Mental Floss: The 25 Most Powerful Books of the Past 25 Years

mental floss magazine cover
March-April 2009 mental_floss Cover

We started subscribing to Mental Floss in my high school library a couple years ago.  My sister-in-law brought a copy with her from the States when they came to visit us in The Netherlands and left it in the bathroom.  Perfect place for it.  However, I thought the short, snappy articles would work great in a library as well.  It was clearly the right kind of nerdtastic read for my students who have already memorized the Guinness Book of World Records, chuckled appreciatively over the Darwin Awards series and read out-loud to their friends the convictions and incriminating evidence supplied by the Smoking Guns’ The Dog Dialed 911.  The fact that I now know that John Green, author of Looking for Alaska and new author-friend, also writes for Mental Floss just confirms its relative genius.

The March-April 2009 issue stars 25 books that they think shook the cultural bedrock over the past 25 years.  My mission:  To read the article and see how many of these milestones I’ve read (in bold) or want to read.  Here goes:

1.  And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (1987) – Thinking about this title, I began to rifle through my mind’s late 1980s card catalog of “Books Read When”, asking myself where was I and what was I reading.  In 1987 I was a junior in college in Oxford, Ohio, and AIDS wasn’t going to hit my personal radar until a couple years later, December 1989, when the AIDS Memorial Quilt came to Miami University and I volunteered to help with the event along with my boyfriend at the time (now my husband).  So while I didn’t read Shilts’ book, I was involved in the activism that was part of his writing.  I had almost forgotten about the specifics of this time in my life.  I have let my friend Andy, who was my first openly gay friend, slip away and he was one of the reasons why I wanted to volunteer.  I couldn’t quite remember when the quilt visited Oxford, luckily my librarian’s heightened googlogical skills found the reference in Miami University’s Digital Archive, the Miami Student Newspaper Collection.  Blogging and Facebook are spiralling me back and forth and back again in my personal history, bringing me people and places I thought were lost to me.  But I digress.

2. Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991) – I am a huge fan, both personally and professionally, of graphic novels.  Maus, which won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992, is the one I pull out when I want to have some award-winner clout behind me while I argue for the importance of the comic format, for example when I’m talking to skeptical English Department Heads or scowling parents who think comics are all Snoopy or superhero-filled and a waste of time.  I bring it to the table for a variety of reading projects at school:  Memoir genre study for 8th Grade E-Stories classes where they write their own graphic novels, the English 9 Memoir project where students select a Memoir as an independent read, and as part of a recent Facing History assignment “Personal Account: Memoir Study and Reflection” for their study of the Holocaust.  My first exposure to serious comic reading:  my boyfriend’s (now husband) comprehensive, plastic-sleeved collection of Excalibur comics.  My first success in helping to bring a graphic novel to a syllabus:  Persepolis for English 9 here in The Netherlands.

3.  Listening to Prozac by Peter D. Kramer (1993) – Never read it, just living with the cultural consequences as we all are.  Here a pill, there a pill, everywhere a pill-pill. Suddenly I realize that this list is already pretty idiosyncratic in scope.

4.  Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin (1995) –  This woman is one of my unsung heroes, unsung in that I admire her work so intensely, yet I haven’t promoted her books as much as I should and will.  I began reading her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior but found it so moving I had to put it down for a while.  With all the recent media coverage of the horrors of factory farming, in part thanks to Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the way meat is manufactured around the world and particularly in the States, reading about her work developing humane meat processing facilities that reduce animal suffering fills me with gratitude.

5.  Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich (2001) – I read this book not so long after my husband and I returned from living abroad in Vienna, Austria, and each of us worked retail jobs while we mourned our lost European lives.  It was tough to pay rent even with two hourly incomes and we immediately started racking up credit card debt, even taking out a loan for a tiny Ford Escort hatchback at a dealership that tried to sell us rust-proofing and a fancy cellphone service while the car paperwork was typed up.  As they trooped us around the sales floor, I wanted to shout them down into their pleather chairs, “We’re buying a crappy little Escort with a 100% loan…how much money do you think we have?”  Aaron worked at Lazarus, a large department store where he sold men’s clothes and I went to Borders Books and Music where I spent more money than I earned on books and music.  I appreciated Ehrenreich’s experiment, and I particularly shuddered when she described how the Merry Maids operate with one bucket of filthy water to clean an entire house in something like an hour, but she bailed herself out of the working-poor mess too many times for me to completely buy into her process.  According to Mental Floss, the Living Wage Campaign used the book to lobby Congress to increase the minimum wage, but the $7.25 that will go into effect in the summer of 2009 still isn’t enough.

6. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer (1997) – Really? One of the 25 Most Powerful Books of the past 25 years?  Really?  Man climbs mountain, does not die on descent. Thrilling, yes, but I’m failing to see the massive cultural implications of his climb and the Mental Floss editors don’t convince me.

7. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988) – Free speech advocates around the world rallied to this novel, including Stephen King who, according to the article’s author Rosemary Ahern, “threatened to withdraw his books and promised that other best-selling author would do the same” if the big chain bookstores pulled the Verses from their shelves.  That’s almost, but not quite enough, to make me consider reading it now.  btw Stephen King appears later on the list which is pretty righteous.

8.  Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) – The premise of an intersexed protagonist who remains true to himself is still as intriguing to me today as it was when it first came out.  Must read.

9.  The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (1988) – Unread by me, beloved by my high school students at the international school where I work in The Netherlands. The article has a photo of him covered in translations of his book, and it is worth considering reading, not only because it is a quest story about finding your greatest treasure within yourself, but also because he was one of the first people to offer his work online in translation for free in order to spark interest in his writing and to sell more print editions of his books (Ahern 44).

10.  The Easy Way to Stop Smoking by Allen Carr (1985) – Non-smoker, so non-reader of this one.  But I enjoyed reading the justification for including it on this list.  Odd, odd list.

11.  A Perfect Spy by John le Carré (1986) – This selection is clearly stretching the “most powerful” rubric to its limit.  Clever and fascinating as it must be, I have to think there is a gleeful Mental Floss editor cum le Carré fanboy somewhere in a basement office or “bunker” shaking their skinny white fists shouting “Justice is served!”

12.  What is the What by Dave Eggers (2006) – I worked at a middle school in Upstate New York in 2005 that hosted a group of Lost Boys for a couple of days, and I was stunned by their gripping stories and their patience working with our eighth graders.  There was a passionately committed English teacher there, Gertrude, who made those types of exeperiences happen for her students and I so admire her for her work.  They were beautiful young men, many who had lost their families or who feared that they had lost their families.  I don’t know which is worse.  The serendipity of the founder of the Lost Boys Foundation reading Eggers’ work, asking him to get involved and the “beautiful friendship” that happened between him and Valentino Achak Deng is moving just reading the blurb in the article.  My heart sings when I read at the bottom that Eggers has received no money for the book, that it all is going to Deng’s education fund and to rebuild his village, including a school and a public library (Ahern 46).

13. On Writing by Stephen King (2000) – Fantastic read.  Powerful for writers and readers and folks who think they’ve hit rock bottom but survive.  The excerpt of his first drink on a school trip was used in our grade 9 English classes for their memoir unit.  Jump in anywhere and you are immediately pulled into King’s world where reading and books, any books and any reading, are valued and celebrated.  His descriptions of what it takes to write and be a writer are clear and encouraging, the main point being have a room with a door and be willing to close it (King, On Writing, 155).

14.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1994) – It’s only within the past couple of weeks that I’ve started to pay attention to Murakami’s writing, and that’s because I have a Dutch student named Dirk who asked me to order all his books.  Any adult author that inspires that kind of intense interest in a teenage male makes me curious enough to invest the time to see what all the fuss is about.  Then again, this novel, billed by Mental Floss as a “Chandleresque detective story” set in Manchuria during WWII, sounds intriguing enough on its own (Ahern 47).

15.  The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003) – A novel about freed slaves turning around and owning slaves themselves sounds painful and necessary to read.

16. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling (1998) – The world will never be the same now that we’ve entered Harry Potter’s world and children will, hopefully, never be underestimated as critical, enthusiastic readers.  When the Jetson’s showcased the unbelievable future where people would talk on video phones ala Skype, can it be too very far off in the future that we have actual Quidditch matches being played in the air?

