Bookish Intimidation

Books from the Siglo de oro project list.

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?) ~ The Classics Club November prompt

I’ve been thinking about bookish intimidation for quite a while. I don’t remember what prompted my first thoughts. But when I saw that it was going to be a prompt for the Classics Club, I thought I’d save it for then. Of course, I didn’t expect that it would take me to the end of the month to get to it!

Most of my life, I’ve not been intimidated by books, classics or otherwise. Perhaps this is because I had a bookshelf full of chapter books in my room before I could even read them, and my parents read to my brother and I from the time we were born until middle school or so. They are readers, so we became readers. Maybe it’s that my first Bible, that I was given in first grade, was the King James Version. Not much left in the English language to intimidate one after the KJV. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure I ever really read that Bible. But it had pictures! And I still prefer the language of the KJV.) Whatever the reason, I never found books intimidating. Classics were my diet of choice in middle school and high school. I read Shakespeare for fun. (Tip: see the plays performed first—they loose their intimidation factor that way.) A book might be long or might use archaic language—that just made it a bit more of a challenge.

But then I got away from reading. My semesters in college were so busy that they were not very conducive to reading; I was lucky to get my assignments read. And some of those were hard, more difficult than any classic I’ve ever read. (Architectural Theories, not for the seriously sleep-deprived.)  I fell out of the habit of reading. But something pulled me back. I started to pick up books, easier books, it must be said. I started reading book blogs. Books about literature. And I found my intimidations. Suddenly, I was learning about literature I only previously knew by name. Scary books, of streams of thought or high concepts or allegory and arcane references. Words that once held promise of tantalizing challenge now loomed large, taunting rather than tempting. I had found books to be afraid of.

But then came a challenge. O of Délaissé wanted to read Ulysses, she wanted to read it on Bloomsday, and she invited others to join in. I knew I wouldn’t read the entire book, but I thought perhaps a taste, just a morsel. So I borrowed a copy from the library and on the day in question dipped in. I realized something: these are just words. Normal words, obscure words, foreign words, words shoved together or placed in unusual ways, or with unexpected punctuation—but they are still the same building blocks that we use everyday, in speech or writing or reading.

When I watch TV I knit. Sometimes simple things like washrags or blanket squares. But more often, something complex adorns my needles: lace of yarn as fine as embroidery thread, sweater pieces full of cables. These projects can be intimidating to new knitters—they look so hard, so complicated. The truth of it, however, is that knitting is made up of only a few basic stitches: knit, purl, make. That’s it. It’s the combinations that make something simple or complex. Master the simple and build, gradually or quickly as you dare, to the next level, to higher heights. Reading those few pages of Ulysses this summer and I realized it was the same with books. They are only intimidating when we let them be. Rather than something scary to be faced, they should be a challenge to embrace. Some are difficult, but the difficulty is often only truly in the amount of work we have to put in to read them. Perhaps we have to work up our skills to meet the hardest. Or perhaps we just have to be willing to put in the time and effort to face the truly daunting. But books needn’t be frightening. They’re just words.

Completed: Year of Wonders

Book Cover: Year of Wonders by Geraldine BrooksYear of Wonders
Geraldine Brooks

I used to love this season. The wood stacked by the door, the tang of its sap still speaking of forest. The hay made, all golden in the low afternoon light. The rumble of the apples tumbling into the cellar bins. Smells and sights and sounds that said this year it would be all right: there’d be food and warmth for the babies by the time the snows came. I used to love to walk in the apple orchard at this time of the year, to feel the soft give underfoot when I trod on a fallen fruit. Thick, sweet scents of rotting apple and wet wood. This year, the hay stooks are few and the woodpile scant, and neither matters much to me.

(Opening paragraph.)

OK, I have to confess: I’ve been avoiding writing this post. No excuses of busyness (although I’ve spent far more time watching college (American) football this fall than I’d anticipated–Kent’s been winning!!) or reading slowness. I’ve simply kept putting it off.

It is of course, much harder to write about a book I don’t have strong emotions towards.  I don’t love it, don’t hate it, didn’t find it an excellent book, didn’t find it a terrible book. It’s just a book I enjoyed reading while I was reading it but will probably forget soon (save for this post).

I mentioned previously a vague feeling of dissatisfaction while starting this, and as I read the source became more clear to me: my expectations were too high. I’d heard such good things about Brooks’s novels, especially her Pulitzer winning March, that I think in some ways I was expecting (unconsciously) the same difficult level of other books I’ve read this year, most of which made me work as a reader. This one did not, which threw me a bit off balance mentally. This isn’t meant as a reflection on Year of Wonders so much as my over-expectations. And to be fair, this is Brooks’s first novel–perhaps March is exactly what I’d been expecting here.

