Completed: Reading Like a Writer

During the weeks I spend reading Beowulf on the Beach, I was also, much more slowly, making my way through Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francis Prose. (I actually picked them both up in the same library trip.) While not as entertaining as Beowulf on the Beach, it was informative and very readable. Despite the title, you do not need to be an aspiring writer to find it worthwhile; the early chapters especially I found useful as a reader.

Perhaps the most important topic in Prose’s book is the concept of “close reading,” that is, slowing down and paying careful attention to what you are reading, taking in each and every word, not skipping over anything. This is too often directly opposite of the way I read—I am afraid my habit of online skimming has translated over to my book reading—and I find her reminder to slow down important. It is easy to miss important context or hints in the rush to the next scene. This is the one important concept I wish to take from Prose’s book and employ in my reading, even if I manage to forget everything else she says.

The book itself is divided into chapters by topic: “Close Reading,” “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” and so on. Although directed more towards writers than those who are solely readers, Prose’s careful exploration of each topic brought an appreciation to me of the various techniques employed by a capable writer. Interestingly, she never gave a hard set of rules as to how something should be written—for every example she gave, she provided an equally effective counter-example showcasing an opposite technique or philosophy.

Certainly, Reading Like a Writer was not short of examples, from classic novels to modern short stories. In some ways it was fascinating to see the many different approaches to any given topic, for example, the vast array of decisions on where a paragraph should be divided and how that in turn influenced the tone or mood of the story. On the other hand, sometimes I felt a bit as if I was forcing myself through the chapter, as if there was perhaps just one example too many. For a student of writing, however, I could see that this could be a valuable starting point to begin to see displayed the infinite variety of the written language. (This would of course, only be a teaser for reading the actual works themselves.)

The biggest negative I have towards the book was Prose’s list of suggested reading at the end, not because it was there, but because she chose to title it “Books to be Read Immediately.” This, to me, feels presumptuous, especially as there is no explicit acknowledgement, that, as with all other such lists, it can never be more than the opinion of (in this case) one person. True, most, if not all, of the books are generally considered valuable reading. It is the presumption of the tone that I should immediately drop all other plans and pick these up immediately that rankles. Otherwise, I found it a valuable and informative book, one that has already begun to make an impact on the way I approach my reading.

Completed: Beowulf on the Beach

My reading seems to be outpacing my ability to post about it, a problem I am grateful to have! Some weeks ago I finished Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits by Jack Murnighan. I originally picked it up at the library, merely hoping that it would encourage me to get back to the classics, to read more. It did so, and then some. (Indeed, this book is in part responsible for my recent reflections on what books I wish to read.) I didn’t except to so thoroughly enjoy reading about other books, however, but I found this book every bit as engaging as a good suspense novel.

Murnighan writes in a slightly informal, sometimes irreverent style, and isn’t afraid to use humor or pop culture to grab our attention. For example, when discussing Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, he states, “What you’re after is a feeling of communion, a little Vulcan mind-meld, as it were.”

He’s not afraid to tell the reader to skip parts of books—often substantial portions—although, I confess that I would feel slightly underhanded if I told someone that I had read a book, when really, I had skipped over entire pages of it. On the other hand, by his definition/instructions I could say I’ve actually read Don Quixote, as I managed to read the entirety of Part One and portions of Part Two (primarily the opening and ending chapters). Hmmm…maybe I like this philosophy!

There were a number of books I had never heard of, mostly of a more recent vintage. For example, The Man without Qualities by Robert Musil or Blood Meridian and Suttree by Cormac McCarthy—these last two despite the fact that I have read All the Pretty Horses. Most, however, were familiar titles; some I’ve read, others are on my “to-be-read” list.

As with any list, the titles chosen are somewhat subjective, as Murnighan acknowledges in “A Note on the Selections” at the end of the book. Reading through the book, I’m not sure that I would wish to read all of them, but there are some I was unfamiliar with or only vaguely aware of that I now wish to try. After Murnighan’s enthusiams over One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I loved, I am strongly inclined to try some of the others he lists as his personal favorites: The Autumn of the Patriarch (García Márquez) and Suttree (McCarthy) most specifically. I am also strongly intrigued by Native Son, which I’d heard of, but didn’t really know anything about.

