “The Hollow Men” stumbles about his study, roaring like a bear aflame. My grip doesn’t slacken, even as his fingers twist into fishhooks, seeking purchase in an eye, a nostril, or any other unguarded orifice. When this fails he resorts to backing up into the furniture. Books and mementos topple from the shelves; an exquisite, irreplaceable crystal brandy decanter set smashes to the floor, releasing a heady, raisiny perfume. My grip slackens somewhat and T.S. gasps out, “Kill you! Eat your children! I will show you fear!”
An inhuman growl escapes his throat. He thrusts back once more, heaving me against a stack of barrister bookcases. The glass shatters and transparent cat claws rake and stipple my back. I still cling to him, applying increasing, unforgiving pressure to his trachea. He grasps a cube from the wood block calendar on his desk and smashes it into my forehead. The word April is cruelly imprinted in the flesh, the room spins, and I fall to the ground.
T.S. Eliot whirls about, a feral gleam alight in his yellow eyes. He licks his lips and bares his teeth in a mirthless grin. He lunges . . . but I am quick! A stiletto springs from the contrivance beneath my sleeve. I throw it and it sticks square in the center of his chest.
But he lives! Hell’s bells, he lives!
Snarling, Eliot dashes to the window and jumps out. I run over and see him skittering up the side of the house before disappearing over the roof’s edge.
My heart fills with yellow sickness.
27. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky ✓ ❤ †
Dostoevsky is a dirty fighter. Like Raskolnikov, a superior man in a cold and impersonal universe, he is unencumbered by notions of morality or fair play. Also, he has picked up a few things about the Jailhouse Rock fighting style in Siberia. Pretending to shake hands, Dostoevsky suddenly pulls me forward and head butts my nose. Gouts of blood spill forth before the bastard smashes a right cross into my chin, reinforced by a tightly rolled fistful of rubles.
34. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson ✓ †
Spar and feint, forcing Stevenson to defend himself in a battle he knows he cannot win. The sickly wretch quickly runs out of breath due to consumption, sarcoidosis, or whatever unknown respiratory disease it was that plagued him his entire life. I push the exceedingly frail author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde down easily and kick him in the side until he stops moving. An unsatisfying win.
45. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes ✓ ❤ †
Cervantes: trained soldier, good with blades, walked away from two bullets to the chest and one to the arm in the Battle of Lepanto—unfortunately, this led to the permanent maiming of his left hand. Did a little time in stir. Master of Spanish language and possible badass in a ruffed collar and Van Dyck. I must be cautious.
Lulling him into complacency, I buy him glass after glass of sherry at a tavern in Madrid. We shoot the shit about the Knight of the Woeful Countenance. He holds forth, with barely restrained disgust, about Pierre Menard’s plagiarism (so he says). We later walk arm in unmaimed arm, singing Spanish folk songs, until I lead him down an alley to “see a guy about something.”
Cervantes looks about and sees only a bolted door in the brick wall at the alley’s end. “I see no one, señor,” he slurs. Then he turns around. “Who sent you?” he asks.
I say nothing, letting the manriki gusari—a length of chain with heavy weights on either end—slide from my hands. I begin its slow, rotating swing, the iron hammers increasingly widening their gyres. Cervantes smirks and slowly applauds me for getting the drop on him, but I am not fooled. A butterfly knife suddenly flicks out of his palm, shining in the single street lamp illuminating the alley and clicking like an angry cricket. It begins to rain, and the alley appears painted in blood. Not yet it isn’t.
manriki gusari cuts through the night like a dull grey meteorite, dashing the blade from his hand. Before prison I’d have been no match for Cervantes, but the years of captivity have left me a crucial opening of a scant few seconds. As the blade flies away I swear I see a glimmer of respect and a bit of a smile in the old man’s eyes. “Today is a good day to die,” says he. I smile, but the swelling respect I feel for him does not stay my hand. The manriki gusari does its dirty work, and one man, not Cervantes, leaves the alley under his own power.
75. Ulysses, James Joyce ✓ ❤ †
Strolling the streets of Zurich on a beautiful day, homburg hat set at a rakish angle, tapping along with his walking stick, Joyce is astonished as I walk up and, without warning, snap a right jab into his good eye. He leans forward in pain, and I cup my hands and slap both ears. Howling now, Joyce becomes a man possessed, swinging wildly with his cane. I bob and weave then deliver a quick snap-kick to his groin. He buckles, and I follow it with a backhanded tolchock to the chin and a leg sweep, sending him crashing to the pavement. Unlike reading Finnegans Wake, it is over quickly. I take Joyce’s homburg as a trophy, jauntily wearing it as I walk off, his groans receding in the distance.
81. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens ✓ ❤ †
Notoriously fast walker, Dickens easily evades me. He reaches a trellis, and monkey-climbs up it to lie in wait behind a gargoyle. As I pass he staves in my skull with a copy of Nicholas Nickleby, delivered in 20 monthly installments between April 1838 and October 1839.
91. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad ✓ ❤ †
Conrad finds the darkness before him as I rappel down into his study in midnight-black ninja garb. Bonk on head with a bo staff. Vanish into the night. Conrad may have mastered the English in his 30s, but his grasp of the art of ninjutsu was sorely lacking.
95. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole ✓
Quick knife-hand strike to the neck and Toole falls forward. Elbow dropped on back of neck, collapsing him into a useless pile of meat and bone. One must fight the suicidally depressed without joy.
100. O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
Only a fool would take on the author of My Ántonia. What was left of the last man who did . . . well, it couldn’t properly be called a “man” anymore.