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A Novel Idea.

by Dear Jon
September 16, 2003

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Sort 234_Dear Jon-A Novel Idea ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,

School just started two weeks ago and I've got a ton of homework and a part-time job. How do I handle the stress?

-Freaking Out in PA

Dear PA,

Take one day off, every week, from studies and work. If you do not have that on your schedule right now, fix it. Yes, you can. If you cannot, it is because you are overcommitted. Yes, you are. I know because I have been there and I have done that. When I did not schedule the day off every week, I came down with mononucleosis. I learned the hard way, in other words.

On your day off, do not do homework. Do other stuff. Go to a movie. Dispense advice for free at an online magazine. Read.


Dear Jon,

If I can only read one more book of fiction before I die, which book should it be and why?


Dear Worm,

According to your goal, you should be hoping that the book will not be written for a long time yet.

Otherwise, I can’t really answer your question because I do not know what you have read already. I am finally reading War and Peace by Tolstoy. Some considered it the greatest or most important novel ever written, but a lot of important novels have been written since that are also very important, including others in the nineteenth century: David Copperfield, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables. In the past 130 years the craft of fiction has moved beyond the all-knowing, interrupting narrator that characterizes these. Personally, I am put off by Dickens and Tolstoy. I find Dostoevsky and Hugo more likable in their narrational omnipresence.

Then there is Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Michener, Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike. The best fiction today comes from Don Delillo, Richard Russo, Garrison Keillor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, and, um, women authors too. Lots of important women authors today, yes indeed: they just happen to be slipping my mind at the moment and I don’t have time to click to Amazon.com and look them up.

These all fit under “general fiction,” the kind that depicts contemporary life and get reviewed in “The New Yorker” and win awards and whose authors have a love-hate relationship with Oprah Winfrey. Contemporary “general fiction” novels tend to be plot-challenged, meaning that if you want the novel to be ABOUT something INTERESTING that HAPPENS, you are a low-life grub and you should choose from the Grisham section. (John Grisham and Stephen King have their own sections of fiction in many bookstores.)

If you wait long enough, Grisham and King novels always come out in paperback. If you wait long enough on these “general fiction” authors, the $18 price tag gets bumped down to $3.98 at the sale table. Or you can check them out of the library.

Just one novel before you die? Here is a list to choose from. Because I am a Middle Brow snob and not High Brow, plot-deficient novels do not make my list, nor do ones that are stupidly long, but neither do novels by Grisham or King.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The punishment is the guilt felt by the murderer. Excellent story with psychological depth and humor.

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. Short and sad.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Great for all ages.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein. The fantasy/scifi narrator has come a long way from the stilted omnipresence of Tolkein, but every medievalist and scifi author owes Tolkein big time.

Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane. How one soldier’s raw cowardice transforms into veteran grit during a campaign of the U.S. Civil War.

White Noise, by Don DeLillo. Already 15 years old, it is still so very very true and hilarious.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. What can you say to a U.S. army prisoner of war who survived the obliteration of Dresden? Nothing. So it goes.

The Hundred Secret Senses, by Amy Tan. If you have already read her others, this will not be new. But I think this is her best.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Myth and magic realism. If you really want to stretch, tackle Autumn of the Patriarch, which is his best.

Foucault’s Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. Laugh at the secret societies of the Holy Grail. This novel is an hilarious expose.

Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. Poignant for anyone who is losing the battle between selves.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. If you are an American and you have not read this, you absolutely must read it, starting today. This is the one you read if you can only read one more.

Here are some over-rated novels:

Gone With the Wind. The author watched the movie “Birth of a Nation,” thought, “so THAT was the way it REALLY WAS,” and wrote this tribute to antebellum bigotry which makes heroes out of the Klan.

Moby Dick. Avast, hast thou seen a vaster novel written for so narrow an interest? Nay.

East of Eden. I’ve never read a sadder story about stupider people in my life; the problem is, they are so stupid I stop feeling sorry for them.

The Great Gatsby. I’ve read it three times and I saw the movie with Robert Redford. All I can say is, What on earth is this story ABOUT? If your high-brow answer is, “If you have to ask, you’ll never get it,” then I say, this confirms my suspicion that all of you are full of it.

Editor's Note: Dear Jon’s Encyclopedia of Stuff People Need to Know and Nothing Else is now online and growing. Updated every Friday.

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