Other than the pure enjoyment, I also gained from this book a slight sense of my own inadequacy as a reader (mentioned previously). Murnighan clearly loves the great books, both antique and new, and enjoys them not merely for story or characters, but for the very words which compose the works. In the discussion of each selection, he quotes the “best lines” as well as other passages or phrases that he considers great. I especially noticed in the reviews of the poetic works (Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, etc.) that he dwelled on the words and the depths beyond them. I am afraid I tend only to be a surface reader. This perhaps is why I do not have the appreciation for poetry that many others have. I lack the patience to sit with a work and dig into its depths. I would like to work on this aspect of my reading; if I have gained nothing else from reading Beowulf on the Beach, I hope to learn to be a better reader.

Since there’s nothing like starting out in the deep end (which seems often to be the way I do things), I’ll be starting out with Inferno (Dante): epic poetry, from the early 14th century (with the added challenge of the Italian original to ignore on the facing pages of my copy). This will definitely be a pay-attention-to-the-words sort of book. I have to admit, I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

My personal Great Books Challenge

It had been my intention to codify my Personal Great Books challenge and post it here some weeks ago, but life, and the muddle of my many thoughts on the matter intervened to create a paralysis in my response to the topic. My ideas flitted, from pieces of definitions to lists past, lists present, lists of books I want to read, books I feel I should read, to “great” vs. “good” vs. “mediocre.” It became no longer a matter of a simple definition of “great books”—one could not be found.

The first question I must ask myself is, “Why Great Books?” A certain elitism seems implied when we as readers discard fluffy lightweight pieces in favor of heavy-hitters. Certainly there is always the selfish motivation of wishing to be thought “well-read.” More nobly, my dad once expressed the opinion that we shouldn’t waste our time reading lousy books when so much better are available. (He said this not to mean we should only read the best, rather that we need not bother with the worst.)

For me it comes down to two primary reasons. First, the truly outstanding books have greater depth, they attach and do not let us go, they offer up something new no matter how many times we read them. I listen to and enjoy a wide variety of music, disregarding critical or popular response to any given song or piece, selecting according to my own whims or tastes, as the moment dictates. But if pressed to answer which is the best, I am most likely to point to those works which are critically acclaimed, which showcase the greatest depth, the greatest emotional range, the greatest subtlety, the greatest meaning. It is this I am looking for in the greatest books as well. Second, I find myself wondering about books which are still young: how should I gauge their worth? Will they even be remembered a century from now? If they are, why? What is it that separates the truly outstanding from the ordinary? I cannot begin to measure a book if I do not have a standard to hold it against.

In this vein, what is a great book? I am not sure there can be a rigid definition. As already alluded, I believe that the greatest books contain depth and meaning, not necessarily the same meaning for each reader, or for all times and places. The great books stay relevant, they transcend time and place. Certainly they must be well-written, but I believe it possible to write well without creating a truly “great” work. There is something to be said for  being the pioneer of a technique, but perhaps pioneers are not necessarily the greatest or best, albeit they may be the most innovative.

The truly great books can teach us—about ourselves, our society, about life—I mean not that they are mere didactical tools, rather that they may become a mirror of the world as it is, as it was, as it wishes to be, that they may force us into contemplation of our lives and that of those around us. I mean not to imply that lesser books cannot do this as well, but I feel that there is a power behind the greatest books that other books do not reach, that the great books linger longer and push our understandings deeper.

I am forced, as I begin this journey into the Great Books, to look to the lists of others as I begin my journey, to allow the collective wisdom of the ages to help set the standard, the starting point. The works that still linger, that have been universally (or nearly so) acclaimed must contain some element of transcendence or relevance or societal mirror or depth that brings to them such praises. I do not wish, however,  to assume that merely because an author is long dead and his work still survives that he (or she) was great. Instead, I would rather consider why a given work is still read. What makes it so special? Is it truly great? What of a more recent vintage could match up with it, if anything? Nor do I wish to assume that merely because a work is new that it could not possibly be as great as those of the past.

