Completed: As I Lay Dying

As I Lay DyingAs I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
U.S., 1930

I heard that my mother is dead. I wish I had time to let her die. I wish I had time to wish I had. It is because in the wild and outraged earth too soon too soon too soon. It’s not that I wouldn’t and will not it’s that it is too soon too soon too soon.

For the second (maybe third?) time this year I find myself with what I believe is called a book-hangover–that sense on finishing a book that I’ve been wrung through and spat out, that my brain has been worked over mercilessly, that nothing else can be quite adequate for reading just now. (Fortunately this time I have the in-progress Mansfield Park to return to, which is so different that I think this will pass quickly.)  Before, my difficulty was the end of the book–an emotional wringer topped by a sense of pointlessness for the characters. This time, there is perhaps a sense of the pointless, perhaps a sense of sorrow for the events that passed, but also the knowing that the real loss is the book that was at hand but is now done. A real sadness that the last page has been turned, a temptation to turn to the beginning and start over again. Not only does it seem to have briefly spoiled me for books, but I find myself restless with all else–turning to other entertainments does no good.

I knew that As I Lay Dying would be good before I started it, work to read, yes, but worthwhile work, not because of other’s reviews or its spot on “greatest” lists, or not just because of, but because I had previously read Faulkner’s “The Bear” (the short story version, not the Go Down, Moses version) which struck me immediately with its worth. The two are not the same, the literary techniques employed are different, the tone is different, I did not mourn the end of “The Bear.” But they are work of the same hand, so I felt confident of my expectations, if not aware that it would leave me hanging, wanting more.

I did not, this time, not like two years ago when I couldn’t say why I thought Savage Detectives was good, I did not want to fail to articulate what I meant. So I paid better attention. Thought about it more. Why is this so good, why do I like it so much? The story (plot) is…ordinary. But not: death, mourning, a disjointed family are ordinary; carrying a body after 4 days on a multi-day journey by mule-wagon is not. Faulkner has taken (took) the ordinary, skews it a bit, makes it something to pay attention to. It is his prose. No, not just his prose. They way Faulkner gets into each of the characters. Revealing who they are by what they think and say and by what others think and say. We see the characters, so many of them, from so many vantages, so many points of view. It is not like real life, where we see only our view, and perhaps another’s, if they share it with us. We see them all, conflicting thought they may be.

He gets so into each character. But how does he get into their heads, their voices? They each have different voices. I’m not so good a reader as to know, exactly, but I know that Dewey Dell and Vardaman are hard to follow. Darl is easier, although not always; his thoughts seem more grandiose than what a Bundren should be capable of. Tull is right, Darl thinks too much. The non-Bundrens seem the easiest. The plainest. But is that because they are the plainest people, the Bundrens, more…unique? Or because they, the non-Bundrens, are the outsiders? Looking in? I do not think they always see the truth; are they plainer in speech (thought) because they only think they see, or because they are of lesser importance here? But I wander. HOW does Faulkner do it? Get us in their heads? Is it simply the stream-of-conscious (a technique I very much like, at least here, it seems so right to me, so real)? The absence of words, those absent words that make it harder to follow? That we are reading what they are thinking and because they already know what they know and know what they see and wouldn’t describe it to themselves, so they don’t need to say it, so they leave all that out, which makes it harder to follow even though they know exactly what they are thinking and talking about. It is these voices, all these different voices, that pull me in. Into their world of poverty and hardship. I feel still an incompetent reader, though now I can say better why I like this one. I just don’t know how.

It’s only a pity this is the only Faulkner on my Classics Club list. I foresee much more of him in my future.

Completed & Watched: Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare
1598-99, England

Much Ado About Nothing
2012 – US
Joss Whedon, Dir.

Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps my favorite Shakespearean play of those I’ve met so far. I’d previously seen it–at least the 1993 Kenneth Branagh version; I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen it live, although the lack of definite memory here suggests not–and so when I read that a new version was coming out, as well as the many positive early reviews, I knew I’d have to see it. And that perhaps it was time for a read (it’s on my  Classics Club list, after all). However, there was just one little problem–despite a general release in June, it wasn’t until the last week of August that the film made it into my neck of the woods.  Thank goodness for independent theaters!

I am very happy that I read the play over the two weeks prior to seeing the film. I don’t believe I’ve ever so close together read a Shakespeare play and then watched it. Such a method strikes me as perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate his work–although I’m not sure the order matters. (Or perhaps it should be read-watch-read or watch-read-watch?) Although I have been reading Shakespeare long enough–and the near-contemporaneous King James (Authorized) translation of the Bible–that Elizabethan language is no longer as difficult as it once was (sometimes I find I don’t need all the footnotes), there are still so many references which are now-obscure that even in the watching the meaning may be lost. Although, of course, the acting and directing may go a long way towards conveying meaning. So in this manner, the reading is helpful. But at the same time, Shakespeare is so sparse in his stage notes, and the action is at times so fast-paced, that to merely read the plays can feel like a short-change. At least for me. Perhaps others have better imaginations for such things.

Now, the play itself. Oddly (maybe not so oddly?), I find I have little to say, even after both reading and watching. Perhaps this is why we so rarely study the comedies in school; it is easier to find topics of conversation in the tragedies (or perhaps we have that much bloodlust, that the tragedies slake our thirst?) and more difficult to discuss that which is already entertaining–with or without thoughtful investigation.

The plot revolves primarily around two pairings: Hero and Claudio, the acknowledged couple, and Beatrice and Benedick, who spend a fair portion of the play in a “merry war” of words and wit. Were this all we could not have a play, so no, their friends must plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together and their enemies to keep Hero and Claudio apart–viciously, in a means that could destroy Hero’s virtue, a truly devastating outcome in the Shakespearian era. (But don’t worry–this one’s a comedy!)