17.  How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Bottom (1997) – The Dutch love Alain de Bottom.  You can find his books everywhere in The Netherlands, both in Dutch and in English.  Status Anxiety and The Architecture of Happiness are on my shelves at home mostly due to book status anxiety, wanting to see what all the fuss is about.  Snippet essays are his style, and I find that I can dip into them for words of wisdom and clever observations and general brainiac musings, but to read an entire book in one go would make you as miserable as, well, as Proust.

18.  The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (1987) – Ugh, this book is massive and off-putting no matter how revered by Mental Floss.  Bright Lights, Big City for the pompous.  Ahern writes, “Bonfire is the quintessential novel of the 1980s culture of greed (49)”, what fun to devote hours more of my life to that era!  I sense the list is losing steam, although I sensed it earlier with the dubious The Easy Way to Stop Smoking entry.

19.  Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996) – Speaking of massive and off-putting, at 1,079 pages full of “Americans hell-bent on amusing themselves to death”, I tried this one and could not figure out the hype or the praise.  I just wanted my life back, so most likely I grabbed a Barbara Michaels trashy gothic-thriller from the remainder stacks at Borders where I was working for $6.50 an hour and tucked in.

20.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) – Sexy, disturbing and mesmerizing.  All I can see when I think of it is Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day Lewis in the movie along with Lena Olin’s bowler hat burlesque, but I still remember the novel’s original power, the cold inevitability of the Soviet invasion in 1968 and the resulting Communist repression, the futility of trusting anyone.  Reading it again now after the fall of the Berlin Wall would be pretty interesting.

21.  Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987) – I remember where I was while I read this, at Cornell University working as a Residence Hall Director, reading it for African American History Month to prepare for a discussion with other staff members. I couldn’t put it down.  The book is haunting and haunted, a memorial to slavery and the unbearable choices human beings had to make, or thought they had to make, in order to survive.  A novel about regret and revenge and, ultimately, redemption.  A mother kills her child to save her from slavery.  A  daughter then haunts her mother, for punishment or love it is impossible to say for sure.  I finished it and as I sat on the couch with tears slipping down my face I thought to myself, I want to remember reading this right here, right now.

22. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) – Books I will never forget include The Lord of the Flies and The Handmaid’s Tale.  Both left scars from reading them, and I think of them in similar ways although they are stories from two ends of a spectrum, the one where civilization disappears and the other where civilization fails.  The Handmaid’s Tale is the portrait of world where humans are clutching at straws to bring themselves back from the brink of destruction, a dystopian warning of the peril we face as a species if we don’t watch the chemicals and drugs that we are ingesting and letting loose on the earth.  In her grim vision, women bear the brunt of ecological disaster by being forced into sexual slavery based on their ability to conceive.  This future, like the Jetson’s video phone, doesn’t seem that unimaginable anymore.  I can still see the images from the religious compounds in the backwaters of the United States where young women and girls dressed in old-fashioned outfits are married off three or four or more at a time to old men spouting hellfire and brimstone.  If you need reminding, Mental Floss has a photo in the article for reference.  The future is getting closer all the time.

23.  Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005) – Fascinating, often hilarious stories where the authors “use financial theories to show why people behave badly” (51).  I can’t think of another economics book that I’ve read for fun.

24.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss ( 2003) – One of my linguist husband’s favorite books.  I actually bought him the illustrated, special edition for his very own.  There’s a picture book version out now, I think I’ll start with that one and move up from there.

25.  The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000) – Another one of my husband’s reads.  Does it count if he reads it in bed and I glance over from time to time?  Or that he reads it out loud to me whether I want to hear it or not?  Now that the “tipping point” is such a cultural catch-phrase, I wonder if it’s a respectable life goal to become one of his so-called information “mavens”, sharing information and helping people solve their problems…hang on, that’s what good librarians do!  Hurrah! Mavens rule!

The percentage of books I’ve read from this list is 8/25 or 32%, which does not include books that I have received into my memory either through impromptu, often unwanted late night readings or direct psychic connections with my husband.  That I’ve read a third of the titles by myself from a list that, let’s face it, was created from the same pool of brains that publishes such meaty tidbits as “Lamb Spared the Axe Because of Ridiculous Proportions” definitely gives me pause.

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