I am rereading an old favorite, and it’s just as much of a page-turner as I remember it being

Mr. DarcyAfter my post about how no book could possibly interest me, I realized the solution was to reread a book that had already interested me.

This is a big step for me. I normally don’t reread books. It’s just a matter of time. There are too many books in the world and not enough time to read them. I also feel like I’m pretty good at remembering the books that I read (at least the good ones).

But since the alternative seemed to be that I would read nothing, I decided I could relax my stance on this. And subsequently went in search of a novel that I felt like I could bear to reread. I decided that it should probably be something it’s been at least four years since I’ve read. And it should be something that I enjoyed reading quite a bit. So far, so good. But I also felt like it should be something triumphant. Something that celebrated the human spirit. Because as much as I enjoy The Bell Jar and Journey To The End of the Night (two books that I considered), I do not feel like they are the best things for a bad mood.

Anyway, with these criteria, I narrowed it down to a few contenders: Vanity Fair, Emma, Anna Karenina, and Main Street. Since most of these books are in the public domain (except for AK, for which I own a Kindle copy of the Pevear / Volokhonsky translation), I was able to sample them all.

I really wanted the book to be Anna Karenina since it’s a fantastic novel, and when I read it for the first time I was a much less sophisticated reader than I am now. However, I read about a tenth of the way into the book and wasn’t feeling it. I mean, the brilliance emanates off the page. I am at a loss for how someone could read the first page of AK and not be completely blown away. As famous as the first line is, I feel like the first paragraph is even better:

All was confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess, and had announced to the husband that she could not live in the same house with him. This situation had continued for three days now, and was painfully felt by the couple themselves, as well as by all the members of the family and household. They felt that there was no sense in their living together and that people who meet accidentally at any inn have more connection with each other than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys…

That just says it right there. “They felt there was no sense in their living together and that people who meet accidentally at an inn have more connection with each other…” I love it. So there was no problem with reading further. I just wasn’t connecting with it emotionally.

Umm…but then I did. I don’t know. Sometime around when Levin is trying to propose to Kitty, I was all like, “Yes, I am totally into this.”

What I’m noting this time about AK that I hadn’t noted the first time is how well-observed it is. Tolstoy generalizes about people in such a surefooted way that even a modern reader can say, “That’s absolutely true.” For instance, when Levin is trying to figure out whether it’s possible for Kitty to love him back, Tolstoy writes:

He had heard that women often love unattractive, simple people, but he did not believe it, because he judged by himself, and he could only love beautiful, mysterious and special women.

It drives home the idea that these are people just like us (albeit much richer than us), and that these dramas are normal human dramas.

Anyway, I’m moving right through. The book is very fast-moving. Chapters are only a few pages long. Time moves at a rapid quick. Fortunes go up and go down in the blink of an eye. And even though I know exactly what’s going to happen, I still feel the pressure of suspense: How do Kitty and Levin get together? How does Vronsky seduce Anna? What happens to the Oblonsky marriage

Going to start reading _The Man Without Qualities_

I recently visited my parents house and left my e-reader there. I’ll pick it up again when I go back this weekend. But that means that I am left without my usual reading stockpile. Thus, I decided that I’d spend this week reading something that I can only find in paper form. Ever since I got interested in German lit (err, like a month ago), I’ve been thinking about reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. It’s a super long and very weird modernist novel that people say is the best German language novel. I’ve read the first few pages online and they seemed amazing. Very playful. I got the library’s copy and I am holding it in my hands. Probably this will end up being one of those reading projects (like Doctor Faustus) that I abandon after a few days, but there is something very exciting about this. Because I am not German, I don’t really know what the book is about. I know its reputation, but nothing about why it’s achieved that reputation. I know that the style intrigues me, however. I haven’t been this excited about a reading project in a long time.

I think there are two reading experiences that I’ve spent the past two years trying to replicate. The first was when I read Anna Karenina. It was the first time since childhood when I’d been so purely absorbed in a book. I never wanted it to end. The novel contained worlds. I even liked all the stuff about farming and the provincial senate.

And the second is the year that I read In Search Of Lost Time. That was one of the few times when I allowed a work to be difficult. The volumes did bore me at times. And they did require effort to read. But they were tremendously rewarding. I’ve still never been so firmly in the grip of a powerful mind. There was something so enormous about the workings of that novel. You almost can’t believe that you really did spend three hundred pages reading about a dinner party or that you really did read a fifty page meditation on a country walk. But it completely reinvigorated my views on the possibilities of the novel.