I see this as an opportunity not only to explore the definition of greatness, but to expand my literary horizons. I have read many novels from the mid 1800’s through the early 1900’s, almost exclusively American and British (with perhaps a preference towards British literature), but very few outside these bounds. I have only read one book from an African writer (Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), only one by an Asian (Waiting by Ha Jin) and only a handful of South American novels (all by either Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende). I cannot recall reading anything Russian or German or Scandinavian, anything from Eastern Europe, and have only read Dumas from France, two Spanish novels (admittedly the one was the majority of Don Quixote, which as one of the earliest Western novels isn’t a bad start) and pieces of the Decameron to represent Italy. I have read almost none of the more recently American esteemed novelists—only some Steinbeck and The Great Gatsby, no Hemingway, no Faulkner, no Morrison, no Roth. I have also almost exclusively limited myself to novels, neglecting poetry and plays, excepting some Shakespeare I read in high school. I feel a woefully inadequate reader!

I don’t think I shall create any sort of “master list” of books I will read. I would like this to be fluid, to go where my whims may take me. I will however, keep track of those I do read, so that I may see where I have been. To start with, I believe I will (finally) read The Divine Comedy. I noticed a few weeks back that there will be a read-along later this summer, and I think that could be a good incentive to make my way through the epic.

In which I recall vacation

All things considered, I believe the past week was a successful vacation.

I chased after birds…

DSCN7417 Gulls

Squished my toes in the sand…

DSCN7421 Sand

Walked the beach…

DSCN7341 Beach

…a lot…

DSCN7629 Beach2

Enjoyed the sounds of the surf…

DSCN7351 Surf

And stalked the elusive sunrise.

DSCN7668 Sunrise

(No really, it is elusive. It took five days before we had one without clouds at the horizon.)

And I even managed to finish three of the books I brought along, as well as starting two others. The library books took priority—both because I have to return them and because they simply seemed more appealing than the books I’ve been avoiding for a year or more already. Pride and Prejudice fell into neither grouping—it is too much of a favorite that I couldn’t rush headlong into it, but have to savor it, sipping slowly.

I am fortunate to be able to read in the car (not while driving myself of course—which could lead to a whole post on pet peeves about other drivers’ bad habits), and Brad Meltzer’s Dead Even was just the thing to while away the trip. After we arrived at the beach I also sped through Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea and The Curse of the Pharaohs. These were delightful cozies, perfect for beach reading—easy to pop in and out of without worrying about losing the thread of the plot line. The last of the library books, Special Topics in Calamity Physics was begun. It is not a book to speed through, as there are too many tricks of phrase and allusions, not to mention the slow pacing of the plot. I’m not yet decided on my opinion as to the book itself, but there has been more than one turn of phrase that has delighted me with its inventiveness.

I still must finish Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and then I intend to get back to my plans for a course of “great book” reading, with perhaps a cozy or other light reading sprinkled in for variety. I have an ever growing stack of “heavy” reading lining my floor and book shelves, and it would be nice to cross those off the list. But which to read first?

time for reading

In less than eight hours I will be leaving for vacation–at the beach–and I am very excited. It’s been a few years since I’ve had a real vacation; I am very happy to leave the stresses of work behind for a week. Of course vacation introduces new stresses of its own. The travel. The logistics. Deciding which books to take.

It’s been a real challenge to winnow down my book list. I knew that Pride and Prejudice was a given. But after that, well there’s really just so many choices and so little time. I did stop at the library this week to return some books, and walked away with four new ones, so those are all going. For the Cozy Mystery Challenge I picked up Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea (hmm–appropriate) and The Curse of the Pharaohs. While searching the mystery aisle for The Curse…, I happened across a mystery titled Special Topics in Calamity Physics, about which I know nothing, but which sounds peculiar enough that I had to grab it. I don’t yet know if it will qualify for the Cozy Mystery Challenge, but I’m hoping it’s as quirky and enjoyable as the title suggests. Finally, I picked up an early Brad Meltzer, Dead Even. I’ve been hankering to read one of his books lately, and this is one I haven’t yet read.

Of course, then there were the books on the home shelves. Should I pick up a book from the “great books” lists? Something more modern? Maybe I should just leave off at five. But I really want to read Ficciones. And Reading Lolita in Tehran. Or The Shadow of the Wind. I finally settled on The Italian, which I’ve been “reading” for months, by which I mean I’ve placed a bookmark inside it, and Atonement, which has been on my shelf longer than any of the above, except Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Will I actually have time to read all of these? Probably not. But I wouldn’t want to run out. That would be tragic.