One thing I did find of note was how contemporary, in a way, this play feels. Human nature is much the same now as then, sentiments are much the same, even if Shakespeare uses fine, flowing words to convey them:

…for it so fall out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.



… For, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passions, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words.
No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.


(Interestingly, much of the play is in prose, but these passages from towards the end are in verse.)

Then also, while in much of Western culture female virginity is no longer such a prize as to the Elizabethans, cheating is still frowned upon and an acceptable reason for separation, whether a couple is dating or already married. And of course, it will be a never-ending truth of humanity that there will always be couples in love and those plotting to bring other couples together.

This timelessness of the play helped as I watched it–although at times the archaic language coming from people dressed in 21st century outfits and wielding smartphones seemed out-of-place, the story fit so well that at other times the language seemed perfectly natural. It was helped, too, I think, that the director offered the interpretation that for both sets of characters the relationships were pre-existing, taking away the rushed feeling of ‘love-at-first-sight-now-to-the-alter’ of so many of Shakespeare’s plays. (I’ve actually wondered if the plays are more apt to feel rushed when read as compared to watched–that the conventions of the stage make the time frames seem reasonable?)

There are two things I am curious about. The first is how obsessed the male characters seemed with the idea of wives being faithless–almost assumed as a given. Was adultery indeed so very common in the late 1500s? Was there some new societal upheaval that magnified men’s fears? Or is it merely a plot device, provided early to foreshadow the complication of the play? My second curiosity is that Benedick, of no connection to Hero or her father, but friend to Claudio’s mentor Leonato, is the first primary character (saving Beatrice) to readily believe in Hero’s innocence. Even her father believes the slander. Is this because of Benedick’s connection to Beatrice, that he feels the need to be loyal to her cause? Or does his distance from the romance of Claudio and Hero allow him, as with the priest, to see more clearly what is happening? (And more clearly the true nature of Don John.)

I feel somehow, again, a poor reader, that I cannot begin to form a definite opinion of what is going on. I can readily say that I like the play, and the film version, but I almost feel as if I need a better knowledge of Shakespeare’s world before I can better understand the motivations of the characters. Perhaps another topic for investigation…

Completed: Old Testament (and Entering the New)


Originally, I had only planned to post on my current read-through of the Bible twice: at the half-way point and after completing the entire thing. But then I realized it made much more sense to also post after completing the Old Testament. (And also allows me to add one more title to my 2012 reads list!)

There’s a certain sense of relief at finally completing the Old Testament. At times it felt like a slog, especially through some of the prophets, who occasionally seemed rather redundant—”Hey! You are terrible sinners! You’re gonna be published punished!”* And repeat—but other parts sped by and overall I have much the same feeling of exhilaration at knowing I just finished something really good that I had after reading The Silmarillion this summer. Oddly, too, I almost feel let down starting the New Testament: I’m starting with the Gospels which by comparison seem so easy (reading, not message)—I’m used to hard work! I find myself already plotting out the next read-through.

When I posted at the half-way mark, I listed the books I’d already read, so here’s the list of the remainder of the Old Testament, in the approximate order I read them (some were mixed in among each other).

  • 2 Kings
  • 2 Chronicles
  • Jonah
  • Isaiah
  • Amos
  • Micah
  • Hosea
  • Nahum
  • Zephaniah
  • Jeremiah
  • Habakkuk
  • Lamentations
  • Ezekiel
  • Joel
  • Daniel
  • Ezra
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Esther
  • Nehemiah
  • Malachi
  • Psalms (scattered throughout)

As I mentioned previously, I’m using THIS (pdf) reading order which is roughly chronological by event. I REALLY, REALLY like this method. My original intent had been simply to break up Psalms rather than having to read them through all in a bunch, but the placing of all the books in context has really been helpful to me, especially with all the prophets. If I understand it correctly, the prophets can be categorized as pre-exhilic, exhilic, and post-exhilic, and reading them in order—and in context of the surrounding history as narrated in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah—really makes it easier both to follow their words and understand their aims. That said, the prophets are still probably the books I have the most difficulty understanding, especially when they get into the Messianic and Kingdom prophecies. Also, except for Jonah, Daniel, and selections of Isaiah, I’m least familiar with the prophets out of all the books of the Bible. One part of the prophets that was easy to follow: the history they narrate. I knew there was some of this in Daniel, but didn’t realize there was so much history scattered throughout some of the others as well.

Actually, this touches upon a difficulty with the Bible—there’s just so much there, it’s not possible to take it in all at once. I remember best those parts I already knew or recognized: the stories from Sunday school, the texts often read in church (Isaiah reminds me of Advent), the lines that have been turned into hymns. I can’t remember where it is now, but I remember thinking to myself one day that I’d just found the text for “How Great Thou Art.” (My biggest difficulty in remember things from the Bible is remembering where they are in the Bible.) But some of the stories I forget, the names bleed together, the timeline is blurry. I had to write out a timeline of the Kings of Judah and Israel after Solomon just so I could keep track.

Every reading, every visit reinforced previous readings, though, and I’m already reaping the benefits of rereading the Old Testament as I enter the New. When I read it last spring, I found Leviticus terribly boring and repetitive, and have considered that perhaps I might skip it on future reads, but then I read Luke 2:22-24, and I recognize the requirements for purification and offerings that were laid out in Leviticus. Even though the New Testament is much more familiar to me (much of the Old Testament I’ve only read twice, but I’ve read most of the New quite a few times), I have a feeling that the reacquaintance I made with the Old will inform my reading of the New even more.

*Thanks, Caro for catching that.

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.