It's been an interesting experience, and I've encountered books that I've enjoyed, and books that have made me want to claw out my eyes, as one would when undertaking such a project. My reason for embarking on the Jamelah Reads the Classics series was a simple one -- there are a lot of books in the world, and maybe I should make a concerted effort to read some of the ones I haven't gotten to yet. Easy as that. So that's what I've been doing, simply as a reader, not as a scholar or a snob or anything. Just to read.
Back in my student days, I spent literature course after literature course analyzing novels and stories and poems for statements about race, class and gender, and I remember telling a friend that reading had become so much work, because, I said "I can't just read a book. I always have to be on the lookout for what it all MEANS." He replied that maybe I was still enjoying literature, just in a different way, but I remained dubious. And it only got worse when I got serious about writing, because then, not only was I constantly analyzing every line of everything for some hidden meaning, I was also paying close attention to the way everything was written and thinking about why these writers chose to write the things they did. It got exhausting, and I didn't want to read anymore.
But once a reader, always a reader, and over time, I figured out that hey, nobody's making me write papers about this stuff, so I can kind of, you know, just read it. Which is what I do. And when it comes to reading the classics, I've found that they're infinitely more enjoyable when I read them like they're regular books, which, it turns out, they are. This may not seem like news, at least not on the surface, yet over the years I've been writing my series on the classics I read, I've discovered that to some, classic works of literature aren't just books, they are The Hallowed Classics and should be revered as such.
And this is where I get to the point, because when it comes to that opinion, I call bullshit.
At what point does a book lose its status as a book and become some sort of incontrovertible entity of greatness? After it's survived for years and had people fawn over its brilliance for a generation or more? Ridiculous. Certainly, some books are indeed wonderful or powerful or great (or some or all of the above) but that does not raise them above opinion, and I don't care if they've been around for 500 years or 5 minutes. Books are books. That's all. Just books.
I wrote last week about how it's a shame that some of the books that are good for us are sometimes so awfully dull, and it's little fun to live on a literary diet of so-called healthy reading alone. It's a position I stand by, though I didn't get into the other point I wanted to make, which is that I don't think we do classic literature any favors by not giving anybody any reason to read it other than it's supposedly so great. Of course, opinions differ on what's great and what's not as great (as some of the comments on that post will attest), but "great" is not really all that descriptive. Why should I (or anyone) want to read something by someone who's been dead for at least 100 years? Because it's great? Why? Because. So shut up and eat your vegetables? Please.
So much so-called great literature does little more than sit on library shelves, and sure, people may think it's great because that's what they've been told to believe, but how often do people pick up (and finish reading), say, Don Quixote? Maybe if we'd stop treating classic literature like it's some sort of rarefied untouchable thing and start treating it like it is what it really is -- stuff meant to be consumed for entertainment -- then more people might be interested in interacting with it. There's enough stuff in the world competing for my attention, and I'm not going to read a book if I can't enjoy it. If I can't poke a stick at Dante or think Margery Kempe was completely fucking insane. And you know what? I really did think Anna Karenina was long and boring and I couldn't be bothered to finish it. And so what? It's just a book. They're all just books. Not liking them, not reading them, not revering them like they're sacred... well, it's not that big of a deal. It's not on par with pushing strangers out into traffic or drowning puppies. For instance.
Every form of entertainment has its devoted superfans, and literature is no different, but nobody likes to talk about stuff with pretentious snobs (except maybe other pretentious snobs). I used to be a book snob, but I got over it, because for one thing, I think that's something you're supposed to do once you're over the age of 25, and for another thing, when it comes down to it, reading is really nothing more than just another form of entertainment, and it doesn't do any good to pretend like it's something else.
