An algorithm picks Updike’s greatest books

The Greatest Books project compiled a list generated from 128 “best of” book lists from a variety of great sources. An algorithm is used to create a master list based on how many lists a particular book appears on. Some lists count more than others, and on the lists that are actually ranked, the book that is 1st counts a lot more than the book that’s 100th.

Here’s what the algorithm picked for Updike’s “greatest” and their overall rank in the greater literary world, again as measured by the algorithm:

117. Rabbit, Run

147. Rabbit Is Rich

169.  Rabbit Redux

209.  Rabbit at Rest

1145.  Self-Consciousness

1568. The Poorhouse Fair

1627.  The Early Stories

2139.  The Centaur

2559.  The Coup

Interestingly, the book that made him an international celebrity—Couples—didn’t make the list, while a very funny satire that’s often overlooked came in at 2559. What would your John Updike “greatest books” list look like?

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Blogger shares Abigail George artists-on-artists poems

Blogger Mia Savant posted a Ponder Savant entry on “Jackson Pollock and Other Poems by Abigail George” that includes the Pollock poem and also poems dedicated to John Updike and Georgia O’Keeffe.  Here’s the Updike poem:


John Updike

He writes. He writes. He writes. He writes. And it feels
as if he is writing to me. There’s the letting go of sadness,
the letting go of emptiness, of the swamp ape in the land.
Lines written after communion, and as I write this, I am
aware of growing older, men growing colder. And this
afternoon, the dust of it, the milky warmth of it loose like
flowers upon me fastening their hold on me, removes the
oppression that I know from all of life. Youth is no longer
on my side. The bloom of youth. Wasteland has become a
part of my identity. I am a bird. A rejected starling. To age
sometimes feels as if you are moving epic mountains. Valleys
that sing with the force of winds, human beings, the sun.
And he is beautiful. And he is kind. And he is the man facing
loneliness, and the emptiness of the day. And I am the woman
facing loneliness, and the emptiness of the day. But how
can you be lonely if you are surrounded by so many people.
I want to be those people, if only to be in your presence a
little while longer. Death is gorgeous, but life is even more so.
I have become weary of fighting wars. Of the threshold of
waiting. And so, I let go of solitude at the beach. I see my mother’s
face in every horizon. She is my sun. And the man makes
a path where there is no path before. The minority of the day
longs for power. The light reckons it has more sway over
the clouds. And there’s ecstasy in the shark, in his heart with
a head full of winter. Freedom is his mother tongue lost in
translation of the being of the trinity. Tender is the night.
The clock strains itself. Its forward motion. Its song. Its lull
during the figuring of the daylight. He’s my knight but he
doesn’t know it. He makes me forget about my grief, loss, my loss,
the measure of my grief. Driftwood comes to the beach and
lays there like a beached whale. Not stirring, but like some
autumn life, something about life is resurrected again, and the
powerful hands of the sea become my own. Between the grass
and the men, there is an innocent logic. I don’t talk to anyone,
and no one talks to me. It is Tuesday. Late. I think you can
see the despair in my eyes. The kiss of hardship in my hands.
It always comes back to that, doesn’t it somehow. The hands
The hands. The hands. Symbolic of something, or other it seems.
Wednesday morning. It is early. After twelve in the morning,
and I can’t sleep. For the life of me I can’t sleep. Between the
two of us, he’s the teacher. There is a singing sound in his voice.
I don’t know why I can’t read his mind anymore. There’s
confusion in forgetting that becomes a secret. Almost a contract
between two people. And when I think of him, I think of love
and Brazil, love and couples. And there’s a silent call from a
remote kind of land, and ignorance is a cold shroud. Some
things are born helpless in a world of assembled images, and
how quickly some people go mad with grief (like me), dream
of grief (like me), sleep with grief on their heart (like me). Speak
to me before all speech is gone. This image, or perhaps another.
His face is made up of invisible threads. Each more handsome
than the last. And my face becomes, turns into the face of love.

Abigail George is a Pushcart Prize-winning poet, essayist, writer, and novelist . She received four grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, the Centre for the Book in Cape Town and ECPACC in East London. She is the author of 15 books, including two poetry chapbooks forthcoming in 2020: Of Bloom and Smoke (Mwanaka Media and Publishing) and The Anatomy of Melancholy (Praxis Magazine).

