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.

Predictably Good Books (that I read in 2012), Part One

I feel like there’s no way to say “Pride and Prejudice was really good” without somehow indicating that you know it’s supposed to be good and that you’re not surprised it’s good. And that’s why this entry is titled “Predictably good books.”

_PnPPride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I love Jane Austen. Before reading P&P, I’d read literally every other Jane Austen novel. But I had a mental block about the big P because it was the very first assigned-reading class (I was supposed to read it way back in 10th grade) that I just gave up on reading (beginning a long association with Cliff Notes). I really can’t say why I found this to be soooo boring when I was 16. But at age 26, I can tell you that this book is the bomb. It’s the only novel of hers, other than Emma, that’s reliably funny. Aside from the main triangle (Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy) everyone in this book is hilarious, from the Liz’s overserious suitor Mr. Collins to her silly and clueless parents. And the book is well-plotted, too. The structure is interesting and interesting things happen. I don’t think there is anything about this novel that is not perfect. Well, except for Liz Bennett’s priggishness. Seriously, Jane Austen, I don’t understand why you hate dancing and joking around and having fun so much. Not since Mansfield Park (where the main character throws a huge fit because her cousins are putting on a play in their living room) have I been so mystified about what an Austen character’s problem is. Seriously, why is she down on her parents and her sisters? I guess that’s the curse of creating delightful comic characters—no one will believe you when you try to tell people that they are actually terrible and immoral people.

_SSSilent Spring by Rachel Carson – Yet another book I was supposed to read for class (during my junior year of college I took an English course called Visions of Ecology where we were assigned a ton of SF novels…the course probably would’ve been better if I’d actually done the reading…) But anyway, this is a really masterful document. Of course, you probably all know that this is a long tract about how pesticide spraying is killing tons of animals and probably causing cancer and stuff too. But, aside from the wonderfully ominous language, the interesting thing is how it’s structured. It doesn’t start off at the beginning, like most nonfiction books, by telling you, “This is the case I’m going to make.” And it doesn’t go from specific to general and then back to specific again. Instead, it’s this free-flowing impressionist mass of detail—die-offs and sprayings and extinctions are listed by the dozens—that are grouped in chapters according to some very intuitive progression. It’s a page-turner.

_MMMiddlemarch by George Eliot – This is a tome. I read it in Madrid and it took me a solid week. But it wasn’t difficult to get through. Each page is delightful. It doesn’t have the super-tedious stretches or the absurd plot elements that I’ve come to expect from Victorian novels, just page after page of good solid observation (and slightly outsized characters). Structurally, this novel kind of resembles Anna Karenina in that it’s about three pairs of lovers and contains one love triangle. The main love story, where Dorothea suffers through a marriage to the tedious priest Mr. Causubon was (while still interesting!) not the most fun part of the book. The other two plots, where Doctor Lydgate slowly has to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions in order to please his wife and where the feckless ne’er-do-well Fred Vincy has to shape up so he can marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth were, for me, the heart of the story. But there’s just so much stuff in here! It’s kind of amazing. For instance, it’s treatment of politics (all the characters have some interest in politics, and the capstone of one of its books is a very rough Parliamentary campaign) is one of the best I’ve seen (although it helps to do some Wikipedia reading so you know what bills and such they’re talking about). It’s kind of unbelievable how good this book is. I kind of want to reread it now.

_wwcwWhy We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr – This is King’s account of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. It’s a wonderful document—a whole book written in that morally powerful voice that Kind perfected. The centerpiece of the book is King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and a fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to taking down the black and white moderates who are urging him to wait and to proceed slowly in his crusade for justice. Personally, I love this kind of squabbling, especially when it’s set as such a historical remove that I can imagine myself on the right side.

_TBSThe Blind Side by Michael Lewis – I feel like I’ve mentioned this one a few times in the last few weeks. It’s Michael Lewis book about Michael Oher, an NFL tackle who came from a very rough background and was adopted by a white family whose mother was later portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning film of the same name, etc. etc. This was the most purely enjoyable reading experiences that I had this year. There was nothing difficult about this book. It was the perfect mix of narrative and analysis. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell meets Tobias Wolff. The story of the movie The Blind Side actually forms maybe only about one third to one half of the book (and it’s much more fleshed out in the book, too, of course, especially since it contains much more of Michael Oher’s own voice and own story). The rest of the book is about the changes in the game of football that made someone like Michael Oher into such a valuable property. Now, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t really care about football at all, and I still loved this book. Sports are driven by numbers and economics in a way that’s different from almost every other field of human endeavor. And I love reading about that.

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

I am so lucky. Roughly every week or so, I read a book that blows my mind, and entertains me in ways that I hadn’t thought possible. Last week it was Middlemarch, the week before that it was Pride and Prejudice, the week before that it was The Picture of Dorian Gray, the week before that it was Less Than Zero, and so on…you guys just have no clue about the kind of awesome stuff that I get to read, but am way too lazy to blog about…

But this week it was Anthony Trollope’s The Warden. I think there are very few books that I’ve enjoyed as thoroughly as I enjoyed this one.

First of all, it’s got the sort of tiny, funny little plot that I really love: the priest who’s attached to this 19th century British old age home comes under public attack because he gets way more money from the trust (which was established by a 14th century wool merchant) than the twelve pensioners who are its supposed beneficiaries do.

And it has a wonderful, interventionary narrator: an omniscient first person voice that interjects into all the doings of the characters and comments upon them…as in the following description of a novelist (called Mr. Popular Sentiment) who’s a thinly veiled caricature of Charles Dickens:

Of all such reformers Mr. Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr. Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest.

And, finally, the characters are delightful. The titular warden is a fuzzy-headed old man who’s living quite happily, without any concerns about the source of his income, until the newspapers stir up his conscience and he realizes that, actually, he’s not entitled to any of it. And his prime antagonist in this novel is not the reformer who stirs up all this public feeling against him; it’s his extremely pragmatic son-in-law, who he’s completely terrified of.

Oh, and there are sooooo many good set-pieces. For instance, aforementioned reformer is sort of sort of in love with the warden’s youngest daughter. And at one point the reformer’s sister goes into a spiel where he berates him for acting like a fool:

“Pray, pray, for my sake, John, give it up. You know how dearly you love her.” And she came and knelt before him on the rug. “Pray give it up. You are going to make yourself, and her, and her father miserable: you are going to make us all miserable. And for what? For a dream of justice. You will never make those twelve men happier than they now are.”

“You don’t understand it, my dear girl,” said he, smoothing her hair with his hand.

“I do understand it, John. I understand that this is a chimera,—a dream that you have got. I know well that no duty can require you to do this mad—this suicidal thing. I know you love Eleanor Harding with all your heart, and I tell you now that she loves you as well. If there was a plain, a positive duty before you, I would be the last to bid you neglect it for any woman’s love; but this—; oh, think again, before you do anything to make it necessary that you and Mr Harding should be at variance.”

So much drama. So many scenes. It’s just…it’s a perfect little book. Oh yeah, did I mention that the book is little, too? It’s really short. Like, under seventy thousand words. For a nineteenth century British novel, that’s practically a short story.

And I didn’t know anything about it! No friend of mine had ever told me, “Dude, you have to go read The Warden, because it is so very charming.” I just picked its name out of a list of ‘great books’ that I occasionally use to select my reading.

Now I am correcting that silence. You guys should read this book. It is so very charming.