Nine Depressing True Life Adult Counterparts of Beloved Children's Books (my favorite is Ramona Quimby, Failed Graphic Designer)
It's a pretty funny list, and it made me think about how often times, the ending is not enough. A lot of the time when I get to the end of a book, reading the last page is just a jumping-off point for my imagination to wander through all the possibilities of what might happen next. (And just as many times, I am relieved to get to the end of the book because reading it was such a horrible chore, or I am angered by the ending of a book because I can't believe I read everything and that was the way it ended -- I'm looking at YOU, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, or I would be if I had not thrown you across the room and left you in the corner six years ago in a different house. But these are different subjects for different days.)
Anyway, what is it with us? That the end isn't good enough? That we have to pick up where the story left off? As much as I understand it, there's an equal part of me that doesn't get it at all. While I will watch movie sequels (for example, I have every Die Hard movie ever made on DVD, and shut up, they're awesome), I'm not a big fan of book sequels. Perhaps this is because when I was 13, I read Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley's sequel to Margaret Mitchell's classic, Gone With the Wind, and hated every second of it. (My habit of talking back to books was born then; I kept saying "Oh come on" to the text as I read.) Since then, I have never read a sequel to a book that wasn't written by the book's original author, and most of the time, I skip the same-author-penned sequels too.
I don't know if I'm necessarily a rare case, but when I was looking around for information on stories that follow-up books that have already been written, I came across a hell of a lot of fan fiction (and accidentally stumbled across some of the gay Harry Potter variety, hoo boy). I knew there was all kinds of this stuff out there, from Anne of Green Gables fanfic to the most famous example (that I can think of, but then I am a Jane Austen nerd), Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife, a sequel to Austen's Pride and Prejudice. I haven't read it, but apparently after Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy get married, they have lots and lots of super hot sex. A boinkfest, if you will. And if you've ever read Pride and Prejudice you totally know that's going to happen anyway, even without a written sequel.
Now, I'm not against fan fiction or sequels at all, but I don't think they're my kind of thing. I guess for me, while I might like to think from time to time about what happens to characters after I've read the last sentence of a book, I don't want anybody to tell me what they think happens, nor do I want to tell anybody else what I think happens. It's sort of a personal thing, or at least it's individual, kind of like the way I imagine what characters look like as I read (and then film adaptations, no matter how good they are, always get it wrong).
It's an interesting thing to do as a writer, I think, taking on a world of characters that has already been created and making something new from it. It's not something I would do, because I have enough trouble with the stuff I make up on my own, but I'm sort of fascinated by it. Is it devotion, disappointment with the ending, a need for the characters to keep going, that drives people to write sequels to books? Why not just write something completely new? (And what exactly is the dividing line between a sequel and fan fiction?) I'm curious.
And while I'm in question mode, and because I think it might be interesting, what books can you think of that need sequels?
"It doesn't matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don't read anymore," he said. "Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don't read anymore."
Wow. I am generally fond of Steve Jobs and his skinny laptops and ever-morphing iPods, but he is way off here. I am confused how Steve must spend his time and I guess he must live a sheltered life, because I see people around me reading all the time. All you have to do is sit on a subway or train and observe the numerous book-absorbed minds around you to know that Steve Jobs is wrong. Oh, there's also the fact that publishers rack up about 35 billion dollars in book sales each year, roughly as much as the music business or the film business.
I think Steve Jobs is a smart guy, but he sure missed this call.
2. And in other musical news, Anne Frank's diary: in song.
3. And in other other musical news, despite the fact that the film version hasn't really gotten off the ground, people are in talks to make a Broadway musical version of On the Road. Okay, I just totally made that up, but I had you for a second, didn't I? Didn't I? Admit it. I did.
4. Apparently around 25% of Brits didn't read a single book last year, and furthermore lie to say that they've read books they haven't. (I'm sure the same can be said of Americans.) But reading is good for you.
5. Fiction needs to quit with the solipsism, already.
6. From Australia, an opinion piece about helping young people enjoy reading. I think really cool books would help.
7. NPR has a blurb about Richard Wright's final, unfinished novel being published by his daughter, with the added bonus of being able to listen to the full story.
