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So, you want to become a journalist or a historian? Are you a reader?

‘Ulysses’ tops the list of Modern Library’s  top 100 works of fiction in the 20th century. What’s number 100? See answer below, as well as the top 10 and bottom 10 of the top 100. Also of interest: Recent books demonstrate York County has much history to explore, and researchers are digging into it.

When I talk to groups of young aspiring journalists, I tell them there’s a way to test their call for our profession.

Do you like to read?

If you do not like to read, I say, you might have trouble writing.

I tell them reading somehow imputes words as well as the love of those words into their DNA.

When it comes time to writing for an audience — the definition of a journalist and most historians, for that matter — the words more easily and fluently pour out through the fingertips if you’ve taken them in through the eyes. Further, reading embeds the broad-ranging things journalists must know into their bones.

My question about a love of reading was met with enthusiasm by students in two recent groups.

Those were teens at the York Daily Record/Sunday News annual high school workshop  and Karen Chronister’s eighth-grade English class at Logos Academy in York.

When asked, many enthusiastically shared the books they were reading or had just finished.

So, there’s great hope for the next generation of journalists.
I brought my own reading stack to demonstrate to the high-schoolers attending our workshop what at least one journalist reads: Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” Bill Russell’s “Red and Me,” Eric Miller’s “Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch” and John Bunyan’s “Prayer” were among the books. E.M. Forster’s “Passage to India” was the audiobook I brought in from my car.

At times in which I am writing or editing history publications – right now, for example – I do not necessarily have a traditional history book in my stack.

Readers have different styles.

Some stick to one book and then go on to the next.

I have several going at once, including an addition to that stream in recent months.

I’m reading through Modern Library’s top 100 fiction books of the 20th century.

Let me say quickly that by reading through, I’m reading some and listening to audiobooks.

I’m in the car at least 40 minutes a day, and those valuable minutes are devoted to audiobooks from the York County Library System.

My mind can retain the material received that way as well as if I’m reading it. For years, too many years, I wasted drive time by listening to the radio.

Now I’m trying to catch up. After a lifetime of reading and several years of listening to books on tape, I’m only about halfway through Modern Library’s list.

I’m enlisting Martin Library’s help in securing audiobooks to cover a good part of the next 50 – this will take some years – via interlibrary loans.

The rest I’ll process the old-fashioned way. I’ll read them.

The point to all this is that everyone needs reading goals, which is what I tell students. To appropriate a saying here, if you don’t have a reading goal, you won’t make it.

The Top 100 goal is daunting, but most challenging is the complexity of some of the books on the list.

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” tops Modern Library’s list. It also tops the list of most likely to be started and set aside. But I got the two-volume audiobook from Martin Library and stuck with it for 22 hours.

Digesting “Ulysses” is like listening to Italian opera without the notes. You know you’re hearing a wonderful work, yet it’s hard to decipher what’s going on. But it’s still beautiful.

Choosing challenging books is rewarding if you stick with them.

The more I listened to “Passage to India” – No.25 on the Modern Library list – the more the writing came alive. And I learned that India of 100 years ago was much more complex and divided than just enduring a caste system. The Hindus locked horns with followers of Islam. And the English with the Indians. And women of various races with men. And the rich with the poor.

That’s the type of information a journalist will tuck away until it’s needed in writing an editorial or column or penning a nuanced headline.


Someone poked at me in a tweet about a statement I made to students at our high school workshop. I said it’s better to read weak stuff than not reading anything.

At least you get in the reading habit, something that everyone, budding journalist or not, can work at this summer, a great season for reading.

The words of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist/historian David Halberstam come to mind about here.

“Read,” he wrote in the essay “The Narrative Idea.”

“Read good nonfiction books. Read very good newspapers. When you find a reporter whose work you admire, break his or her code.

“Read good detective fiction. I don’t think anybody does narrative structure better than good detective writers.

“Narrative nonfiction is on the rise, and I feel lucky to have spent more than fifty years doing it. I’ve been paid to learn, to ask questions, to think. What could be more enjoyable and more rewarding than that?”

Also of interest:

Check out this summer reading list covering works about York County’s history and culture.

1-10, ML fiction list, 20th-century books

1. ULYSSES by James Joyce
2. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
4. LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov
5. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
6. THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner
7. CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller
8. DARKNESS AT NOON by Arthur Koestler
9. SONS AND LOVERS by D.H. Lawrence
10. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck

90-100, ML list
90. MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie
91. TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell
92. IRONWEED by William Kennedy
93. THE MAGUS by John Fowles
94. WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys
95. UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch
96. SOPHIE’S CHOICE by William Styron
97. THE SHELTERING SKY by Paul Bowles
99. THE GINGER MAN by J.P. Donleavy
100. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS by Booth Tarkington

The bookend to ‘Ulysses’ on Modern Library’s list is Booth Tarkington’s masterpiece.