The novel is an historical tale, set during the plague year of 1666 in a small village in England. It is based on a real story of a village that shut itself off from the outside world in a noble effort to confine the plague to their borders. It is in many ways a fascinating story–the struggles of the villagers through daily life with the pall of death constantly surrounding them, struggles both of survival and to remain human. Although is is mostly likely classified as historical fiction, I would make an argument that it is more a thriller–a thriller in which the villain is not human but microscopic infection, although at times the greatest monsters were those left to mourn. I think there is much potential in a story like this for a real in-depth character study of how such tragedy changes those left behind. But here it seemed more surface, and I almost felt there was too much plot, the pacing was too fast. (Which I find incredible that I am saying as I like plot.) There is one character whose changing response to the outbreak leans to what I am looking for, but in some ways I think it comes too late, is looked at too lightly.

This is not to say there aren’t some things I really liked in Year of Wonders. Brooks has an absolute knack, perhaps it is her journalistic background, for describing a setting so that I am there, even in a landscape I have never seen either in real life or in pictures. It is not just the visual image, but the whole atmosphere–I am there because I smell it and feel it and hear it. The story, plot-heavy as it is, is compelling. The reader knows certain outcomes, who lives and dies, from the beginning, but Brooks makes the stakes are such that this knowledge doesn’t impair the reading. Indeed, it could be evidence for the argument that for a well-written book there is no such thing as a spoiler.

My one other issue with this book I think is more personal, that is, I suppose many readers might disagree. I didn’t care for the ending. Without giving anything specific away, I thought it was too pat, too neat. This is a story from real life, although the characters are invented, and in real life things aren’t neat. Especially after such a dire situation. It just didn’t feel real, didn’t feel plausible, and although there are moments of implausibility earlier (I thought the narrator’s eloquence a bit of a stretch given her lack of education), this is the one that stands out. I imagine that many readers would rather have everything tied up just so–it feels more complete, there’s a more definitive end–but in this particular instance I’d rather leave it more open-ended. Perhaps Brooks did so originally and her editor disagreed. Perhaps not. I will say though, she did lead towards the ending very nicely, there was no “where the heck did that come from?” about it.

Would I read more of Brooks’s novels? Perhaps. March intrigues me, as does Caleb’s Crossing. Would I recommend Year of Wonders? If you are a fan of plot-driven historical fiction or are particularly interested in the story of Eyam, England, yes. If you prefer more gritty realism or characterization over plot in your books, it’s probably not for you.

Additional thought: Earlier today, I saw THIS article from the Guardian regarding open-ended novels which relates to my feelings here. Check it out for a pro-ambiguity argument.

Moseying into Readathon

Dewey's 24 hour read-a-thon

I’m finding myself very laid-back about readathon this fall, only joining up last night, just starting now. But I’ve pulled my books off the shelf, made a cup of tea, and curled myself up on the couch. It’s time to start A Woman in White, which I’ve been saving just for today. My copy is a used edition, hardcover, and the book seller’s penciled note indicates that it’s circa 1900. Delicate pages, tiny print!

Book - The Woman in White, copy c. 1900, blue hardcover

Updates will follow at my whim.

Happy reading!

Update #1

So…I lied! I had intended to start with The Woman in White, but I ended up reading The Adventures of Tintin: Destination Moon instead. (I’ve been rereading the Tintin books since late this summer. Ah, the joys of revising childhood. 🙂 ) But I started The Woman in White after that. I’m finding it a little slow so far, although the “sensational” touch does start early on. I’m sure I just need to read a few more pages and I’ll be hooked. I might however, pick up The Hobbit for a little bit, as I’ve started rereading it a few weeks ago but haven’t made any progress since, and it seems about time I do so. The evening’s still young; there’s plenty of time for a bit of both.

Update #2

I’m finding myself starting to nod off, a bit early alas. Too many late nights and early mornings, and I must be up early again tomorrow, so this is my final update. I read a few more pages of The Woman in White, but it was The Hobbit that captured my attention this last while. I’ve rather decided that I must finish it this week, busy or not; I’m much to enchanted to set it aside for another two weeks again.

And now, good night. To those still readathoning, enjoy!

Good? Great? Or, Why I Read These Books, Part 2

This is Part Two of my response to this month’s Classics Club question, “Why do you read the classics?” (Part One HERE.) The post is actually about a month old, but I didn’t have a chance to put it up before now, and it seems to tie in well with the Classics Club question. It began as a mid-reading response to Geraldine Brooks’s debut novel Year of Wonders, but turned into a reflection on the books I choose to read.

At 60 pages in, there’s something, I can’t quite put my finger on it, that dissatisfies me about this novel (while at the same time finding it completely engaging). It seems to lack weight or something; it is just a story, well-told. Yet…are any of the Victorians any different? I believe that I read somewhere that novels currently being written are pretty much in one of three strains: 1) modernist 2) post-modernist 3) neo-Victorian. That is, I’m under the impression that most novels that aren’t “experimental” or “Literary” (important capital there), are still in the Victorian mode. So what I’m really struggling with here is why are certain novels, that seem to be primary story/plot, still read and considered “classic”?