In which I recall books recently read

I’ve been so focused on my reading about reading (and about books) recently, that I’d nearly forgotten that I’ve actually read fiction recently. Or rather, not that recently, as I haven’t read any in nearly three weeks (although I intend to rectify that problem shortly).

In addition to being the year of my return to books in general, this also appears to be the year of my return to books past in particular. In some ways I feel guilty rereading old favorites—there are simply so many good books I’ve yet to read, why should I return to those I know well? There is, however, a great comfort in the familiarity of old books—a sense of returning home or returning to a simpler time and place. I also take encouragement in this suggestion from Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (Jack Murnighan): “Don’t have literary one-night stands. Go back again and again; the really good ones get better and better.” Of course, I am ready to acknowledge that Murnighan likely had in mind a higher class of literature than the favorites I have most recently re-read, but in some ways the truth still holds. Except for the most simple and shallow of books, there seems always something more to find.

I find this especially true in The Chronicles of Narnia, which I am slowly revisiting. Other than the first, most famous book, I believe I have only read any of the books once previously, most likely when I was still in elementary school (I can’t recall with certainty). Although the parallels between The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Gospel accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus were obvious to me at the time (as well as those of the creation story in The Magician’s Nephew with Genesis), I did not really recognize any of the other Christian themes or allusions made within the series. After all, I was mostly reading them because they were fun and I had an insatiable thirst for books. Reading them now, though, most recently having finished The Silver Chair, I can see a greater depth, the more subtle messages that are easy to gloss over as a child. For example, the adversary in The Silver Chair, who holds Prince Rilian captive and seeks to prevent Jill and Eustice from his rescue, is seen in two forms—that of a “most beautiful lady” and that of a vile green serpent. The ideas of duplicity and that evil may be disguised in beauty are not so complicated as to confuse a young reader, but point to a deeper meaning than simple surface reading suggests. The serpent imagery is also suggestive of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden—as that serpent brought her death, so this serpent kills Rilian’s mother. These readings are not necessary to the enjoyment of the story, but do add another level of enjoyment to be discovered on a subsequent read.

The other reread I finished recently, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle is not so deep. It is a simple story of a young woman’s yearning for freedom and love, and how she eventually finds both. As I was also beginning to read Reading Like a Writer at the same time, in which Francine Prose advocates “close reading,” I found myself attempting to slow down and really absorb the words of the story, instead of the hurried pace I more typically take. I found this to enhance both my enjoyment and appreciation of the story. Montgomery includes many poetical passages describing the woods surrounding the town of the story’s setting. By slowing down and looking at these passages closely, I was able to appreciate the beauty and whimsy of the descriptions. It also drew me to contemplate the hurried nature of contemporary life and the separation of so many of us from nature. We close ourselves off from nature, perhaps seeing it only through a television screen. Our ancestors, in contrast, were often intimately familiar with the world outside their doors, lacking the many distractions we have and the “modern conveniences” which allow us to ignore the natural world almost completely. After finishing this book, I am inspired to find and read a work (perhaps a series of essays?) on nature. My mom, an avid gardener, has several such books I could choose from, I am sure.

In which I wonder about my own plans

I had a couple of thoughts this past week relative to my great books reading plans:

  1. Why bother challenging myself with the classics when I’m having so much fun with the Ohio Building Code? Now I know why no one volunteers to do this. (Darn it all, the office had to go and skew young. Where’s all the old timers that knew this stuff?)
  2. It’s been firmly settled in my mind for at least a month that I’m taking Pride and Prejudice with me on vacation. A classic. I’ve been spending inordinate amounts of time the last week trying to decide which classic I should take with me…Duh.

Regardless, I’ve had a number of thoughts pertaining to my great books reading plan. I’m trying to sort through them all to form a coherent goal more precise than “read great books better,” which is admittedly very loosey-goosey. I think what it ultimately comes down to is that I would like to feel that I can pick up a more contemporary work of fiction, read it, and form a valid judgment as to its merits which isn’t dependant on the opinions of others. I want to know for myself what a “great book” is, which means I will have to read many books traditionally considered “great” or “classic” in order to even begin to approach this goal. More soon…