YESTERDAY when I read the list of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books written in English during the 20th century, I felt dumb.
As I scanned the titles of books, selected by the panel of the Modern Library, a division of Random House, I didn't see a lot of old friends. Instead I saw a lot of weighty works that I had promised myself I was going to read some day but had never quite gotten around to.
Vowing to do better, to read bigger books and to think bigger thoughts, I examined my usual weekend reading patterns.
The No. 1 nonfiction work on my weekend reading list was not the one picked by the panel of judges. They picked "The Education of Henry Adams" an autobiography about a notable American family. The work that I am devoted to every weekend is the "ADC Greater Baltimore Street Map Book." I regularly find myself poring over its pages, looking for some school, ball field, swimming pool or shopping center where I am supposed to drop off or pick up one of my kids. This book is compelling reading, usually because I am in a heightened state of awareness and am relying on the book to save my skin, to keep me from being late.
Some day I will pick up "The Education of Henry Adams," but probably not while I am in the phase of life known as the continuing education of a lost dad.
Another book I regularly find myself reading is "Basic Home Repairs" by the editors of Sunset magazine. I would rank it No. 2 on my nonfiction list. It has some similarities, I suppose, with the No. 2 book on the judges' list, "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James.
The Sunset book looks at the variety of experiences in a homeowner's life -- plumbing problems, wiring problems, problems with walls and ceilings and leaky roofs.
There are differences between the two works. While the James book is aimed at discerning readers, this home-repair book is aimed at the not- too-talented crowd. That is why I bought it back in the 1970s for a mere $2.45. When I picked it up recently and looked at its simple message reminding me that when I replaced the air filter for the central air conditioning system I should make sure the arrows indicating airflow were pointed toward the blower, not away from it, I felt reassured. This book wasn't trying to stimulate me. It was trying to keep me from doing something stupid. That is what I need on most weekends.
There was a glimmer of recognition when I spotted the panel's fifth most important nonfiction book, "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. I had read that book, a compelling warning against the dangers that DDT posed to the environment. But I read it a long time ago. I wouldn't want to be quizzed on its contents today.
The latest thing I read about "spring" was the "spring home inspection" chapter in John Warde's book, "The New York Times Season-By-Season Guide to Home Maintenance." Following the instructions of the author, I spent part of last weekend examining the exterior of my house. I checked the gutters and downspouts, making sure they weren't clogged. I climbed up on the roof -- a harrowing task which for me is beginning to feel like one of James' religious experiences -- and I looked for cracks that needed patching.
Finding none, I happily returned to the backyard. There I noticed two ant hills, signs of new residents. The panel of book judges thinks ants are fascinating. They picked "The Ants," by Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson as one of the most important 100 works of nonfiction in the 20th century. Back in my college days, I might have been able to agree with them. That was when I tried to replicate some of Wilson's experiments in how ants communicate. My experiments didn't succeed, but the experience gave me some appreciation of ant life.
I have lost that sense of appreciation now. As a homeowner, my first instinct is to try to stomp out the ants, not to read more about them.
I realize that all stomping and no reading will make me a dull guy. So after looking over my weekend reading habits, I have vowed to change my way. From now on I am going to stack important books on my bedside table and read them at night, before I nod off. Maybe I will start with "This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolff. It was No. 88 on the panel's Top 100 and one of the few in the Top 100 that I have already read and would like to read again.
Then maybe I will work up to "Ideas and Opinions" by Albert Einstein. Reading it could open up gates of knowledge for me. Speaking of gates, I noticed the one in the back yard is sagging. So first, I will probably read how to retrofit a sagging gate with a diagonal brace. I found this instructive account in Charlie Wing's work called "The Big Book of Small Household Repairs." I figure both Einstein and the sagging-gate author deal with the force of gravity.
They simply have different ways of expressing what is important in life.
Pub Date: 5/01/99