There’s certainly the importance of “firsts” or “precedents.” The first [genre] writer, the first use of [technique].  I’ve seen the suggestion that classic status is determined based on what influences other writers. We certainly still read these books, presumably writers do as well; certainly writers of previous generations read their Victorian and Modernist predecessors. Dickens was important not just for entertainment value, but for social issues. But then, why do we better know Charles Dickens than Elizabeth Gaskell? Is there a difference in quality of prose, is it a gender issue, is A Christmas Carol just more memorable than any other Victorian novel? Do we still read John Steinbeck because of the important social issues (poverty) he touched upon? Why then F. Scott Fitzgerald, when his stories speak more of the very wealthy, a rarefied class most of us don’t belong to and therefore don’t so readily relate to? Classics are supposed to touch upon the human condition–but would not a novel such as Year of Wonders (which covers the response of a seventeenth century English village to the plague) also touch upon that? Or is that what I’m stumbling up against, that the focus on the story has yet to reveal human condition? I AM only 60 pages in….

What I wish to make very clear, is that this is not at all a complaint. Year of Wonders is very engaging as a story–so much so  that I managed to continue to read it while in the middle of an hour and a half wait in line, not something easy for me to do. I find the writing at times poetic. I’m enjoying it, I in no way regret picking it up. But. It’s that little niggling suggesting in the back of my brain that there’s something just not there…what I really wish to know is “what is missing? What is different about this book?”

But this is why I want to do this reading project, the Personal Great Books/Classics Club–to look at acknowledged greats alongside possible greats (future), to work out why some books are praised and other aren’t. This is why I want to read widely (if not deeply), because I want to know if the only reason Gaskell was nearly forgotten is because she was a woman or if it was something more intrinsic to the writing; if for the sake of diversity we are allowing into the pantheon of “greatness” what is merely “good,” or if the power structures that were/are have allowed “good” into the pantheon because it was by the “right” player while the “great” work of the “other” was kept out. Essential to this, of course, is my belief, that there is good and bad, good and great. Starting with books we call “classic” begins to give me an entry into the definition of great. I begin to realize the need for comparison/contrast. I need to look at books that aren’t great–merely good, perhaps even bad–to see the difference. To perhaps find that this acknowledged classic isn’t so grand. That the ignored is underrated. Or that the mass consensus is right after all. But I can’t do that without knowledge, and the knowledge comes from the reading. So to the reading I must keep.

Why I Read These Books: Part 1

Phew. September was a crazy month. Crazy busy, at least. My feed reader is in a dreadful state and I’m afraid I’m going to have to apply the dreaded “mark all as read.” But I’m otherwise caught up now, and with a backlog of posts I need to write, of course. I hadn’t intended that any of that backlog include the monthly Classics Club question, but that is in part because I’m a month behind, and October’s question, as it happens is one I ponder with some regularity. I’m going to cheat here, and make this a two-part response. I’ll link this post, Part One, as it’s the more emotional response and therefore just more…fun! Tomorrow, or perhaps Monday, I mean to post as Part Two some thoughts on reading that came to me as I was in the early part of Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, which I initially intended to post a month ago. This is the more intellectual response, and as such probably not the post that will convince reluctant readers to try Old Books by Dead People. So I link this one!

Why do I read the classics?

I’ve touched on why I read “classics” in the past, several times. Why I want to work on  a personal “Great Books” project. Why I Read, at all. Having read many classics in middle school, high school, and college (university), I can say that many I just plain enjoy. No great motivation, no attempt at some sort of intellectual sophistication. Sure, Shakespeare sounds intimidating (looks intimidating–have you tried his plays without any notes?!), but a good live performance of one of his plays and you know how entertaining they can be. I found one of the earliest mysteries, Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone  unputdownable. And Dracula? Dracula I found so purely enjoyable that I’ve read it twice and would gladly read it again. But it’s not just that. To say it’s just surface enjoyment seems inadequate. Earlier this year, I was reminded of how powerful reading great books (many of which we call classics) can be, and I don’t think I can explain it better now than I did then. (Full original post HERE.)

But this year, so far, most of  my reading has been outstanding. And I’m reminded how much I like the “difficult” books.

The truth is, not all books are equal. Some are just plain better than others. These are usually the sorts that make the lists. But how we define what is great, what is good, what is a classic, that is a mystery. We can’t really predict, not truly, what will endure. My own experience leads me to agree that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” (Italo Calvino) These “great” books, these classics–they’re the ones that don’t let me go, that I can’t escape. Returning to them with gusto this year–and reading one or two that aren’t–I remember why I prefer them. It is a response both emotional and eventually, as I learn, analytical. It is critical. It is visceral.

And this takes me back to the early days of this blog.

Way, way back, before anyone really read this, I proposed for myself a goal of searching out the greats, of trying to learn why they are so classified, what elements make them great or best. It was an analytical goal. But I’m learning that it is an emotional goal as well. It’s one I’ve neglected, but as I find myself returning to the best books, I find I don’t want to abandon it again; these are too good, too powerful to ignore. I want to be abducted by these books, to have my world-view turned upside down, to lose myself to their seductions.

This is why I read, why I read the great books. I’d just forgotten it for a while.