During My Year in 1918, I’ll be reading books that were available to a reader of a hundred years ago. This includes “recent” books as well as earlier books that a reader of 1918 might have read. So Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice are okay, but not Moby Dick, which was forgotten at the time. I’d appreciate any reading suggestions!
Here are the books I’ve read so far:
2. January 21: The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan (1915). A man goes on the run in the English countryside after uncovering a fiendish plot. Unlike in the Hitchcock film, he doesn’t get handcuffed to a beautiful woman.
3. January 31: A Preface to Politics, by Walter Lippmann (audiobook) (1912). 23-year-old Lippmann expounds sensibly about what’s wrong with politics: basically, that our system is organized around a notion of how people should be, rather than how they really are. I wrote about it here.
4. February 2: Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton (1903). A novella about a woman who places truthfulness above everything, and the impact this has over two generations.
7. March 9: Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1917). The hilarious misadventures of a seventeen-year-old girl from a wealthy family.
8. March 10: Fighting France, by Edith Wharton (audiobook) (1915). Wharton, who lived in France, toured the front lines in 1915 and reported on the ruined towns, gallant soldiers, and resilient villagers she encountered. A vivid account of France in wartime.
9. March 26: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913). The beautiful, gripping story of the triumphs and tragedies of a Swedish family in Nebraska. One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
10. April 9: Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes (1918). A British sex manual written for the tragically ignorant newlyweds (especially women) of the time.
11. April 13: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman (audiobook) (1910). America’s most famous anarchist writes sensibly about women’s emancipation, prison reform, and social justice and kind of scarily about political violence.
12. April 16: Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far (1912). A fascinating collection of stories, written by a writer (real name Edith Maude Eaton) of mixed Chinese-English ancestry, about how Chinese immigrants in Seattle and San Francisco adapt–or, just as often, fail to adapt–to their new country.
13. April 26: Songs for a Little House by Christopher Morley (1917). Light verse about Morley’s house, his wife, who by his account never thinks about anything except her baby and when he’s coming home from work, and his neighborhood in bucolic Queens, New York (there are milkmaids).
14. May 15: The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906). This is the (non-magical) story of three children from a prosperous London suburb who move to the country when their father mysteriously disappears. (He’s obviously in jail, although this never dawns on the otherwise bright children.) They become obsessed with the nearby railway station, and various adventures ensue. But something bothered me about the book, and I finally realized what it was. For the most part, the children have no agency; they just dump their problems on a random old guy who commutes on the train, and he solves them. This violates Rule #1 of children’s books: adults are useless; children solve their own problems.
15. May 18: Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (audiobook) (1908). Chesterton engages in facile wordplay and takes aim against all manner of straw men in defending his Christian faith. Example: “Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.” Now I understand why T.S. Eliot and the modernists were always dumping on him.
16. June 7: An American in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant by Marcus Eli Ravage (1917). In this witty and engaging book, one of my favorites of the year, Ravage describes coming to the United States from Romania alone at age sixteen, working in a Lower East Side textile factory, becoming a socialist, and struggling to fit in among his gung-ho classmates at the University of Missouri.
17. July 5: Buttered Side Down by Edna Ferber (1912). Ferber is known today mostly for the shows and movies made from her books (Show Boat and Giant and Cimarron), but, judging from these wonderful stories, written in her early to mid twenties, she should be more widely read. She writes of the dreams, disappointments, and, very occasionally, triumphs of department store saleswomen and accountants and stenographers. No book has given me a more visceral sense of what early twentieth-century life was really like–pot roasts and corset patterns and strawberry socials and small-town Main Streets on summer evenings. She breaks the fourth wall to tell of her own life as a writer, opening one story by saying that she wrote it for a saleswoman in her town who asked for a really homely heroine, not one like Jane Eyre who, Ferber says, is “constantly described as plain and mouse-like, but there are covert hints as to her gray eyes and slender figure and clear skin, and we have a sneaking notion that she wasn’t such a fright after all.”
[Note: Finding decent-quality editions of 1918 books, especially the more obscure ones, can be tricky. If the edition I read is reasonably readable, I’ve included a hyperlink. Hyperlinks for audiobooks are also included.]