Anyway, we’ll see…

What does it mean to be against the canon?

I was reading Maria Bustillos’ review of some book*, and I came across this phrase: “For those who, like me, are generally opposed to canonical notions of literature, there will be much to quarrel with in [the book that she is reviewing].”

Now, this is the kind of thing that one runs across alot. People who are not just against our particular literary canon (with its admitted overemphasis on white males and its ignorance of genre fiction), but who are also against all canons. Most of the time, I guess I would say that I too am against the canon. But…as I was thinking about this sentence, I realized that’s not true. I am not really against the canon at all. In fact, when I’m looking for good books to read, I frequently retreat into the canon. I attempt to read outside the canon, but when I do so, my first thought is usually, “Is this good enough to be in the canon?”

What does it mean to be against the canonization of literature? Does it mean that you are against assembling lists of really good literature? Isn’t that what the canon is?

To me, it seems that there are three ways of choosing what books to read. You can either do so based on interest, similarity, or quality. Interest means choosing a book because its topics or themes are interesting to you. Similarity means choosing a book because it’s similar to other books that you’ve enjoyed. And quality means choosing a book because it’s very good.

Of course, most people choose books based on all three of these criteria (often all at the same time). But picking books out of a canon is the only method of selection that does not (theoretically) pre-select books on the basis of similarity or interest. You can’t go on Amazon and tell it to show you a list of great books. You can’t go to a librarian and say, “I’d only like to see the awesome books”. But you can look at a canon and know that thousands of extremely knowledgeable readers thought that these books were pretty great. Of course, that doesn’t mean that other books aren’t great too. The canon is definitely not complete. But it’s also not useless.

The canon is the only method of selection that says to you, “You’ve never shown any interest in 19th century Russia and you’ve never enjoyed any family epics about adultery, but you should definitely read Anna Karenina, because it’s that good.” Word of mouth isn’t going to do that. When friends ask me what they should read, I don’t tell them to read whatever was the last book that I read that was awesome (currently, that is Pursuit Of Love by Nancy Mitford). No, I tell them to read a book that I think they’ll enjoy, based on what I know about them. And that’s great. But on some level, I am shortchanging them. I–and almost every other recommendation engine in the world–don’t give my audience enough credit. I don’t trust people enough to love something just because it’s high quality. I don’t trust them to be willing to strike out and read something that’s not like what they normally read.

I loved Anna Karenina. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. But no one ever told me to read it. I used to read mostly science fiction. Before I start picking books out of the canon, I got most of my book recommendations from Amazon.com’s Listmania. Most of my friends and online acquaintances are more likely to enthuse about Neal Stephenson’s latest book than they are about classic literature. Without the canon, I probably would’ve read Anathem and Reamde and Embassytown and The City and the City , but I never would have read Anna Karenina.

 And it’s easy to say, “Oh, that’s just because you ghettoized yourself; if you’d gone out and solicited recommendations or looked through review pages, you would’ve found Anna Karenina or something else, something even more interesting, something that wasn’t by a dead white male, on your own.” But is that really true? No one ever recommends that I read classics (although, actually, I think a few folks have told me to read Pride and Prejudice). Perhaps if there was no canon, people would recommend classics more often. Perhaps these books would compete in the marketplace on their own. Perhaps they’d live and die on their own merits instead of being artificially propped up by English teachers. I don’t know, but that seems awfully speculative to me.

What I do know is that picking books out of the canon has given me much higher-quality reading experiences than browsing in bookstores or using Amazon’s recommendations or even listening to word of mouth. It’s exposed me to books that I otherwise never would have thought about. And while I can see the dangers of becoming trapped in the canon, I don’t think that’s an argument for it’s abolishment…it’s just an argument for a larger, more inclusive canon (which is what everyone and their English professor wants anyway).

Is anyone out there against the literary canon? What does that mean to you?

*FACT: I was really excited about this book until I finally realized that Tom Bissell is not, in fact, the author of Friday Night Lights. No, the name of that worthy is H.G. Bissinger. Man, I would totally read a book of essays by H.G. Bissinger.