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.

The Closing of the American Mind, by Allan Bloom

coverIn terms of preserving you for posterity, how could any intellectual be more fantastically lucky than to be the subject of a very loving, and very readable novel that also happens to be the apex of a Nobel Prize winner’s output?

I have never read a better Saul Bellow novel than his last, Ravelstein, which basically details the life of philosopher Allan Bloom, who was one of Bellow’s fellow professors at University of Chicago. It’s fantastic, you should read this. The Bloom-character in that novel is an amazing study in contrasts. He’s this very passionate, very gay, and very conservative thinker who’s suddenly become one of the most famous men in America (because of this book).

After reading Ravelstein (four years ago), I decided to read this book. About a year ago, I acquired a copy. Last Sunday, I decided to give away every single book that I wasn’t absolutely sure I was going to read. I figured that if the time ever did come to read The Closing of the American Mind, then I could come by another copy. The very next day, I realized that it was time to read this book, so I bought a copy off Amazon and read it in two days! I basically spent all of Monday reading it.

I was blown away. I’ve never read a polemic that was so concise and forceful and deeply-felt and still-relevant. The closest would probably be The Feminine Mystique. But, despite that book’s many virtues, it’s not particularly well-argued: Friedan’s book is one whose argument you’re either drawn to or not.

Whereas I think that Bloom makes a pretty sound case for its believes. To wit, he thinks that American students (and, by extension, American adults) have lost the ability to live with and within ideas.

He lays the blame at the door of relativism. According to him, almost every student comes to college believing in some form of relativism: the idea that truth is unknowable and that one person’s truth is as good as another person’s. Now, you’re probably tut-tutting me and being like, “Nuh uh, dude. Americans believe in stuff.” But that’s because I’m not Bloom. Go and read the book. He lays it out pretty solidly.

Personally, I am a relativist. I do not believe in absolute morality or in right and wrong on any level, whether it’s the notion that some books are better than others or that some ways of life are better than others. But that does lay me open to some problems. Like, if you’re a relativist, then how do you make decisions?

I mean, that’s not even the problem. The problem is…I do make decisions. I make decisions every day. I decided that one way of life was better (for me) to live than another. I decide that some books are better. I try and impose my decisions on others (by telling them what books are better). Something happens within me all the time, but I am completely inequipped with an intellectual framework for understanding or even thinking about the decisions that I am making.

And that’s what the book is about. Bloom doesn’t quite say that there is such a thing as some stuff being better or more moral than other stuff, but he makes a very impassioned case that relativism is a much better ending point than it is a starting point…that people should at least be exposed to the old truths before they learn that they are lies.

The last third is also a pretty brutal takedown of university education. Something that I wholly agreed with, particularly this part:

The colleges do not have enough to teach their students, not enough to justify keeping them four years, probably not even three years. If the focus is careers, there is hardly one specialty, outside the hardest of the hard natural sciences, which requires more than two years of preparatory training prior to graduate studies. The rest is just wasted time, or a period of ripening until the students are old enough for graduate studies. For many graduate careers, even less is really necessary.

Which is very true. As a place to pass the time and have fun, college is great. As a place to learn things, you’re better off with a library card. College is a place that lacks any kind of mission. It has no idea what it is supposed to be teaching you. People in the humanities say that their subjects teach you how to think. But they’re rarely able to be more specific than that. In what way does analyzing a text teach you how to think? And does it matter what you analyze? Or what the result of your analysis is? Sometimes it seems like the humanities are telling you, “We will teach you how to bullshit convincingly.”

Which is fine, I guess, but it’s of no real use to either you or the world. Unless you learn how extract some kind of truth from the world, then what you’re doing is not thinking. But much of the humanities starts from the assumption that there is no truth to be gotten: there’s merely some sort of free-flowing line of association. Analysis is an activity in and of itself. Outputs are evaluated, if at all, merely on the basis of elegance: not on the basis of truthfulness or utility.