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Novelist Ajay Close names Rabbit her favorite character

Novelist and dramatist Ajay Close (Official and Doubtful, A Petrol Scented Spring, The Daughter of Lady Macbeth, What We Did in the Dark) was asked by The Herald (U.K.) to share her favorites, which included:

  • Favorite book read as a child:  The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
  • First book that made an impact:  The Complete Shakespeare
  • Books that made her laugh/cry: Man or Mango? by Lucy Ellmann, The 5 Simple Machines, by Todd McEwen; Janine by Alastair Gray, Underworld, by Don DeLillo
  • Favorite character:  Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom
  • Book you wish you’d written:  The Green Road, by Anne Enright
  • Guilty pleasure: Iris Murdoch and her “20-odd novels”

In naming her favorite character she says, “Twenty years ago it would have been one of Philip Roth’s or Saul Bellow’s mouthy egomaniacs, but as I get older I find myself bored by larger-than-life characters, on and off the page. John Updike’s novels are too priapic to be fashionable these days. His attempts at writing women are, frankly, insulting. Nevertheless, I choose Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, fleshed-out over four novels, Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit Is Rich; Rabbit at Rest.

“A superannuated high-school jock still thinking with his groin, a meathead car salesman who despises his wife Janice (‘the little mutt’) and sees his admittedly repellent son Nelson as a rival threatening his identity as the family alpha. Updike smuggles us inside Rabbit’s skin, gives us every venal impulse and selfish thought, the politics he’s picked up from reading Consumer Reports. Why should we care about him? Because every few pages Updike shows us the tender boy buried underneath all that.”

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Rabbit, Run makes TCK Publishing bucket list of books

Is there a better companion to a global stay-at-home recommendation than a list of recommended books to read “before you die” . . . or resume normal activities?

TCK Publishing has 100 books they think everyone ought to read, and it’s no surprise that Updike’s Rabbit, Run made the list. It was the book that brought Updike fame in 1960, a response to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that tried to show that, yes, you can “run” or road-trip to your heart’s delight as you seek to find America or yourself (whichever comes first), but that there are casualties, people you hurt when you leave them behind.

In selecting Rabbit, Run, TCK writes, “The story shows former high school basketball player Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom who, at 26 years old, is trapped in an unexciting sales job and a passionless marriage. It traces his attempts to leave these constraints on his life.”

Updike was awarded a Guggenheim to finish the book, and its publication was celebrated roughly every ten years later with another Rabbit installment:  Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and (in Licks of Love), the novella “Rabbit Remembered.” Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest each won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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Updike libretto featured in new Boston Modern Orchestra Project release

It’s not available on CD yet, but Amazon has unlimited free streaming and MP3s of the new release from the Boston Modern Orchestra Project:  Gunther Schuller’s The Fisherman and His Wife, with libretto by John Updike. Full details are in the booklet provided by BMOP.

In reviewing the MP3s for, Kitty Drexel writes,

The Fisherman and His Wife is based on the Grimm Fairytale. As forewarned by the orchestra, this isn’t your Dad’s happy-go-lucky, Disneyfied fairy tale. Schuller and librettist John Updike set the German tale with its depressing end. It tells of humanity’s great greed and warns that abusive marriages without respectful boundaries are doomed to fail.

“Once upon a time, somewhere in Germany or maybe in your own town by the sea, an impoverished Fisherman (Steven Goldstein) catches an enchanted flounder (David Kravitz). The flounder convinces the Fisherman that he is actually a prince! The Prince claims that he ‘shall not taste well.’

“Back at home, his Wife (Sondra Kelly) hurls abuse at the Fisherman for letting the Prince go. She says that the Fisherman should have asked the Prince for a wish. The Fisherman is confused. He likes his simple life. His home may only be as small as a vinegar jar but he has a loving wife, a loyal cat (Katrina Galka), and a home. The Wife convinces the Fisherman to go back to the Prince to ask for a luxurious cottage where they could live in ease. It’s the least the Prince could do since the Fisherman saved his life.

“As in all fairy tales, the Wife isn’t content with just a cottage. She tests the Prince’s powers. She demands from the Prince a castle, then a kingdom because she wants to be King, then to be Emporer, to be Pope, and then finally to be as powerful as God. Each time the simple Fisherman goes to the Prince and asks for the wishes that his wife demands. Each time the Prince grants the wish and tells the Fisherman to go home because the wish has been granted. Only the last wish bears unexpected results. The Fisherman, his Wife, and their Cat must learn to live with the consequences of their greed.”

Drexel concludes, “Schuller’s opera isn’t easily digestible for every age.  Adults hoping to introduce the next generation to opera could use The Fisherman and His Wife to do so. But, it will require critical discussion. On the other hand, John Updike’s clever lyrics are safe for the whole family.”


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Updike a misogynist? Not according to these writers

Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and several of John Updike’s other male characters have a stratospheric sex drive and a habit of pursuing sexual gratification so often that their antics have led to charges of misogyny in the #MeToo era. But not according to two women who recently considered several of Updike’s novels.

