Five classics that ought to capture you from page one

I feel great, like extremely good. It’s unaccountable, since I’ve felt pretty not-great for most of the past two months. Can’t explain it. Anyway, early in the history of this blog I used to do lists! My most popular one was eight writing manuals that aren’t a total waste of time. And last night as I was falling asleep I started thinking about the classics, and how most of the time when you sell them to people, it’s kind of like, well you’ve just got to stick with this. But really it’s not always like that. My most favorite classic to recommend is Anna Karenina, and people are usually like, “Oh well I tried starting that, but I didn’t get far…maybe I’ll try again.”

To which I’m like, “No! What’re you talking about? The first page of Anna Karenina is one of the most charming and timeless pages of fiction in all of history. If reading the book isn’t effortless, then don’t force yourself to. Wait until you can appreciate it.”

So Anna Karenina is obviously a classic that should not be work. But what’re some others? It seemed like cheating to use books that were too modern (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. I mean it’s easy to read, but that’s because it basically invented the modern novel, so in essence we’ve been reading it all our lives). Number two on the list, for me, is clearly Pride and Prejudice. Now this is a book I had to read in tenth grade and found unbelievably boring. I stopped halfway through and just used the Cliff’s Notes instead. But when I came back to it ten years later, I was surprised by how funny it was. This is a book that ought to hold you right from the beginning.

Okay, now here is where it started to get more difficult. Finally I decided that number three would be The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope. I’ve read something like twenty books by him. But he’s frequently long-winded and boring. The Warden doesn’t have that problem. It’s a hundred thousand words long–relatively compact, by Trollope standards–and the plot also isn’t quite so paint-by-the-numbers. Most Trollope novels concern some guy who’s slowly going broke and/or a woman who’s married or about to marry the wrong dude. This one is more complex: it’s about the warden of church-run old folk’s home who comes under fire by a crusading journalist, who says, look, this home only takes care of twelve people, but the warden is earning eight hundred pounds a year! It’s essentially a sinecure! And the whole time you’re like, but Rev. Harding (the titular warden) is such a nice guy! Except…he also really doesn’t do very much for his money. But, on the other hand, nobody has ever asked him to do much. Anyway, it’s a great first introduction to Trollope.

So that’s five novels that are marvelous from page one. What’s a fourth one? Preferably one written before the year 1900? I’m going to go with the Count of Monte Cristo. That’s an easy one. A fantastic and morally complex adventure. It’s like a thousand pages long, and I wished it was twice the length, Afterward I tried to read The Three Musketeers and found it very dull, couldn’t finish it.

And for my fifth book, I dunno, maybe I’ll choose…Dangerous Liaisons? That’s an eighteenth century novel! Bonus points there. It’s an epistolary tale whose plot should be vaguely familiar to you either from Cruel Intentions or from the movie with John Malkovich. But it’s witty and brilliantly structured. I’ve looked for other epistolary novels with a fraction of its complexity and have never found one.

You know what, I’m gonna keep going. You know what book was shockingly non-boring? Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese novel from the 14th century, detailing the events surrounding the dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd century. I read the unabridged Moss Roberts translation, and it’s romp. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever read: it’s the Annals of Tacitus except not horrendously boring (love you, Tacitus, but you are a dull writer). Time moves rapidly, events succeed events, heroes arise and die the next page, and everything is reported flatly, without moral judgement. The only difficult for a Western reader is keeping track of the thousands of names. For my part, I started developing mnemonics for each character. I’d say the name phonetically (mispronouncing it horrendously of course) and then think what english word the name sounded like, and then I’d relate that word to whatever the character had done. Like if the character was named Cao Dai, then I’d be like..cow died. And maybe the character had made a last stand on some bridge, so I was like “Cow dying on a bridge.” It’s really dumb, and potentially racist? It’s hard to say. But it really helps. If you can keep the names straight, this is an easy read. I mean the easiest thing would just be to have an index of characters, but I couldn’t find a good one.

Other readable classics…hmm…Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial and death, as presented in Eurythro, Apology, and Crito, is some of the finest prose literature from before the 18th century. It’s actually deeply affecting. Read the Benjamin Jowett translation you can find for free online. Definitely worth reading as fiction, even if you don’t care for the philosophy.

Well I could keep going, but would just make me look bad, because it’d be a bunch of white guys (if I hadn’t limited myself to before 1900 there would’ve been more women, I swear). But although their works aren’t quite effortless, I certainly recommend a trio of Japanese ladies: Sei Shonagan, Lady Murasaki (author of the Tale of Genji), and the anonymous author of the Sarashina diary. The last writer, whose book I read under the title As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams, out from Penguin Classics, has probably had as large an impact on my style as any other writer in the language. There’s something about the way she plays with time that’s really artful and affecting. I get chills just thinking about it.

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.