8. On literature and memory.
9. If you're looking for a literary vacation, then perhaps you might be interested in touring cool bookstores?
I'm always glad when the Nobel Prize winner turns out to be an author I've actually read (and this happens less often than I like to admit). I've only read one Doris Lessing novel, 1989's The Fifth Child, but the book has stuck with me all these years.
The Fifth Child is a fable about a happy family. They have one child and everything is great. They have another and everything is great. Then another, and another. Now they have four wonderful children, but as they prepare to welcome a fifth several members of the family begin to suffer from unexpected feelings of dread. Indeed, the new baby arrives looking strangely primitive, almost monstrous, and he doesn't seem to be tuned in to the same sense of joy and togetherness that the rest of the family thrives on.
The story veers towards the disturbing and the tragic, and Lessing's message seems clear: there is an invisible line between blessed happiness and self-indulgent over-happiness, and this line is all too easy to cross. There's also the slightest suggestion that the fifth child is not actually intrinsically different from the rest, but rather that the perfect family found itself unable to extend its love to yet another newcomer.
A year ago I listed Cormac McCarthy as one of the five overrated writers of 2006. This was just a couple of months before McCarthy's The Road was published, and I had no idea what agonies lay in store.
I am simply baffled, just straight out bewildered, by the fact that so many people whose opinions I respect -- Oprah Winfrey, the numerous Morning News Tournament of Books judges, even my friend Jeff Bryant (who I usually agree with, and who shares my love for Kerouac and Bukowski) -- are calling Cormac McCarthy a great writer and The Road a masterpiece. I certainly can't believe that all these smart people are wrong and I am right -- yet at the same time I have made every honest effort to understand what I am missing. I even bought The Road, intending to give it a fair read, a fresh start, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this will be the Cormac McCarthy novel I can finally stand.
The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.
This is my copy of Adrienne Rich's collection of poetry, The Fact of a Doorframe, which I've had since I was 19 or so, and it's probably the most-used book in my collection. For me at least, there's always something to be found in that book of poems, and I turn to it often, just because I know that I can count on it for some good reading, even though now I have to mind the pages and be very careful so as not to have the entire thing fall apart.
But there's something about reading for pleasure, something that goes beyond the tactile experience, something as intangible as a feeling. Like falling in love, or getting champagne bubbles up your nose, or kissing that cute someone for the very first time, there's a feeling that goes along with reading something great that is just indescribably good. Of course, if you've read something and truly loved it, then what I'm writing isn't news, but it's something that doesn't get talked about much. From books whose endings are so insanely perfect that I'm left reading the last sentence or paragraph 10 or 15 times before letting go (Immortality by Milan Kundera and On the Road by Jack Kerouac come to mind) to openings so amazing that there's nothing to do but be excited about the book in your hands (like, say, the opening of Lolita), reading for pleasure is just that: a pleasure.
In a world overrun with information, from blogs to news to RSS feeds to e-mail, blogs about books, blogs about news, even probably blogs about RSS feeds and e-mail, it's pretty easy to spend all day reading, but -- and maybe this is just me -- it's pretty easy not to enjoy any of this constant bombardment of words. Yet even though the really good books are often neither quick nor easy, they're definitely worth the effort. Like love, I suppose.
I do love books. Don't you?
I don't usually feel awestruck when I hear a famous writer speak. But I'll make an exception for John Updike, who faced a packed house at the Celeste Bartos Forum in the New York Public Library on Thursday night, because I have enjoyed so many of his books for so long, and because I've never had the chance to see this author in person before.
He saunters onstage to mild applause, slender and now thoroughly white-haired, but thankfully not wearing the bright white shirt he was recently seen with in San Francisco. He's here to talk about Terrorist, a new novel that examines the inner world of a teenage Islamic terrorist-in-training in a depressed New Jersey city. The evening's moderator is Jeffrey Goldberg, a political correspondent for the New Yorker, who begins by pointing out that Terrorist is one of the most political novels of Updike's career. He asks the author to tell us about his experience on the morning of September 11, 2001, which he spent on the roof of his son's Brooklyn Heights apartment watching the twin towers burn and fall.