In reviewing Updike Novels 1968-1975 (LOA edition, ed. Christopher Carduff), which includes Couples, Rabbit Redux, and A Month of Sundays, Kate Padilla writes on Author Link that “Harry doesn’t appear that bothered” when his wife leaves to move in with her lover in this “dark and disturbing novel, laced with sensual details, common in the other Updike novels in this volume.” But Padilla adds, Updike’s “descriptive, voluminous prose is both dazzling and racy. . . . He skillfully blended extraordinary details in character-driven stories, and the chronology included in this volume offers insights into how he developed his fictional interactions.”

Meanwhile, in her thoughtful consideration of “the best books about female artists,” Annalena McAfee considers a later Updike novel: “John Updike trained as an artist and turned his observational gifts to fiction, using words with the gorgeous precision of the finest sable brush. In Seek My Face, his meta-subject is Amerian art since the 1940s, but the focus is a female painter, Hope Chafetz, unfairly but predictably known less for her work than for the men she married (two celebrated artists). There is a roman-à-clef element, summoning echoes of Lee Krasner impatiently batting away questions about Jackson Pollock, as Updike’s elderly painter is interviewed by a thrusting young female art historian. It’s hard to detect in Updike’s extraordinary portrayal of both women the die-hard misogynist depicted by recent critics. He’s as good on female ageing as he is on art, and behind the unsparing observations of humanity, with all its flaws and vulnerabilities, lies a rueful compassion.

“‘All a woman does for a man…’ Hope reflects, ‘is secondary, inessential. Art was what these men had love—that is, themselves.'”

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Readers in Covid-19 isolation are turning to John Updike

Frank T. Pool (Longview News-Journal)recently quoted Emily Dickinson (“There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away”) and referenced John Updike, who “once said that he had read all of Dickens except for one novel, Our Mutual Friend, which he was saving for some time in his life he really needed it.”

As David McGrath of the Naperville Sun observed, “If there’s one benefit to self-quarantining and sheltering in place, it’s the gift of time you now have to read”—and McGrath and a number of readers are reading, rediscovering, and recommending Updike.

McGrath has three criteria for picking a solitary confinement book to read: ” 1) The book is pleasurable to read. 2) The book is a long-lasting self investment. 3) The book is a prize winner, but one we probably have yet to read.” Updike heads  McGrath’s list of top 10 recommendations for reading in the time of Covid-19—specifically, Updike’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Rabbit Is Rich, which McGrath calls “one of the titles you might not have read by the American novelist, who should have won the Nobel Prize in any single year from 1981 to 2008. That’s 27 times that the Nobel committee blew it.”

For British Vogue editor Rachel Garrahan (“The Vogue Editors’ Favourite Books of All Time”), the series she’s “looking forward to rereading is John Updike’s Rabbit books. Against a backdrop of massive social, political, and economic change in post-war America, it follows Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom through the ups and downs of what David Baddiel once described as his ‘beautifully mundane’ life. Rabbit is a perfectly imperfect protagonist who makes you laugh, cry and scream at him in frustration. It will be good to do those things to someone other than my husband and children over the coming weeks.”

Meanwhile, satirist Craig Brown, himself the author of 18 books, told The Guardian that the writer he returns to most often is John Updike, who is “pretty reliable.”

And more recently, The Washington Post staff included Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu as one of “The best sports books to read now” in this time of self-isolation:

Micah Pollack writes, “Less a sports book and more a sports essay, Updike’s 1960 New Yorker chronicle of Ted Williams’s final game as a player lives on nearly 60 years later as a towering piece of sportswriting. Lyrical, mystical and with a fluidity to match the Splinter’s swing, it has been reprinted countless times, but the 50-year anniversary that came out in hardcover 10 years ago is worth the time and the change. It includes a great afterward from the author on his fascination with Williams, and both the inside cover and back cover pull the curtain back on some of Updike’s own self-editing, a nice touch. Updike dabbled in sports in his Rabbit series (those novels’ central figure is a former high school basketball star), but this was his only true foray into sportswriting. He was one of 10,454 at Fenway Park on that chilly, overcast September day. He stayed to watch Williams homer in his final at-bat. Then he left to write about it. He retired as a sportswriter, undefeated.”

The Star Tribune‘s longtime baseball reporter and current college sports editor Joe Christensen also included Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu in his “Suggested sports books, from the Star Tribune Staff” recommendations: “John Updike and a few thousand Bostonians turned out to witness what would be Ted Williams’ final baseball game. That he hit a home run in his last at-bat and refused to tip his cap to a roaring crowd, provides the germ for the best sports profile ever written.”