Personally, I learned much more in high school than I did in college, because my high school concentrated on giving me a lot of knowledge. And I’ve learned much more from my own reading since I graduated college, because I am able to hold myself to much higher standards than my university ever did (not that I would’ve welcomed a firmer hand from my university–I just would’ve liked it to be a bit less snooty about what it was really giving us).

P.S. I feel that I haven’t done justice to or accurately described the content of the book. Most of it (maybe 1/2) is a very detailed discussion of the intellectual forebears (primarily Nietzsche and Weber) whose thought led us to this impasse, which additional discussion of others (Descarte, Plato, Locke) who offer us some kind of alternative.

Plato would have made a fine novelist

In High School, I had to read Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (or, excerpts from it, at least). I found the style of argumentation to be abstractly quite impressive. Aristotle had the most reasonable, understandable, and comprehensive arguments I’d ever seen. In many ways, he was alot easier to understand than the teacher who was ostensibly explaining him to us. Unfortunately, he was also deadly dull. His writing style is what would happen if the smartest and most logical man in the world sat down and tried to argue out what would be exactly the right thing to eat for breakfast.

I did not realize that he was dull. I thought that this was the way philosophy was: reasonable, comprehensive, and boring.  In my freshman year of college, I was supposed to read Plato’s Republic and a whole bunch of his dialogues. I did not do these readings.

And that is perhaps sad, because Plato is not dull. He’s an incandescent storyteller. (And, for once, the 19th century free translation of a writer’s work is actually the best translation. I’ve been reading the Benjamin Jowett translations of his dialogues from Project Gutenberg)

The entire thesis of this blog entry is just going to be a parroting of an opinion of Samuel Delany’s (which in turn he got from Walter Pater), so I will just quote the former:

“What Pater praises Plato for is, rather, that excess, that richness of life and experience in which the portraits of his debaters and the world around them are picked out — all the things that make one think that Plato would have made a fine novelist, if the novel had, indeed, existed when he wrote. It’s a richness PLato communicates through the texture and generosity of his own linguistic attentions, his various ironies conveyed by use of commonplace reality to make or highlight–even more often to undercut or qualify–a point.” (About Writing, pg. 322)

I’m so down with this opinion. For instance, I just read Protagoras, which contains all kinds of debates about the nature of virtue and whether it can be taught which are kind of interesting, but not really necessarily true (to steal an opinion from Wittgenstein, these arguments basically boil down to differences caused by imprecise language). But beyond that, it’s also a kick-ass showdown between two philosophers who start off scrapping and end up as friends (or at least, friendly!).

And then there’s The Apology and Crito. The first is an account of Socrates’ arguments at his trial, and the latter is an account of his arguments against his friend Crito, who is attempting to persuade him to flee his sentence of death. I found the latter, particularly, to be extremely stirring, as in Crito’s speech to Socrates:

“Nor can I think that you are at all justified, Socrates, in betraying your own life when you might be saved; in acting thus you are playing into the hands of your enemies, who are hurrying on your destruction. And further I should say that you are deserting your own children; for you might bring them up and educate them; instead of which you go away and leave them, and they will have to take their chance; and if they do not meet with the usual fate of orphans, there will be small thanks to you. No man should bring children into the world who is unwilling to persevere to the end in their nurture and education. But you appear to be choosing the easier part, not the better and manlier, which would have been more becoming in one who professes to care for virtue in all his actions, like yourself. And indeed, I am ashamed not only of you, but of us who are your friends, when I reflect that the whole business will be attributed entirely to our want of courage. The trial need never have come on, or might have been managed differently; and this last act, or crowning folly, will seem to have occurred through our negligence and cowardice, who might have saved you, if we had been good for anything; and you might have saved yourself, for there was no difficulty at all. See now, Socrates, how sad and discreditable are the consequences, both to us and you. Make up your mind then, or rather have your mind already made up, for the time of deliberation is over, and there is only one thing to be done, which must be done this very night, and, if we delay at all, will be no longer practicable or possible; I beseech you therefore, Socrates, be persuaded by me, and do as I say.”

(Holy crap, I was just searching for Crito on my computer in order to pull up a quote and I found a whole paper I wrote on it during my freshman year of college. I absolutely do not remember that at all.)