When I was a teenager, I had a summer job at a small library in the Jewish community center in St. Louis. The librarian, Sabina Silbergeld, knew that I wanted to be a writer someday. So she drew up a list of what she considered great writing to inspire me.
Mrs. Silbergeld had grown up in Poland and moved to America before World War II. She had an Old World elegance about her, as well as a warmth and intelligence that were especially endearing.
Her list, I knew, was far more than a reader’s guide to get me through the summer.
Most of the authors were long dead, and I’d never even heard of many of the books (“Pere Goriot”?). But I tucked the one-page sheet away for future reference, buoyed by her confidence in my literary future.
The list, as you may have guessed, disappeared long ago. Many times over the years, I tried to reconstruct it from memory, with little success.
I often fantasized about finding it again, especially this year, when retirement and the pandemic suddenly left me with a surplus of free time on my hands.
Then, this summer — while decluttering the basement — I came across a stack of old letters. And there, incredibly, was Mrs. Silbergeld’s list.
In all, 40 novels or collections of short stories, poems and letters by nearly two dozen authors. “Don Quixote.” “The Castle.” “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” “Innocents Abroad.” “Madame Bovary.” “Siddhartha.” “Crime and Punishment.” “Swann’s Way.”
Plus a few bonus extras: After Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed,” she wrote helpfully: “read Camus’ ‘Rebel’ for comparison on rebellion.”
It was, to say the least, heavy lifting for a 16-year-old.
In today’s world, the list is kind of startling — no women, and only one author of color (Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali poet who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913).
But because the list is 50 years old, the omissions didn’t really surprise me.
What did surprise me was how little progress I had made in the intervening years.
It’s not as if all of the books were hopelessly obscure. I’m pretty sure I was assigned to read some of them in college: classics by Faulkner, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Hemingway. I remember starting several (“Sons and Lovers”), but finishing few (“The Sun Also Rises”!).
This, despite a degree in English literature.
I decided the time had come to take the list to heart.
I picked “Pere Goriot” for my first foray, after reading an enticing Wikipedia entry about its author, Honore de Balzac.
But a few pages into his “masterpiece,” I lost interest, mired in the wordy and archaic language.
I waited a week and tried again. How could someone make Paris in the early 1800s sound so boring? Or was my own short attention span to blame?
I switched to “The Brothers Karamazov,” and made it through a few chapters before my library e-book expired.
I have to admit I was distracted by a 2020 bestseller: “Rodham,” an intoxicating novel (by a female author, Curtis Sittenfeld) about an alternative universe where Hillary never becomes a Clinton, and changes history.
But I’m not giving up on Mrs. Silbergeld’s list. It just might take me a little longer. We’ll see how far I get by the end of the pandemic.
Maura Lerner Fisher is a former reporter at the Star Tribune.