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 Pillow Book, by Sei Shonagon

I finally got around to reading this diary about courtly life in Heian era (right about the year 1000) Japan. I’ve been meaning to give it a go ever since my friend Becca blogged about it (wow, that was three years ago). Anyway, this one of the best books I’ve ever read. No seriously, after reading this book, I started composing a list of the best books that I have ever read just so I would be able to give the book its due.

The book is composed of three general things: i) lists; ii) moments; and iii) anecdotes.

Many of the lists are quite bizarre. She makes lists of mountains, plains, beaches, flowers, types of dress, etc. But she also makes wonderful lists with titles like: “Annoying things”, “Embarassing things”, “Things that are both annoying and embarassing”. I mean, sure, there are lots of positive lists (“Things whose outcome you long to know”, etc…) but I much preferred the bitchy lists, like the following:

Deeply irritating things – A man who sets off alone in his carriage to see an event such as the Kamo Festival or the purification ceremony that precedes it, something that the men all love to go to. What sort of crassness is this? Surely he should invite along some other young men who’d love the chance to go, even if they aren’t of particularly high birth. There he sits, oblivious, a vague, solitary figure dimly seen behind the blinds of his carriage, gazing intently at the proceedings. How boorishly mean-spirited and horrid, you think at the sight of him.

Rain on the day when you’re to go out for some special event or a temple pilgrimage.

Happening to hear one of the people in your service complaining that you don’t like her, and someone else is your favourite of the moment.

Someone you don’t particularly care for, who jumps to ridiculous conclusions and gets upset about nothing, and generally behaves with irritating self-importance.

Guys, there are so many of these bitchy lists, and I love them so much. They make me wish that me and Sei Shonagon were best friends. I bet half the court loved her and half the court really hated her.

The other great part of the Pillow Book were the one or two paragraph long sections where she’d describe some striking element. My favorite was:

[170]* A place where a lady lives alone, in a badly dilapidated dwelling surrounded by a crumbling earth wall, the garden pond full of water weed, and the courtyard, if not literally overrun with wormwood, at any rate with patches of green weeds showing here and there through the gravel, is a truly forlorn and moving sight. There’s nothing more boringly unromantic than a place where the lady has got down to business and had everything repaired and smartened up, meticulously locks her gate each evening and generally keeps the place run in punctilious fashion.


[182] It’s the middle of a fiercely hot day, and you’re finding it impossible to stay cool – your fan only moves the warm air about, and you keep dipping your hands in ice water and moaning about the heat. And then someone brings you a message written on brilliant red thin paper, attached to a flowering Chinese pink, also bright crimson – and you sense how hot he must have felt as he wrote it, and how much you must mean to him, and find yourself unconsciously laying down the fan (that was anyway proving so useless even when plied while the other hand soaked in ice water), your complaints suddenly forgotten.

It seems rather artistically daring for Shonagon to put so much poetic feeling into the minutiae of her own lifestyle. The other Heian-era work I’ve read, The Tale Of Genji, also takes courtly life as its subject and it also contains many beautiful descriptions, but it doesn’t seem to get really involved with moments–real moments–like this. It’s more about some sort of abstract and highly stylized court life in which Shining Genji swoops in and romances everybody. If Shonagon wrote the Tale of Genji, there’d be alot fewer gently falling cherry blossoms and alot more complaining about how terribly flustering it is to have to think up a poem at a moment’s notice or how deeply irritating it is when someone’s carriage has a squeaky wheel.

Of course, The Pillow Book does have a narrative component, too. Some portion of the anecdotes related in the book are just utterly incomprehensible to me. It sounds like a joke, but most of the anecdotes revolve around composing poems and sending poems and thinking up the right responses for poems. Often, they’re just Shonagon boasting about how wonderful it was that she was able to think up of a perfect poetic response at a moment’s notice. And quite a bit is lost in translation. There are at least two lengthy anecdotes that are about poetic gaffes–a person accidentally saying the wrong thing in a poem–that I found completely incomprehensible, even after perusing the footnotes. Seriously, it was like trying to understand the literature of space aliens.

And alot of the anecdotes are just her talking about how wonderful the woman whom she served (Shonagon was a kind of attendant to the Empress of Japan). It’s kind of hilarious to see her extolling the wisdom and wit of an Empress who’s only like sixteen years old.

But although the anecdotes are not as exquisite as the lists and the moments, they do contain some of the stuffness of life. They give a glimpse of its routines and its rituals. For instance, despite their high station, the women at court seem curiously exposed. They’re not behind stone walls, they’re only kept hidden by these reed or ricepaper blinds. Everything is surrounded by these outdoor pavilions. The indoors and the outdoors seem very commingled. And although there is a kind of gender segregation–women were not supposed to allow men to see their bodies–men are constantly dropping by and talking to the women through the blinds. They’re constantly passing notes and poems to each other. People are coming into and out of their lives, including a few instances where men invade their domiciles, Genji-style. It’s a world with alot of movement. Shonagon seems to be constantly shuttling from place to place–the Empress has to switch palaces every few months, and Shonagon also makes pilgrimage trips and visits and has her own changes in housing. It’s very mannered and very light; Shonagon never even alludes to the notion that the people around her are, like, even marginally involved in ruling a country.

In many ways, it contains all the virtues of modern realist fiction. It’s an intensely detailed portrait of a time and place. It contains short, sharp descriptive passages that are surprisingly moving. Its freedom from plot and chronology allow it to skip around and discuss everything within its world. And it has vividly realized characters. Well, one vividly realized character. Shonagon herself seems utterly delightful. Her voice sings out across a thousand years; even translation is not enough to disguise its uniqueness. Her voice suffuses the book. It’s embedded in her cadences and reversals. Even throwaway phrases are delightful because they come packaged in that voice:

Disconcerting things. An ox cart that’s overturned. You’ve assumed that something of such enormous bulk must of course be thoroughly stable, and you’re simply stunned to see it lying there, and deeply disconcerted.

Spilling something is always very startling and disconcerting.


Cats – Cats should be completely black except for the belly, which should be very white.

It’s a beautiful voice, and it induces an emotion that one does not often get from books. Reading The Pillow Book conjures up a stillness inside the heart. And that’s not a feeling that I’ll soon forget.

(Also, for those who were put off by my review of The Tale Of Genji, I’d like to announce that The Pillow Book is one hundred percent rape-free).