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Blogger writes of Quarantines and Updike

Blogger Ed Newman (Ennyman’s Territory: Arts, Culture and Other Life Obsessions) posted an entry today titled “Quarantines and Updike’s Four Life Forces.” It begins with a consideration of Leviticus 8:35 and the author revealing he once wanted to write a one-act play about the seven days and nights that Aaron and his sons were “quarantined” by the Lord so they “will not die.” Newman wonders (like so many who are suddenly seeing a lot more of family members than they’re accustomed to), “What did they talk about for seven days?”

“One of the positive’s of the Covid-19 pandemic may be how it forces us into some reflective thinking about who we are, and perhaps some deeper levels of communication with one another,” Newman writes, pivoting to “John Updike’s Four Life Forces” and sharing a blog post he wrote on the topic back in 2012.

“John Updike once suggested that there are four life forces: Love, Habit, Time and Boredom. This morning’s ramble (reference to my daily blogging) is the product of Habit. I’m not sure I have that much to say, and the proper thing to do when you have nothing to say is to shut your mouth. But then, I digress.

“When Updike speaks of love he is referring to passion. Passion is the driver that impels us to make sacrifices in order to accomplish great things. Passion is what makes Olympians, not simply skill. There are plenty of pianists with skill, but it’s passion that sets apart the cream from the rest. It’s passion that leads them to make the sacrifices necessary to sharpen their virtuosity,” he says of the first life force. Skipping ahead,

Boredom is another of those interesting forces that surprised me when Updike placed it in this list, but it’s a real force. Bertrand Russell once observed, ‘Boredom is… a vital problem for the moralist, since half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.’ What strikes me is that last part of this statement. People really do fear boredom. And this may be why some people fear death. What if there really is an afterlife and it was boring? Eternal boredom would truly be hell.

“It’s this last life force that our current quarantine brought to mind. I wonder how well we’d all be doing if we did not have Internet connections and television sets or iPhones and were truly quarantined from one another. Would our actions be primarily driven by efforts to stave off boredom? Or would we motivated by the Passion driver, seeking to fulfill our purpose in being?

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Happy Birthday, John Updike

One of America’s most celebrated writers would have turned 88 today if he were still alive. His voice is missed, but his legacy goes on. With the help of family, classmates, friends, and fans, the John Updike Society is currently working  to create unique exhibits that will celebrate the author and the influence that Shillington and Berks County, Pa. had on his life and works.

Here, in remembrance of his birthday, is a photo of an early childhood book with a very young John Updike owner signature inside that will go on display in the house come October 3, when The John Updike Childhood Home, at 117 Philadelphia Ave. in Shillington, has its Grand Opening.

Also at this 1 p.m. ceremony, the plaque confirming the house as being listed on the National Register of Historic Places will be unveiled, as well as a Historic Pennsylvania Marker—both of which were approved last year.

Updike often said that his first ambition was to be a cartoonist and a Disney animator. Instead, he wound up being one of only three American writers to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice, and he wrote more than 60 books over a storied career that spanned some 60 years—enough to earn him the unofficial title of “America’s Man of Letters.”

Happy Birthday, John Updike.

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New Updike monograph by Fromer now available for pre-order

The Moderate Imagination: The Political Thought of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism, a monograph by John Updike Society member Yoav Fromer, is now available for pre-orders at

Scheduled for June 12, 2020 publication by the University Press of Kansas, the new critical work on Updike is 288 pages, hardcover, and priced at $39.95.  Here’s the description:

“In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, Americans finally faced a perplexing political reality: Democrats, purported champions of working people since the New Deal, had lost the white, working-class voters of Middle America. For answers about how this could be, Yoav Fromer turns to an unlikely source: the fiction of John Updike. Though commonly viewed as an East Coast chronicler of suburban angst, the gifted writer (in fact a native of the quintessential rust-belt state, Pennsylvania) was also an ardent man of ideas, political ideas—whose fiction, Fromer tells us, should be read not merely as a reflection of the postwar era, but rather as a critical investigation into the liberal culture that helped define it.

“Several generations of Americans since the 1960s have increasingly felt ‘left behind.’ In Updike’s early work, Fromer finds a fictional map of the failures of liberalism that might explain these grievances. The Moderate Imagination also taps previously unknown archival materials and unread works from his college years at Harvard to offer a clearer view of the author’s acute political thought and ideas. Updike’s prescient literary imagination, Fromer shows, sensed the disappointments and alienation of rural white working- and middle-class Americans decades before conservatives sought to exploit them. In his writing, he traced liberalism’s historic decline to its own philosophical contradictions rather than to only commonly cited external circumstances like the Vietnam War, racial strife, economic recession, and conservative backlash.

“A subtle reinterpretation of John Updike’s legacy, Fromer’s work complicates and enriches our understanding of one of the twentieth century’s great American writers—even as the book deftly demonstrates what literature can teach us about politics and history.”

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